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ROLLING STONES SONGS: ‘BROWN SUGAR’ (1971)

Rolling Stones songs: Brown Sugar
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MORE ROLLING STONES SONGS 1962-PRESENT

Now I bet your mama was a tent show queen/ And all her boyfriends were sweet sixteen…

Also known as: BLACK PUSSY
Written by: Jagger/Richard
Recorded: Muscle Shoals, Alabama, USA, Dec. 1-4 1969; Olympic Sound Studios, London, England, Dec. 15 1969-Apr. 24 1970
Guest musicians: Bobby Keys (sax)
*Data taken from Martin Elliott’s book THE ROLLING STONES COMPLETE RECORDING SESSIONS 1962-2012

From Songfacts:
The lyric is about slaves from Africa who were sold in New Orleans and raped by their white masters. The subject matter is quite serious, but the way the song is structured, it comes off as a fun rocker about a white guy having sex with a black girl.

Mick Jagger wrote the lyric. According to Bill Wyman, it was partially inspired by a black backup singer named Claudia Lennear, who was one of Ike Turner’s Ikettes. She and Jagger met when The Stones toured with Turner in 1969. David Bowie also wrote his Aladdin Sane track “Lady Grinning Soul” about Lennear.

American-born singer Marsha Hunt is also sometimes cited as the inspiration for the song. She and Jagger met when she was a member of the cast in the London production of the musical Hair, and their relationship, a closely guarded secret until 1972, resulted in a daughter named Karis.

According to the book Up And Down With The Rolling Stones by Tony Sanchez, all the slavery and whipping is a double meaning for the perils of being “mastered” by Brown Heroin, or “Brown Sugar.” The drug cooks brown in a spoon.

The Rolling Stones recorded this in the musically rich but luxury deprived city of Sheffield, Alabama, where Jerry Wexler of the group’s label, Atlantic Records, often sent his acts. The Stones arrived in Sheffield on December 2, 1969, stayed until the 4th, then performed their fateful Altamont Speedway concert on December 6, where they performed this song live for the first time. At the show, a fan was stabbed to death by a Hells Angels security guard.

During their three days in Alabama, The Stones recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, which opened in May 1969 when four of the musicians from FAME Studios left to establish their own company. “Wild Horses” and “You Gotta Move” also came out of these sessions, making it a very productive stop. The engineer at the Muscle Shoals sessions was Jimmy Johnson, the producer/guitarist who was one of the studio’s founders. The Rolling Stones engineer Glyn Johns added overdubs in England (including horns), but he left Johnson’s mix intact. Johnson says that Johns called him from England to compliment him on the mix.

Even though this was recorded in December 1969, The Stones did not release it until April 1971 because of a legal dispute with their former manager, Allen Klein, over royalties. Recording technology had advanced by then, but they didn’t re-record it because the original version was such a powerful take.

Mick Jagger started writing this while he was filming the movie Ned Kelly in the Australian outback. He’s been in a few movies, including Performance, Freejack and The Man From Elysian Fields. Jagger recalled to Uncut in 2015: “I wrote it in the middle of a field, playing an electric guitar through headphones, which was a new thing then.”

In Keith Richards’ 2010 autobiography Life, it floats a theory as to what the lyrics “Scarred old slaver know he doin’ alright” are all about. Some poor guy at their publishing company probably came up with that transcription for the lyrics, but Jagger was most likely singing “Skydog Slaver,” as “Skydog” was a nickname for Muscle Shoals regular Duane Allman because he was high all the time.

A year after this was first recorded, The Stones cut another version at Olympic Studios in London with Eric Clapton on guitar and Al Kooper on keyboards. It was considered for release as the single, but was shelved until 2015 when it appeared the a Sticky Fingers reissue.

Originally, Mick Jagger wrote this as “Black Pussy.” He decided that was a little too direct and changed it to “Brown Sugar.”

This was the first song released on Rolling Stones Records, The Stones subsidiary label of Atlantic Records. They used the now-famous tongue for their logo.

The album cover was designed by Andy Warhol. It was a close-up photo of a man wearing tight jeans, and contained a real zipper. This caused considerable problems in shipping, but was the kind of added value that made the album much more desirable (you don’t get this kind of stuff with CDs or downloads).

Sticky Fingers also marked the first appearance of the famous tongue and lips logo, which was printed on the inner sleeve. The logo was designed by John Pasche, who was fresh out of art school (the Royal College of Art in London).

“Brown Sugar” was used in commercials for Kahlua and Pepsi. The Stones have made big bucks licensing their songs for ads.

The fortunate souls who got to see The Rolling Stones on their nine-date UK tour in 1971 got a preview of this song, since it was included on the setlist even though Sticky Fingers wouldn’t be released for another month.

This was one of four songs The Stones had to agree not to play when they were allowed to perform in China. After getting approval to play in China for the first time in 2003, they canceled because of SARS, a respiratory illness that was going around the country.

Jimmy Johnson, who was a guitar player for the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (also known as “The Swampers”), engineered the sessions that produced this song as well as “Wild Horses” and “You Gotta Move.” Johnson worked with many artists, including Aretha Franklin, Bobby Womack, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Johnnie Taylor.

