Behind the Album: ‘Every Picture Tells a Story’ by Rod Stewart

Rod Stewart continues to record and tour with energy beyond what artists many years younger than him can conjure. He showed that energy early in his career, like when, in 1971, he recorded Every Picture Tells a Story—the album most consider his finest—amidst a wild flurry of activity.

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Stewart not only brought his estimable singing chops to the album, but he also assembled a host of musicians from all corners—and employed them in just the right spaces—to make the album’s music pop as well. Here’s a look back at the record that took Rod Stewart from local popularity in the UK to worldwide stardom.

Getting the Picture

By the time Stewart settled in to record Every Picture Tells a Story in late 1970, he was already 25 years old and had spent almost a decade as a professional musician. In addition to many years in the ’60s fronting various touring outfits, he had made a name for himself on the music scene for his work with Jeff Beck and as lead singer of the scruffy blues-rock outfit Faces. He had also recorded two solo records by that time, each of which gained critical acclaim but didn’t exactly move the earth sales-wise. They also didn’t produce anything resembling a hit single.

Stewart went pretty much right from recording the second Faces’ album Long Player, while also squeezing in tour dates with the group, to starting up the sessions for Every Picture Needs a Story. He used the same studio in London (Morgan Studio), which was known for also housing a pub to which the musicians would frequently retire. Stewart, who also produced the record, made sure the tracks were laid down pretty quickly, usually within a few hours, so that everyone would have plenty of time to imbibe.

While he might have been a laissez-faire bandleader in that respect, Stewart was meticulous about choosing the musicians for each track. He was adamant about keeping his solo stuff separate from Faces, which is why the group only appears in full on the furious cover of The Temptations’ hit “I Know (I’m Losing You).” Faces’ guitarist Ronnie Wood did provide guitar throughout the record, laying down the kinds of licks he would later employ with The Rolling Stones.

But Stewart also looked to less-renowned corners for some of the other key contributors. Martin Quittenton of the blues-rock band Steamhammer played the lovely acoustic intro to “Maggie May” (which he also co-wrote). Maggie Bell had barely begun her stint with the Scottish band Stone the Crows when she added the bluesy harmonies to the title track. And Ray Jackson was called last-minute to play mandolin when Stewart realized he had no one to play the instrument on “Mandolin Wind.” Jackson stuck around and played on “Maggie May,” and only when Stewart heard his addition to the song was he convinced the track even belonged on the album.

The Stories

Stewart has always been modest about his songwriting abilities. Perhaps that was why he didn’t think much of the words he delivered for “Maggie May.” He also felt the title track, which he co-wrote with Wood, had no melody. Yet these two songs managed to establish Stewart’s artistic persona of rake with a heart of gold, one that he rode all the way to legendary status. Add in the touching “Mandolin Wind,” and you’d be hard-pressed to find any tunesmith who delivered such accessible, lived-in material as Stewart circa ’71.

He also chose cover material that proved ideal for his vocal stylings, mixing in well-known songs like “(I Know) I’m Losing You” and “That’s All Right” with lesser-known gems from famous writers (Bob Dylan’s “Tomorrow is a Long Time” is one.) Stewart, also championed songwriters whom he felt deserved wider renown. “Seems Like a Long Time” and “(Find a) Reason to Believe,” from Ted Anderson and Tim Hardin, respectively, fit seamlessly with the rest of the great stuff on the record.

The Aftermath

Who knows how Stewart’s career might have progressed had some industrious DJs not started playing “Maggie May,” which was originally a B-side, turning it into a No. 1 smash on both sides of the Atlantic. But that’s what happened, and then Stewart had enough left in his artistic tank to help the Faces with A Nod Is as Good as a Wink … to a Blind Horse, their greatest album that was released later in ’71 and featured Stewart braying his way through the monster hit “Stay with Me.” (Stewart’s success that year also hastened the demise of Faces, as his profile began to dwarf that of his bandmates.)

Rod Stewart continued to make albums in that same vein going forward, and many of them were great. But he never quite recaptured the ramshackle perfection of Every Picture Tells a Story. Hey, give the guy a break on that. After all, not many other artists have reached the standard of this wonderful album either.

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Photo by John Minihan/Hulton Archive/Evening Standard/Getty Images

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