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One has to wonder: Somewhere in England in 1971, was there a woman in her mid-40s—and possibly wearing a Mona Lisa smile—who heard “Maggie May” and realized that she might have been the inspiration for Rod Stewart’s breakthrough rock tune?
We’ll probably never know.
Roderick David Stewart was born in London in 1945, the youngest of five children of a construction foreman and a stay-at-home mother. He quit school at age 15 to work a variety of menial jobs, including that of gravedigger. Music became Rod’s free-time obsession, and he took up the guitar, the banjo and the harmonica, although he always preferred singing. Later, mimicking such American soul stars as Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, Stewart sang with numerous bands before ending up in the iconic UK outfit Small Faces.
He recorded both as the Small Faces front man and a solo artist. The first two Rod Stewart albums didn’t bring him fame or fortune, but his third effort—Every Picture Tells a Story—made Rod Stewart’s name known throughout the music world, thanks to a hit single based on an event from his adolescence.
Years before America’s Woodstock and Monterey Pop concerts, England had the Beaulieu Jazz Festival. Held annually since 1956 in the town of Hampshire, the outdoor gathering offered music as well as a chance for hip young Brits to dress in bizarre outfits and “get wild” away from their own neighborhoods. In July 1961, Rod and some pals snuck onto the festival grounds and headed for the beer tent. There, Stewart met a woman about twice his age. “One thing led to the next, and we ended up nearby on a secluded patch of lawn,” he recalled years later. Rod admitted that his “going all the way” for the first time lasted mere seconds. But that experience, brief as it may have been, would provide his ticket to superstardom a decade later.
Inspired by his introduction to manhood, Stewart eventually filled about 20 notebook pages with a fantasy yarn about a complicated and erratic relationship. He later developed that tale into a story-song about the trials and tribulations of a life shared with an older lady. I feel I’m being used gives way to I love you anyway, before the ultimate proclamation I wish I’d never seen your face.
Rod and guitarist pal Martin Quittenton created “Maggie May,” the slightly tweaked title being gleaned from “Maggie Mae,” an old Liverpool folk song which the Beatles had included as a snippet on their Let It Be album.
Curiously, Stewart’s multi-million-selling “Maggie May” had almost been left off his Every Picture Tells a Story LP, as the tune had no chorus and no hook, just a bunch of rambling verses. The future smash—recorded in just two takes—was released as the B-side of Rod’s 45 “Reason to Believe,” a Tim Hardin ballad. But disc jockeys soon flipped the single, and seemingly overnight “Maggie May” handed the sandpaper-voiced rock ‘n’ roller his first international winner.