Artists to cover this song include Little Richard, Collin Raye and Alice Russell. Bob Dylan performed it on his 2002 US tour.

ZZ Top released a completely different song called “Brown Sugar” in 1971, and “D’Angelo” released his own song with that title in 1995. In 2002, a movie called Brown Sugar was released with a title song by Mos Def called “Brown Sugar (Extra Sweet).”

In 327BC Alexander the Great came across the cultivation of sugar cane in India. From this reed, a dark brown sugar was extracted from the cane by chewing and sucking. Some of this “sweet reed” was sent back to Athens. This was the first time a European had come across sugar. (From the book Food for Thought: Extraordinary Little Chronicles of the World by Ed Pearce)

The bootleg version which has Eric Clapton playing lead slide guitar was recorded at a birthday party for Keith Richards. It is widely considered to have been part of an informal audition by Clapton to become The Stones second guitarist. The bootleg version shows why Clapton likely did not get offered the job, or withdrew himself from consideration: While Clapton plays a million notes a minute, his lead has almost no interaction with the rest of the band. It is like a studio musician simply playing along with a CD that has already been recorded.

In many interviews, Richards has spoken admiringly of his good friend Clapton’s musicianship, but has always commented that the two-guitar sound he and Ron Wood have developed is not Eric’s cup of tea.

This features Bobby Keys on saxophone. A favorite of The Rolling Stones, having guested notably on Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street, he was also heard on John Lennon and Elton John’s hit “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night” and on classic albums like George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On.

The year after this was released, Randy Newman released a much more earnest song dealing with slavery: “Sail Away.”

This song gets a mention in the 2002 episode of The Wire, “A Man Must Have A Code.” When a group of detectives are listening to a phone call they intercepted, one of them can figure out what’s being said while the others are baffled. Asked how he can decipher the mumble, he speaks the opening lines of “Brown Sugar” (“Gold Coast slave ship bound for cotton fields, sold in a market down in New Orleans”) and says, “I bet you’ve heard that song 500 times but you never knew, right? I used to put my head to the stereo speaker and play that record over and over.”

“Brown Sugar” was a staple of Rolling Stones setlists until 2021, when they dropped the song. Asked why by the LA Times, Keith Richards said, “I don’t know. I’m trying to figure out with the sisters quite where the beef is. Didn’t they understand this was a song about the horrors of slavery? But they’re trying to bury it.”

Mick Jagger gave this explanation: “We’ve played ‘Brown Sugar’ every night since 1970, so sometimes you think, We’ll take that one out for now and see how it goes.’ We might put it back in.”

From the The Rolling Stones – All the Songs book:
It was during the shooting of Ned Kelly in Australia, under the direction of
Tony Richardson, that Mick Jagger, with a light wound to his hand, wrote
the first few lines of “Brown Sugar” and came up with the riff (on the
electric guitar) that was destined to become one of the most famous in the
Rolling Stones’ repertoire. Keith Richards really liked it when he heard it
for the first time: “I’m the riff master. The only one I missed and that Mick
Jagger got was ‘Brown Sugar,’ and I’ll tip my hat there. There he got me. I
did tidy it up a bit, but that was his, words and music.” Mick finished
writing the lyrics at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios. Jim Dickinson, the
pianist who participated in the sessions, recalls with some emotion: “I
watched Mick write the lyrics. It took him maybe forty-five minutes; it was
disgusting. He wrote it down as fast as he could move his hand. I’d never
seen anything like it. He had one of those yellow legal pads, and he’d write
a verse a page, just write a verse and then turn the page, and when he had
three pages filled, they started to cut it. It was amazing!”
And many more words have been written about these lyrics by other
people over the years. At first reading it seems obvious what the song is
about: the heinous days of slavery in the United States, when the plantation
owners in the Southern states (New Orleans in this instance) used female
slaves for their sexual gratification. Like the bluesmen before him, however,
Mick Jagger plays with a double meaning in this song. “Brown Sugar”
certainly refers to the black slaves shipped to America, and more
particularly to their private parts (the song’s first title being “Black Pussy”).
But the term brown sugar also refers to heroin, that hardest of hard drugs.
“God knows what I’m on about on that song,” admits the Stones singer.
“It’s such a mishmash. All the nasty subjects in one go.” It is not
impossible that Mick Jagger wrote “Brown Sugar” with the African-
American singer and model Marsha Hunt, with whom he had a secret
liaison, and who gave him his first child, Karis Jagger (born November 4,
1970), in mind. It is also surely possible that this song was inspired by his
friend Claudia Lennear, a backing singer with Ike & Tina Turner. From here
it is only a small step to the conclusion that Mick Jagger is insinuating that
sex with a black woman is as addictive as heroin…
“Brown Sugar,” which opens Sticky Fingers, was released as a single
(with “Bitch” and a live version of “Let It Rock” on the B-side) in the
United Kingdom on April 16, 1971, and reached number 2 on May 15. The
song would get to number 1 in the United States and Switzerland, number 2
in France, and number 4 in West Germany.

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