Sir Roderick David Stewart, aka ‘Rod the Mod’, was one of the biggest-selling artists of the 70s and 80s, with over 120 million records sold worldwide, and six number 1 singles. And yet his first chart-topper, Maggie May, was tucked away as a B-side. Were it not for its appeal shining through, Stewart may not have become as big a superstar as he did.
Stewart was born at home in Highgate, London on 10 January 1945. He was the youngest of five children, the other four having been born in Leith, Edinburgh, Scotland, where his father Robert, a builder, came from. After he retired, Robert bought a newsagent’s shop, which the Stewart family lived above. His youngest’s main hobby, which he still loves, was railway modelling.
Stewart’s other big obsession was football, and he became captain of his school’s team. His first musical hero was Al Jolson, but he soon got into rock’n’roll, and he saw Bill Haley & His Comets in concert. In 1960 he joined a skiffle group called The Kool Kats, and would play Lonnie Donegan covers.
Stewart left school at 15 and had various jobs working in the family shop, as a silk screen printer and at a cemetery, but he longed to be a professional footballer. In 1961 he decided to try his hand at singing, and along with The Raiders he auditioned for eccentric producer Joe Meek, but he wasn’t impressed.
Soon after, Stewart turned into a left-wing beatnik, listening to the folk music of Bob Dylan, Ewan MacColl and Woody Guthrie and attending protest marches, getting arrested three times between 1961 and 1963. He later confessed he often used the marches as a way of bedding girls. In 1962 he took to playing the harmonica and would busk at Leicester Square with folk singer Wizz Jones. They took their act to Europe, and Stewart found himself deported from Spain for vagrancy in 1963. Around this time, he was considered as a singer for The Kinks, then known as The Ray Davies Quartet.
Later that year he became a full-on Mod, adopting his trademark spiky hairstyle and becoming enthralled with soul and R’n’B music. He found his first professional job as a musician in The Dimensions. This was his introduction to London’s R’n’B scene, where he would take harmonica tips from Mick Jagger.
In January 1964 the 19-year-old had been to a Long John Baldry gig and was playing harmonica at Twickenham Station when Baldry himself heard him and invited him to join his group. Over time, Stewart overcame shyness and would dress up more, and would sometimes be billed as Rod ‘the Mod’ Stewart. He made his recording debut with Baldry and the Hoochie Coochie Men that June, uncredited. Two months later, after a performance at the Marquee Club, he was signed as a solo act to Decca Records. His debut single was the blues standard, with a terribly dodgy title, Good Morning Little Schoolgirl, which featured John Paul Jones among the session musicians.
Baldry’s group broke up, but he and Stewart patched up their differences and in 1965 became part of the line-up of new group Steampacket alongside Brian Auger. Steampacket were conceived as a white soul revue, and while supporting The Rolling Stones he had his first taste of crowd hysteria. Due to all being signed to different labels, Stewart’s group were unable to record any material. His solo career continued, but without making much impact. In 1966 he jumped ship from Steampacket to Shotgun Express, whose line-up included future Fleetwood Mac members Peter Green and Mick Fleetwood.
It was The Jeff Beck Group that finally gave Stewart his break when he joined their ranks in February 1967. He formed a long-lasting friendship with guitarist Ronnie Wood, began writing material, and his vocal technique developed into the rough rasp that made him stand out. However, he and Beck didn’t get on, and when Wood was announced as Steve Marriott’s replacement in Small Faces in June 1969, Stewart joined him a few months after as their new singer, and they became Faces.
At the same time, Stewart was making inroads with his solo career. Now with Mercury Records, he released his first album, An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down, a mix of well-received original material and rock, folk and blues covers.
1970 saw the release of both Faces’ debut LP First Step and his solo follow-up Gasoline Alley, which introduced the mandolin to his sound. Faces quickly amassed a dedicated following at their gigs, and Stewart was one single release away from becoming a household name. The plan was for (Find a) Reason to Believe to be the first single from his forthcoming album, Every Picture Tells a Story, with Maggie May as the B-side.
Reason to Believe (the bracketed bit dropped upon its single release) was the final track on the accompanying album. It’s a cover of a Tim Hardin track, which the folk singer had released on his debut album in 1965, and The Carpenters covered it in 1970.
