October 1971: Rod Stewart Wakes Up at No. 1 with "Maggie May"

Wake up Maggie, I think Rod's got something to say to you.
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Ron Howard/Redferns

What do you get when you combine a steamy encounter at a music festival, a set of missing cymbals and a curious DJ? No, not an entry in someone's tour diary: Rod Stewart's "Maggie May," which became his first chart-topping single in October 1971.

Recorded for Rod's third album Every Picture Tells a Story, "Maggie May" is the not-so-romantic tale of a schoolboy struggling after getting intimate with a considerably older woman. Astoundingly, the song is based on a true story: a decade prior, the British rocker was at a concert when one thing led to another.

"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," he wrote in his 2012 autobiography. "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." The song came together in a jam with Steamhammer guitarist Martin Quittenton, when Stewart was inspired by the British folk tune "Maggie Mae," which had recently closed the first side of The Beatles' final album Let It Be.

The session featured a murderer's row of talent: Quittenton, who kicked off the track with a stirring acoustic solo (known as "Henry"); two of Rod's Faces bandmates, Ronnie Wood on bass and Ian McLagan on hammond organ; Ray Jackson of folk-rock outfit Lindisfarme on mandolin ("The name slips my mind," cracked the liner notes); Peter Sears, later of Jefferson Starship, on celeste; and session legend Mickey Waller (Jeff Beck Group) on drums. It was Waller who made the sessions so memorable. "Mickey Waller turned up with only half a drum kit," Stewart recalled in the liner notes to the Storyteller box set, "and had to borrow the rest from the other bands in the studio."

"Maggie May" is a classic today, but it didn't seem that way at the time. "Nobody liked it, the criticism being that it had no melody," Stewart noted in Storyteller. Nonetheless, it was relegated to the B-side of lead single "Reason to Believe" and would've stayed there if not for disc jockey Murray Soul of Cleveland, OH-based station WMMS. On a whim, he flipped the single over to play "Maggie May," and the phone lines lit up. In due time, everyone was following his lead, and on Oct. 2, 1971, the single - officially credited as "Maggie May"/"Reason to Believe" - topped the Billboard Hot 100 for five weeks straight. A week later on Oct. 9, the single topped the U.K. singles chart for its own five-week stay there.

Needless to say, the rest was history: Rod would sing on another 26 U.K. Top 10s (15 in the States) and entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice: once in 1994 and as a member of Faces in 2012. If not for that "diligent DJ," Rod noted in Storyteller, "I would've still been digging graves. Some guys have all the luck."

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