by Kevin Burton
The smash hit that was number one on the American pop chart fifty years ago today was almost tossed aside.
It was included on Rod Stewart’s “Every Picture Tells A Story” LP at the last minute, according to the entry in the Billboard Book of Number One Hits.
One of the biggest hits of the 70s started life as the B side of a record release. That means somebody, or a committee of somebodies, at Mercury Records thought “Someone Like You” was a better hit vehicle than “Maggie May.”
If you’ve heard both tunes you may be shocked that record execs could be that tune and tone deaf. But rock and roll history is filled with stories like that, and even worse ones.
Mercury released “Someone Like You” only to have disc jockeys flip the record and send “Maggie May” to number one for five weeks, beginning Oct. 2, 1971. It also topped the charts in Australia, Canada and the UK.
“At first, I didn’t think much of “Maggie May,’” Stewart said in 2015. “I guess that’s because the record company didn’t believe in the song. I didn’t have much confidence then. I figured it was best to listen to the guys who knew better. What I learned is sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.”
In 2004 Rolling Stone magazine ranked Maggie May at number 130 onits list of the 500 greatest songs of all-time, and the song almost never saw the light of day. Makes me wonder what masterpieces we’ve never heard because of record company geniuses.
“Maggie May expresses the ambivalence and contradictory emotions of a boy involved in a relationship with an older woman and was written from Stewart’s own experience,” reads the song’s Wikipedia entry.
“In the January 2007 issue of Q magazine, Stewart recalled: ‘Maggie May was more or less a true story, about the first woman I had sex with, at the 1961 Beaulieu Jazz Festival.’” The woman’s name was not Maggie May. Stewart has stated that the name was taken from “an old Liverpudlian song about a prostitute.”
“The song was recorded in just two takes in one session. Drummer Micky Waller often arrived at recording sessions with the expectation that a drum kit would be provided and, for Maggie May it was – except that no cymbals could be found. The cymbal crashes had to be overdubbed separately some days later,” according to Wikipedia.
The album version begins with a 30-second guitar solo composed by Martin Quittenton, who co-wrote Maggie May with Stewart. Waller’s drums then kick the song into very high gear as Stewart spins the tale.
Some of us Midwestern kids were amused at the line “It’s late September and I really should be back at school.” That was how I learned that not everybody returned to school in early September as we did.
Stewart has that unmistakable gravelly voice, which is why I was so shocked to read in the Billboard book that Stewart’s solo career began in 1966 with a cover of “You Send Me” number one for two weeks in 1957 for smooth crooner Sam Cooke.
Velvet meets sandpaper! I couldn’t resist looking that one up. I was prepared to hate it of course. But Stewart has a version of the song sung as a duet with Chaka Khan that really does the song justice.
“I was really into Sam Cooke,” Stewart said. He’s probably the biggest influence on my life.”
Shame on me for judging his version before even hearing it. Shame on Mercury Records for almost squashing an iconic song.
The rest of the top five when Maggie May went to number one, was “Go Away Little Girl” by Donny Osmond, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by Joan Baez, “Superstar” by the Carpenters and “Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers. So maybe slow songs such as “Someone Like You” were in vogue then and the record execs were just following suit in a copy-cat industry.
But 50 years later, I’m glad the DJs set things right and put Maggie May on the air and into the history books.