In 1971, Rod Stewart‘s “Maggie May” became a breakout hit that turned him into a true rock star. The song is told from the point of view of a teenage boy reflecting on his relationship with a predatory older woman. Though Stewart took some artistic license in the lyrics, inspiration for the tune came from his own experience with an older woman who took his virginity back when he was a teenager.
Stewart was a teenager when he had the encounter that inspired the song
In July 1961, a 16-year-old Stewart and some friends snuck into the Beaulieu Jazz Festival. Once inside, Stewart headed to a beer tent, where he was picked up by a woman about twice his age. He described the encounter in an interview with the Wall Street Journal years later: “I met an older woman who was something of a sexual predator. One thing led to the next, and we ended up nearby on a secluded patch of lawn. I was a virgin, and all I could think is, ‘This is it, Rod Stewart, you’d better put on a good performance here or else your reputation will be ruined all over North London.’ But it was all over in a few seconds.”
A decade later, this real-life event provided inspiration for Stewart’s popular “Maggie May.” Some details from the lyrics vary from Stewart’s actual life: he met and slept with the older woman in July, not September. And Stewart left school at the age of 15, while “Maggie May” is told from the perspective of a boy who contemplates returning to life as a student. Yet these minor differences can’t erase the underlying truth — as Stewart himself said in a 2007 interview, “‘Maggie May’ was more or less a true story, about the first woman I had sex with.”
It took a while for Stewart to write “Maggie May”
A decade passed between Stewart’s first time having sex and the genesis of “Maggie May.” Guitarist Martin Quittenton, who co-wrote “Maggie May,” has explained how the tune began: “One night we were in Rod’s sitting room, I was on the settee and Rod was sitting in a chair, and he just asked me if I had any ideas for any songs. We started messing around with a few chords…” The subject matter wasn’t established at this point; in his autobiography, Stewart shared that when “the song was in its formative stages, just a sequence of chords that needed some words and a melody to fit, I hadn’t got a clue what the number was going to be about.”
While Quittenton played, Stewart sang some of the Liverpudlian folk tune “Maggie Mae,” about a sailor who is robbed by a prostitute. At the same time, Stewart was starting to reflect on his first fleeting sexual encounter from 1961. Yet it was only after the melody had been settled that Stewart really focused on the story he wanted to convey. He told the Wall Street Journal, “I began thinking back on that day at the jazz festival and I came up with a song about a young guy who has been with an older woman and the aftermath going through his head.”
Stewart has admitted that song lyrics can often be difficult for him to write, in part because he shied away from the vulnerabilities they can reveal. But he delved into his personal life to come up with the lyrics to “Maggie May,” a process that saw him filling in 20 notebook pages. Once he’d finished writing, Stewart recorded his “Maggie May” vocals in just two takes.
The song turned Stewart into a superstar
Even after “Maggie May” was complete, Stewart’s record company didn’t see it as having much commercial potential, or even a melody. Stewart himself couldn’t immediately tell that he had a hit on his hands. His autobiography notes of the tune: “Actually, I even wondered for a while about leaving it off the album. It didn’t have a chorus. It just had these rambling verses. It didn’t really have a hook. How could you hope to have a hit single with a song that was all verse and no chorus and no hook?”
“Maggie May” was ultimately included on the album Every Picture Tells a Story, but only because another song was needed and it was available. However, after “Maggie May” was released as a B-side to “Reason to Believe” in the summer of 1971, a DJ opted to play it instead of its A-side accompaniment. “Maggie May” subsequently grew in popularity and became a No. 1 hit in both the United States and the United Kingdom in October 1971. The album Every Picture Tells a Story also topped the charts in both countries. Stewart became a superstar — and this success was thanks in large part to his decision to write about the long-ago experience of losing his virginity.