This song was inspired by the woman who deflowered Stewart when he was 16. In the January 2007 issue of Q magazine, Stewart said: "'Maggie May' was more or less a true story, about the first woman I had sex with, at the Beaulieu Jazz Festival."
With his reputation on the line, Stewart was nervous. He said the encounter was over "in a few seconds."
The name "Maggie May" does not appear in the song; Rod borrowed the title from "Maggie Mae," a Liverpool folk song
about a Lime Street prostitute that the Beatles included on their Let It Be
Stewart liked the play on words the title created, sometimes introducing the song by saying, "This is 'Maggie May' - sometimes she did, sometimes she didn't."
In his memoir Rod: The Autobiography
, Stewart provided details of the experience that led to this song. Wrote Stewart: "At 16, I went to the Beaulieu Jazz Festival in the New Forest. I'd snuck in with some mates via an overflow sewage pipe. And there on a secluded patch of grass, I lost my not-remotely-prized virginity with an older (and larger) woman who'd come on to me very strongly in the beer tent. How much older, I can't tell you - but old enough to be highly disappointed by the brevity of the experience."
Remarkably, there is video of Stewart at the festival
, which took place in July 1961.
This song came together when Stewart began working with guitarist Martin Quittenton from the band Steamhammer. They convened at Stewart's house in Muswell Hill, where Quittenton played some chords that caught Rod's ear. As he sussed out a vocal melody, he started singing the words to the folk song "Maggie Mae," which got him thinking about that day 10 years earlier when he had a quick-and-dirty tryst. They made a demo with Stewart singing fractures lines. From there, he got to work on the lyrics, filling a notebook with ideas and arriving at a story about a guy who falls for an older woman and is now both smitten and perplexed.
This was the first big hit of the rock era to feature a mandolin, which was mostly heard in folk music. Stewart first used the instrument on "Mandolin Wind," which was one of the first songs he recorded for the album. He liked the results, so he used it on "Maggie" as well.
"Maggie May" remains the biggest mondolin-based hit ever recorded, although the theme music for The Godfather, released the following year, may be more recognized.
Every Picture Tells A Story was Stewart's third solo album, and the one that made him a superstar. At the time, he was still lead singer of the Faces, and for this session, which took place at Morgan Sound Studios in Willesden, England, he brought in two of his mates from that group: Ronnie Wood (guitar/bass) and Ian McLagan (organ). The other musicians were drummer Mickey Waller (he forgot to bring his cymbals to the session, so those were overdubbed later), guitarist Martin Quittenton and mandolin player Ray Jackson.
The song came together quickly in the studio, helped along by Jackson's mandolin contribution. Jackson had been hired to perform on the song "Mandolin Wind," which is why he was available. Stewart asked him to play something they might use to end the song, which he improvised on the spot.
This became a huge hit in Britain and America, topping both the UK and US charts at the same time. Every Picture Tells A Story was also the #1 album on both sides of the Atlantic, making him the first artist to have the #1 song and album in both the US and UK simultaneously. Stewart's success in the UK was expected, as he had a following there as a member of the Faces, but he was little known in America before "Maggie May" took off.
There is no real chorus in this song, but plenty of vocal and instrumental changes to keep it interesting. Running 5:46, it was considered an oddity with no hit potential and nearly left off the album. Stewart's record company, Mercury, didn't think it was a hit either, so used it as the B-side of the "Reason To Believe
" single. Disc jockeys liked "Maggie" better, so they played it instead, forcing Mercury to put it out as a single. The first station to flip the single and play it as the A-side was WOKY in Milwaukee.
Ray Jackson, a British musician who played in the band Lindisfarne, played the mandolin on this song and on a few others for Stewart. In 2003, Jackson threatened legal action against Stewart, claiming he deserved a writing credit for his contribution. Jackson, who says he made just the standard £15 session fee for his work, stated: "I am convinced that my contribution to 'Maggie May,' which occurred in the early stages of my career when I was just becoming famous for my work with Lindisfarne, was essential to the success of the record."
Stewart employed Jackson on subsequent recordings, but didn't hear about his beef with the composer credit until the '80s. Stewart's retort (through a spokesman): "As is always the case in the studio, any musical contributions he may have made were fully paid for at the time as 'work-for-hire.'"
Adding insult is Jackson's credit on the album notes, which reads: "The mandolin was played by the mandolin player in Lindisfarne. The name slips my mind."
Jackson never brought the case to court, but his threat did illuminate his contribution and help publicize his artistic endeavors.
The 32-second acoustic guitar intro that appears on the album version was added later. Written and played by Martin Quittenton, it was listed as a separate song called "Henry" on UK versions of Every Picture Tells A Story. This was Stewart's way of giving Quittenton a bonus: No matter the length, any song on an album earns royalties for the writer.
This section was excised from the single release, which still came in at 5:11, far longer than most hit singles.
When this became a hit, Stewart's popularity surpassed that of his group, so Faces shows started being billed as "The Faces with Rod Stewart," making him the focus.
Stewart moved to America a few years after this came out. He was doing very well there, but also wanted to avoid the huge taxes England levied on high-income entertainers. This was around the same time The Rolling Stones left England for tax reasons. Their album Exile on Main St. is a reference to their "tax exile" status.