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Saturday, November 26, 2011

Nervous breakdowns. Fights over money. Electrocution. How the musicians behind Rod Stewart's classic were hit by the curse of Maggie May

Maggie May is the song that made Rod Stewart a superstar.

Released 40 years ago as a B-side, it took everyone by surprise by becoming a huge hit in Britain and America.

Reaching Number One on both sides of the Atlantic in the second week of October 1971, it stayed there for five weeks.

Cursed? Maggie May is the song that made Rod Stewart a megastar - but the creative powers that shaped the song experienced much mishap

It was originally put out that August on the flip side of Reason To Believe, but Maggie May began to get more airplay from DJs and after two weeks was reclassified as the A-side.

Rod hadn’t even been sure about including it on the album, Every Picture Tells A Story, but the song, a lament to an older lover, proved to have colossal appeal. And it changed his life.

By the end of 1971, Rod had gone from being the not-terribly famous singer with the Faces to the Rod we know now: a sandpaper-voiced troubadour, all tight trousers and cockerel hair, with millions in the bank and a blonde on his arm.

In the years since he has proved to be one of the most popular singers in the world, with a ?100?million fortune, three marriages and eight children.

Badly treated: Ray Jackson, who played the mandolin on Maggie May, was paid just ?15 for his work

But the story of how the ballad came to be is almost as unexpected as its success. For few people know of the series of tragedies that befell the creative powers who shaped Maggie May, now an acknowledged pop standard.

Rod’s backing singer Maggie Bell saw her fianc? and bandmate  Les Harvey electrocuted on stage by an unearthed microphone a few months after the song was released. Their band Stone The Crows broke up and, despite being tipped for greatness, she never became a star.

Ray Jackson, the man who played  the mandolin on Maggie May — surely the most famous solo featuring that instrument  — was shabbily treated by Rod, going uncredited on the album and being paid just a stingy ?15 for his work.

Two other musicians who worked on the song died young. But most poignant of all is the fate of the song’s co-writer — the highly-strung guitar genius Martin Quittenton, who also wrote Rod’s other classic You Wear It

Well. I can reveal that Quittenton, once the star’s close pal, has been in retreat from the music business for decades and has long struggled with mental illness.

So the famous ballad may have launched Rod into the stratosphere, but it seems to have been close to a curse for the others he brought together.

Rod had enjoyed some success with the Faces, but had been sent to the studio by his record label Mercury to put together a solo album that would fare better than his first two efforts.

He chose the Morgan Sound Studios in Willesden because they had a mock pub upstairs — and Rod liked to rehearse, have a few drinks and then go back to record.

Drummer Mickey Waller was brought in and he introduced Rod to Quittenton, a guitarist with his own band, Steamhammer.

Before going solo: The Faces pop group, left to right, Rod Stewart, Ronnie Wood, Kenny Jones, Ian McLagan and Ronnie Lane

They got on so well that Rod let Quittenton — a quiet, nervy young man with a classical background — stay at his house in Highgate while they were working on the album. In an interview 18 years ago, he recalled: ‘Rod found me and gave me work. He was very kind.’

Rod wrote some of the songs while touring America with the Faces. Maggie May was named after a notorious Liverpool docks prostitute. The song told the story of his first sexual experience, which he said had happened in a tent at the Beaulieu Jazz Festival in 1961.

He told Q magazine: ‘I was 16 and it lasted precisely 28 seconds. She was older and bigger than me. I don’t think her name was Margaret.’

He first played a version of it with Faces guitarist Ron Wood in a U.S. hotel room. Then Quittenton helped him write the chords and composed the acoustic intro — the melody coming to him while he was on a Piccadilly line Tube train.

It was finished in a hurry at Morgan Sound Studios. Rod was always keen to work quickly, because studio time was expensive — and seems to have made up the words off the cuff in a few minutes.

Accident : Backing singer Maggie Bell saw her fiance and bandmate Les Harvey electrocuted on stage

‘We didn’t think it was very good,’ said Quittenton. ‘Never in anyone’s wildest dreams was it a pop standard.’ A touch of magic was added by Ray Jackson, a musician from Newcastle who had been a member of folk/rock group Lindisfarne.

He had been asked to play on the track Mandolin Wind and Rod then said: ‘I’ve got this other song called Maggie May. I might not even use it, but I’ve got nothing to put on the end. Can you put some mandolin down?’ So Jackson did.

‘I had two minutes to improvise it,’ he said. ‘Suddenly they liked the song. The people at the mixing desk were looking at each other in delight, applauding.’

His contribution is generally recognised to be truly significant — a mournful, nostalgic melody. He told me: ‘At the time I didn’t realise what I had done was special. You never know when you are recording how it will go down.’

Sadly, he was not treated with generosity by Rod. He was paid ?15 — the standard Musician’s Union fee for a three-hour session. In the sleeve credits, it says: ‘The mandolin was played by the mandolin player in Lindisfarne. The name slips my mind.’

This wretched piece of meanness rankled with Jackson. In 2003 he threatened to sue Rod, saying he might have lost up to ?1?million through not being credited as a writer.

What tipped him over the edge  was that the mandolin solo was used in a bank advert, probably netting Stewart and Quittenton ?50,000 each in royalties.

Star: Rod Stewart had unbelievable talent - but did he overshadow some of the other contributors to his success?

A spokesman for Stewart described the claim as ‘ridiculous’, saying it was accepted Ray played on the song, but not that he had any part in writing it. He said: ‘As is always the case in the studio, any musical contributions he may have made were fully paid for at the time as “work-for-hire”.’

The case never came to court. Jackson, who runs an art gallery in Witney, Oxfordshire, and paints old buses, describes what happened as ‘a bit disappointing’.

He told me: ‘You have to let it go. I am proud of the work I did.’
His fellow musician, Liverpudlian guitarist Sam Mitchell, was discovered by Rod in a London folk club, but never fulfilled his early promise.

He died in 2006 aged 56 after suffering chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. His friend Chris Jagger remembers him living hand to mouth. ‘It was a very sad scene,’ Jagger said. ‘He was a heavy drinker.’

Rod’s violinist was Dick ‘Sweet’ Powell, a well-known figure on the London jazz scene. Legend has it that the star paid him ?10 for his work on the song Reason To Believe. He died young, too, in his 50s, of a cerebral haemorrhage.

Legend: Rod Stewart, right, pictured with his wife Penny Lancaster has a cult following even to this day

And what of Martin Quittenton? He lives in a large house at the end of a country lane in Llanrhyddlad, Holyhead. He received an income of around ?25,000 a year from Maggie May royalties. In his sole interview in 1992, for the Stewart fanzine Smiler, he said: ‘I didn’t think there was anything to the song at the time and when it hit Number One I was working part-time in a music shop for ?7 a week.

‘I was going to work on a No 31 bus and I heard it coming from a jukebox in a pub. Then someone told me it was Number One. I couldn’t understand all the fuss. I didn’t think it was very good.’

Rod had invited Quittenton to join the Faces, but he felt he would hate the heavy drinking and hotel-wrecking. ‘I couldn’t mix with what went on backstage,’ he said.

In 1976, Rod left Britain for America. Quittenton turned down the star’s offer to work on his album Atlantic Crossing — and then they lost touch. ‘I opted out,’ he said. ‘I didn’t really fit into the sort of world I’d fallen into.’

After a nervous breakdown Martin Quittenton left the business. He moved to Anglesey and lives there anonymously with his wife Dorothy and their Yorkshire terrier. ‘I don’t think I was meant to be in pop music longer than I was, and I wouldn’t want to be in it now,’ he said.

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