If living well is the best revenge, then Rod Stewart has long since avenged the critical barbs he’s suffered through the years. Still active in his fifth decade as a recording star, he can point to nearly three dozen pop hits and nearly 40 million albums sold as proof that he’s done something very right. Yet all of his commercial success wouldn’t silence those purists who believe that Rod Stewart wasted the greatest male voice in rock history by putting it to use in service of disco anthems and an endless string of generic adult-contemporary ballads. Whatever one’s opinion about Stewart’s musical choices few could deny the pure perfection of his performance on one of the greatest rock songs of all time, “Maggie May,” which became Rod Stewart’s first #1 hit on this day in 1971.
An international hit that topped the U.K. and U.S. pop charts simultaneously in the autumn of 1971, “Maggie May” was a last-minute addition to the album Every Picture Tells a Story and was originally released as the “B” side to the single “Reason To Believe.” Soon, however, radio programmers began flipping “Reason To Believe” in favor of “Maggie May,” the possibly autobiographical tale of a young man reflecting wistfully on the end of a love affair with an older woman. With its ringing acoustic guitar and mandolin arrangement, “Maggie May” reflected the full range of influences that had shaped a singer-songwriter then better known for the harder-edged music of the rock bands he’d fronted in the late 1960s and very early 1970s: the Faces and the Jeff Beck Group. But Rod Stewart had begun his path to stardom as an itinerant banjo- and harmonica-playing Bob Dylan devotee, and it was that folk sensibility that helped make “Maggie May” such a standout hit.
“Maggie May” and Every Picture Tells a Story launched Rod Stewart’s spectacular solo career—a career that has included 33 subsequent top-40 hits on the American pop chart, including two subsequent #1s in “Tonight’s The Night (Gonna Be Alright)” (1977), “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” (1979). Rod Stewart’s detractors may believe that they also marked a creative high point in a career that has seen more success among record-buyers and concert-goers than among rock critics, yet those record-buyers and concert-goers continue to support a singer who has even managed to reinvent himself successfully as a crooner of jazz standards in his fifth decade as a major pop star.