Rod Stewart was practically a rock 'n' roll veteran when he released his breakthrough album, Every Picture Tells a Story, on May 28, 1971.

Stints with the forgotten Dimensions and Steampacket led to a gig in 1967 singing with the Jeff Beck Group, which the former Yardbirds guitarist hand-picked as his latest contribution to England's electric blues movement. Stewart's two albums with the group – 1968's Truth and the following year's Beck-Ola – helped establish him in the rock community.

Still, it would take three solo albums before he finally became a worldwide hit. His first record, 1969's An Old Raincoat Will Never Let You Down barely dented the charts in the U.S. (where it was retitled The Rod Stewart Album) and failed to chart at all in Stewart's native U.K. The next year's follow-up, Gasoline Alley, fared a little better, cracking the Top 30 in the States.

Both LPs were filled with worn-out cover songs, traditional numbers and boring original compositions that made uncovering their gems a tough slog. But something happened along the way: namely, the Faces.

When Ronnie Wood was brought in to replace Steve Marriott in the Small Faces, Stewart joined his old pal and Jeff Beck Group bandmate as the newly named Faces' singer. They released their debut album under their new moniker, First Step, between Stewart's first two solo LPs.

The real effect wouldn't take hold until he started recording the third one.

Even though Every Picture Tells a Story, for contractual reasons, couldn't be called a Faces album, it is at times. The ragtag mix of country, blues and folk filtered through a boozy rock 'n' roll ethic is part of the band's and the album's DNA, and the group that backed Stewart on Story – fellow Faces members Wood, Kenney Jones, Ronnie Lane and Ian McLagan all appear, along with other musicians who get into the spirit of things – plays the role perfectly.

Listen to Rod Stewart Perform 'Maggie May'

From the start, Every Picture Tells a Story sounds like a statement of purpose. The opening title track, cowritten by Stewart and Wood, is almost totally acoustic and manages to rock harder than songs with 10 times the amp power. And it's everything an opening, title track should be: an introduction, a summation, a defining moment of a classic album's path.

By shoving aside the somewhat reserved atmosphere of his first two albums and adapting the runaway-train approach the Faces would apply to Long Player (released a few months before Every Picture Tells a Story) and A Nod Is as Good as a Wink ... to a Blind Horse (which came out later in the year), Stewart turned in a career-making performance that's all bluesy, boozy swagger and rock-star flash.

If anyone needed further proof, it was right there about 15 minutes later, when "Maggie May" shows up between a pair of acoustic numbers – a 30-second instrumental intro to "Maggie May" called "Henry" and "Mandolin Wind," the only cut on Picture to be credited solely to Stewart – and announces rock's biggest new star.

The soulful kick of the Temptations cover "(I Know I'm) Losing You" and the album-closing take on folksinger Tim Hardin's "Reason to Believe" helped form Stewart's early-'70s persona on the album, which reached No. 1. ("Maggie May," originally the B-side of "Reason to Believe," also made it to No. 1.) A couple of tracks may get lost in the shuffle – the plodding "Seems Like a Long Time" follows that killer title track and seems like a lost cause – but coming off a pair of albums that few people heard, they're small bumps along the way.

Stewart (and apparently the record company and everybody else involved) liked Every Picture Tells a Story so much that they repeated it the next year with Never a Dull Moment, which featured the same band, the same acoustic-rock groove and almost the same results: The "Maggie May"-like single "You Wear It Well" stalled outside of the Top 10, but the album made it to No. 2.

By the middle of the decade, Stewart had left the Faces, and their sound, behind. Ups and downs coursed through his career for the next 40 years, but Every Picture Tells a Story made him a star – and it's rightfully the work that continues to identify him, years after "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?" and those standards albums gather dust.

It's also a landmark record of the '70s, one that casually flows with warmth, sex and the sense that something big is on the horizon.

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