You may know Rod Stewart as the bloke who always seems to be in OK! magazine, but there was a time when ‘Rod The Mod’ was cool. 1971, to be precise. And Stewart’s success owed much to his first solo hit, Maggie May, a song of convoluted origins, personnel and recording.
Stewart had come to prominence in the late '60s as singer in The Jeff Beck Group, in which Ronnie Wood played guitar and bass. The ambitious Stewart didn’t like the attention that Beck commanded and left for a solo career.
From early on, he utilised the talents of Wood, ex-Beck drummer Micky Waller and ex-Small Faces’ keysman Ian McLagan. And in 1970, Stewart, Wood and McLagan also formed Faces (along with Ronnie Lane and Kenney Jones, both also ex-Small Faces).
So by 1971, Stewart was running parallel careers as a solo artist and as Faces’ frontman. Personnel on both Stewart and Faces recordings were often interchangeable, but Maggie May’s authorship was co-credited to another solo collaborator, acoustic man Martin Quittenton (in part, for the track’s classical guitar intro). That said, Stewart recalls that the song’s origins really began with Wood strumming Bob Dylan’s It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.
The lyrics were autobiographical. In 2007, Stewart told Q that “Maggie May was more or less a true story, about the first woman I had sex with, at the Beaulieu Jazz Festival”. Some fans online have speculated that ‘Maggie’ was Maggie Bell, the Stone The Crows singer who’d sung backup for Stewart. Others have asked of a rumour that Stewart had an affair with future UK PM Margaret Thatcher. Neither, particularly the latter, is true.
Maggie May is simply a title Stewart stole from 19th century sailors’ song, Maggie Mae, about a thieving prostitute. The Beatles had covered snippets of it early in their career, of which Stewart knew. But Rod’s lyric only took the title – the name “Maggie May” does not appear in Rod’s song at all.
Maggie May was recorded in April 1971 at Morgan Sound Studios, North London, while Stewart’s solo sessions were ad-hoc, even though this was his third solo album. “We had no preconceived ideas of what we were going to do,” Stewart recalled. “We would have a few drinks and strum away and play.”
Personnel included Ronnie Wood (Zemaitis electric), Martin Quittenton (12-strings, acoustics), Ian McLagan (Hammond B-3 organ), Andy Pyle (bass) and Micky Waller (drums). Wood usually played his Tony Zemaitis metalfront guitars through a Fender Champ, but for Maggie May’s “funny little solo” he switched to a rare '60s valve amp by UK makers Fenton-Weill.
“It was more or less a converted radio, a bit like the Champ amp is,” Wood told Premier Guitar in 2010. “There’s a bit of distortion already built in, just because of the old valves.”
Originally, the song was an outside contender for what became Stewart’s breakthrough album, Every Picture Tells A Story. “I thought it was cool, but had no idea it would become a classic,” admitted McLagan. “When we cut it, it was just bass, organ, vocals, acoustic guitar and drums. Woody put [electric] guitar on after. They were exciting sessions – they were very fast. Micky Waller didn’t have a kit of drums, so they’d been rented. The drums were in a heap on the floor.”
Indeed, on Maggie May Waller couldn’t even set up the rented kit properly, meaning he played the bass drum by hand with a stick. Snare, toms and cymbals were recorded separately.
Stewart decided it needed further embellishment to be even considered for release. Ray Jackson, from folk rockers Lindisfarne, had been asked into the sessions for a day to record on the country-flecked Mandolin Wind. That track done, 21-year-old Jackson was asked if he could add something to Maggie May. “I was the last player to overdub on the album before it was mixed,” Jackson remembered. “There was only Rod and the engineer behind the glass. I was played the end [of the track] a few times, which is where Rod wanted ‘that something’ to be. I came up with the mandolin part on the spot, double-tracked it a few times and was invited to listen back in the control room. Rod seemed pleased with the result and I left the studio.”
Jackson played a Japanese-made Columbus mandolin and for his day’s playing and writing work he was paid the then-standard Musicians’ Union rate of £15. Adding injury to penury, Stewart didn’t even properly credit Jackson when Maggie May did make the album. The sleeve notes for Every Picture Tells A Story read: “The mandolin was played by the mandolin player in Lindisfarne. The name slips my mind.”
Maggie May was released as the B-side to Stewart’s version of Tim Hardin’s Reason to Believe, but radio DJs kept playing Maggie May instead, and the single hit No 1 in the UK and the USA. Rod Stewart, solo star, was born.
The song is often remembered for Stewart’s Top Of The Pops appearance of 1971 when Stewart sings live, but his miming stage mates are Faces (McLagan, Kenney Jones on drums, Ronnie Lane on bass) plus John Peel. The late DJ was an early champion of Rod, and as Jackson was back in his Lindisfarne day job, Stewart needed someone to mime the mandolin: BBC rules of the time demanded that main instrumentalists must be represented on broadcast performances.
Add a football kickabout onstage and goofballing from Woodie and Lane, and you had classic pop TV.
Ray Jackson still plays but is now predominantly a painter, mainly of scenes of vintage British buses (see rayjacksonart.co.uk). Quittenton sloped away from mainstream music after 1973. Ronnie Wood is now, of course, a Rolling Stone. And Rod The Mod? The 2022 Sunday Times Rich List estimated the 66-year-old’s worth at £215million. As Stewart himself sang a few years later: “Some guys have all the luck…”