Stewart plays the wounded lover, whose girl has lied to him. His gravelly voice suits the song well, and there’s some nice Hammond organ and piano work courtesy of Faces’ Ian McLagan. It’s a good album track, but it was never going to light up the charts the way its flip side did. So much so, the single became a double A-side as word spread.
Stewart has rather pissed away his potential over the years, and growing up in the 80s, I saw him as a ridiculous figure. However, Maggie May is a classic, and it’s the best number 1 he’s had. There’s no chorus, but it’s a compelling story, with a memorable mandolin intro courtesy of Lindisfarne’s Ray Jackson.
Stewart had been inspired to write the song while working out some chords with guitarist Martin Quittenton of Steamhammer. He recalled his experience of losing his virginity in 1961 to an older woman at the Beaulieu Jazz Festival. The song isn’t named after her though. Stewart took it from the old Liverpool folk song about a prostitute (as briefly heard on The Beatles album Let It Be). Amazingly, you can see him taking part in the event here. The festival, not the self-confessed very brief sex… Also on the recording, which was only added to the album at the last minute, are Wood on bass and 12-string, McLagan and drummer Micky Waller, who played a drumkit with no cymbals, which were added later.
The original version of Stewart’s song opened side two of Every Picture Tells a Story with a 30-second guitar intro from Quittenton, named Delilah. In full, it’s over five minutes long, but the single edit cuts off some of the detail.
However, Stewart’s tale of love for an older woman remains fascinating. He gets you interested right from the start with those famous opening lines, revealing he was in fact a schoolboy when he was sleeping with Maggie. More mature than your average love song, Stewart finds time to insult Maggie only to remind her how deep he feels about her before she has chance to slap him:
‘The morning sun, when it’s in your face really shows your age
But that don’t worry me none in my eyes, you’re everything’
Stewart resolves to get over May by, among other things, joining a ‘rock’n’roll band’ (mission accomplished), and although he claims he wishes he’d never seen her face, you don’t believe him, and as that beautiful mandolin rings out over the fade, you’re left wondering what happened to the singer that wrote such a great song.
A song that’s taken on new meaning to me of late, as my in-laws fell in love when this was in the charts (Maggie was my father-in-law’s name for his future wife) and it was played at his funeral, 48 years later. It’s difficult to listen to anymore without welling up.
Maggie May established Stewart both here and in the US, reaching number 1 in both while he also held the number 1 album spots – a rare feat. Above you can see the famous Top of the Pops appearance of the song, in which he’s backed by his Faces bandmates and Radio 1 DJ John Peel miming the mandolin.
Reason to Believe: Tim Hardin/Maggie May: Rod Stewart & Martin Quittenton
Producer: Rod Stewart
Weeks at number 1: 5 (9 October-12 November)
Fashion photographer Simon Atlee – 9 October
Comedian Sasha Baron Cohen – 13 October
Big Brother winner Craig Phillips – 16 October
Actor John Alford – 30 October
Archer Alison Williamson – 3 November
Footballer Michael Jeffrey – 8 November
Independent MP AP Herbert – 11 November
13 October: The British Army began destroying roads between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland as a security measure.
21 October: 20 people were killed in a gas explosion in the town centre of Clarkston, East Renfrewshire in Scotland.
23 October: When a car failed to stop at a Belfast checkpoint, Mary Ellen Meehan, 30, and her sister Dorothy Maguire, 19 were shot dead by soldiers.
28 October: Prime Minister Edward Heath scored a big victory when the House of Commons voted in favour of joining the EEC by a vote of 356-244.
Also on this day, the Immigration Act 1971 restricted immigration, particularly primary immigration into the U.K. and introduced the status of right of abode into law.
Plus, the UK became the sixth nation to launch a satellite into orbit using its own launch vehicle, the Prospero (X-3) experimental communications satellite.
30 October: The Democratic Unionist Party was founded by the formidable Reverend Ian Paisley in Northern Ireland.
31 October: A bomb, likely planted by the Angry Brigade, exploded at the top of London’s Post Office Tower.
10 November: The 10-route Spaghetti Junction motorway interchange was opened north of Birmingham’s city centre. The interchange would have a total of 12 routes when the final stretch of the M6 was opened in 1972.