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Artist: Rod Stewart
Album: Every Picture Tells a Story (Mercury)
Maggie May was Rod Stewart’s first big number one hit. Ironically, it was the B-side of the song he thought would be his breakthrough, Reason to Believe, a cover of a folk song by Tim Hardin, today a true classic in its own right. But when people heard Stewart singing “Wake Up Maggie I Think I Got Something to Say To You” in his raspy voice, and that signature, and highly unusual mandolin, they couldn’t get enough. This actually caused the song, Maggie May, to be re-categorized as an A-side.
By that time, the Scottish-born Rod Stewart wasn’t exactly a novice singer or a novice solo-artist. He had been the singer for The Jeff Beck Group from 1967 to 1969 and had sung for the Faces at the same time as starting his own solo career. Critics had actually liked his first album Gasoline Alley, in 1970, and it had even sold a little. But it was Maggie May and the album Every Picture Tells a Story that put Rod Stewart on his way to becoming the rock icon he is today.
Who Is Maggie May?
There was a real girl who inspired the song Maggie May, but the name itself was borrowed from an old Liverpool folk-song of the same name. Often called a sea-shanty since it was a favorite of sailors, the song is about a prostitute. Other than being a jumping-off point, and the name, Stewart’s song has nothing to do with the folk-song. Or does it?
The folk-song is about an untrustworthy prostitute who would steal her client’s belongings while they slept (a favorite theme of Westerns, too), and according to Stewart, his song is about having regretfully lost his virginity in a one-night-stand with a girl, name unknown, who he’d met at the Beaulieu Jazz Festival in 1961. She was older than him but didn’t steal his belongings. She stole his virginity, and maybe his soul? (whiner)
The Beaulieu Jazz Festival was a raucous event with a carnival atmosphere. There were all sorts of “alternative” this and that going on, and like music festivals today, there were “crash tents” where people would sleep…have sex. As a young-virgin Stewart was swept along by the tide of not only the music but the sexual opportunities. As Stewart told the story in 2009:
“It was a jazz festival. I was a virgin, and this girl got a hold of me. I think she was in her thirties. And, like nowadays, everyone was in tents. She took me to hers and had her way with me!”
When the song was written by Rod Stewart when, in the studio, guitarist Martin Quittentom starting strumming the folk song, inspiring Stewart to write Maggie May. As hinted at the beginning, and as you’ll often hear about many songs, neither Rod Stewart nor his co-writer Quittenton thought much of the song at first. It is even said that the record company didn’t want it on the album at all, saying it didn’t have a strong enough melody, and the only reason it made it on the album was that Stewart was forced to include it in the end because he didn’t have enough songs and there was no time to write a new one.
His father, by the way, was not a pool player and Rod never stole his cue although he had left school. In fact, except for the initial inspiration, the song is semi-fictional, about a young guy having a doomed love-affair with an older woman. Stewart’s actual affair was only one night.
His father had been big into amateur soccer, and the same year the Stewart, at the tender age of 16, met the unknown girl he also had a short stint as a semi-pro soccer player, apprenticing with Brentford FC. But, he wasn’t too enthused about the discipline needed to be an athlete, and being a musician seemed to be a better fit, leading him to audition the next year for music producer Joe Meek. He may not have stolen his father’s pool cue, but you can bet dad wasn’t happy!
Maggie May Mandolin Controversy
Ron Wood (of the Rolling Stones) played on bass and electric guitar. Martin Quittenton played acoustic guitar. Micky Waller was on drums. But who was on Mandolin? This was Ray Jackson, who Stewart had brought in along with the violinist featured on the album, a duo he had found playing in a London restaurant. The mandolin is often mentioned as a distinctive feature of the song, and integral to its success. Ray Jackson, in later years, after the song had been a huge hit and a radio-regular for years, earning thousands in royalties, agreed.
Ray Jackson was hired as a studio musician. Many readers may not realize that studio musicians, although they are paid a set fee for their work, are not just brought on to play rote parts already written by someone else. They are often called upon to be creative and add their own distinctive touches to a song, and even to help drive the song’s creation from bare-bones idea to fully-realized composition. Studio musicians are often, if not usually, gifted and created musicians in their own right. Jimmy Page was a studio musician.
When a studio musician comes in, they agree to a fee for their work. There are not any stipulations such as “according to how much work I do” I’ll get paid more, or, “if my work is exceedingly brilliant, I’ll get royalties.” They will not usually receive writing credits UNLESS the studio musician brings it up as part of the contract (and they well should), or the employer is unusual and highly thoughtful and generous. In other words, even if they are expected to be a significant creator in the song, they will not be paid royalties or receive writing credits unless they musician specifically state that they will require writing credits and royalties However, sometimes a riff or other contribution from a studio musician can be central to a song’s success, and every once in a while this causes a battle, legal or otherwise, over songwriting credits and royalties. It is hard to say how much contribution to a song constitutes “co-writer” but Ray Jackson, 14 years after the song’s release, sued over not being properly credited as a co-writer of the song, and for back-royalties.
The mandolin part at the beginning of the song, not to mention the distinctive sound of the mandolin throughout, is instantly recognizable. Was it the key to the song’s success? This is difficult to say, but the song has been sampled with the mandolin part and featured in advertisements, etc. Ray Jackson says he was paid only £15 for his work.
The thing to realize, though, is that while the mandolin part in Maggie May is well-known, the whole album was meant to be mandolin-heavy. Stewart had gotten the idea of using the mandolin while working on his previous album, Gasoline Alley. He recorded the song Mandolin Wind for Every Picture and liked it so much he decided to make mandolin a central part of the album. Even on the songs where mandolin was not used, there is still and mandolin-like feel.
As for the album itself, this was long before “D’ya Think I’m Sexy” or “Hot Legs” and eons before any once-superstar musician was put out-to-pasture in Vegas. Listen to Rod sing Bob Dylan’s Tomorrow is Such a Long Time, That’s Alright, Mama, (Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup/Elvis), the original A-side, Tim Hardin’s Reason to Believe, or the title-song original Every Picture Tells a Story, and you might even forgive the leopard-skin ensembles.
Watch Rod Stewart Perform the Song
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