Rolling Stones – Brown Sugar

If I ever met an alien and he/she/it wanted to know what rock and roll looked and sounded like…I would give them a picture of Keith Richards in 1972 and a copy of Brown Sugar. Next to Start Me Up…this song is probably the Stones most worn out song but that doesn’t mean it’s not a great song especially for those hearing it for the first time…or even the hundredth.

Mick Jagger wrote most of the music and lyrics to this song although as always it’s credited to Jagger/Richards. Keith taught Mick the 5 string G tuning and Mick came up with the great classic riff in this song.

The song peaked at #1 in the Billboard 100, #2 in the UK, #1 in Canada, and #11 in New Zealand in 1971.

Evidently China wasn’t a fan…  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.

Rolling Stone magazine ranked it number 495 on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and at number five on their list of the 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time.

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, since 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).

This 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.

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

Gold Coast slave ship bound for cotton fields
Sold in the market down in New Orleans
Scarred old slaver knows he’s doin’ all right
Hear him whip the women just around midnight

Brown sugar, how come you taste so good
Brown sugar, just like a young girl should

Drums beatin’ cold, English blood runs hot
Lady of the house wonderin’ when it’s gonna stop
House boy knows that he’s doin’ all right
You should have heard him just around midnight

Brown sugar, how come you taste so good
Brown sugar, just like a young girl should

Brown sugar, how come you dance so good
Brown sugar, just like a black girl should

I bet your mama was a Cajun Queen
And all her boyfriends were sweet sixteen
I’m no school boy but I know what I like
You should have heard them just around midnight

Brown sugar, how come you taste so good
Brown sugar, just like a black girl should

I said, yeah, yeah, yeah, woo
How come you, how come you dance so good
Yeah, yeah, yeah, woo
Just like a, just like a black girl should
Yeah, yeah, yeah, woo

….

Author: badfinger20 (Max)

Power Pop fan, Baseball fan, old movie and tv show fan... and a songwriter, bass and guitar player.

38 thoughts on “Rolling Stones – Brown Sugar”

  1. They make this a really fun song in their concerts, which is such a huge contrast to the layered and sobering lyrics. I didn’t realize it was even recorded in the US South. About Start Me Up, I never understood why that song got so big.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They do make it fun. I do still enjoy it and it does ring much more truer to me than Start Me Up…with that song it’s the opening riff…it grabs your attention…at least me

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great write-up Max and this is the first time i ever read anything about Brown Sugar, which is a great rock song. I am going to write about Gimme Shelter tomorrow and follow that up with Sweet Home Alabama, which mentions the Swampers, so it would fit right in with your post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh cool…Sweet Home Alabama is almost a book to itself. I never understood the confusion about the song as much because of the “boo boo boo” on the governor…but some people see it different…looking forward to it.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yea and Van Zant didn’t like him. Funny they were associated with Alabama and they were from Florida and made it in Georgia.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. As I said, one the most thrilling rock songs in which Keith Richard shows his riff talent. The dubious aftertaste is the ambiguous and unambiguous text. Jagger first called the song “Black Pussy”. But then he found that too obvious and changed the title to “Brown Sugar”.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. The biggest rumor about the song I’d like to know is the one about “skydog” Duane Allman. I never heard Mick confirm if that is what he was singing and he never will I’m sure. I’m sure they didn’t know him at the time but loved the sound of his nickname.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Agreed, Max! Jagger wrote the song in 1969 while he filmed “Ned Kelly”, but no one has ever heard him sing under the original title. There are people who say the lyrics are about heroin. But probably not about brown sugar for tea or coffee. Anyway – it’s good music to dance to!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Once in a while an acknowledged classic rock track just rubs me the wrong way, and this is one of ’em. It makes sense it follows on from the sound of Honky Tonk Women, but it went from one of their greatest to one of their most over-rated for me 😦

    I didn’t know all the stuff about Marsha Hunt, she was around the music biz quite a bit in the early 70’s without ever getting that well known. Presumably getting pregnant and bringing a little Jagger on the quiet will do that to you….!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As with the Stones…its pretty sleazy but that is just them. I do like that guitar riff…being a guitar player the pattern they play is very inventive. Is it my favorite song by them? NO… that would be Memory Motel.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Well, it is overplayed but it is a pretty good straight ahead R&R song. somewhat ironic Stones losing the Chinese tour because of SARS- they then came to Toronto and headlined a major concert as a benefit for SARS (both to give money to victims I think & promote tourism for the city… oddly, toronto was the only city outside of China that seemed to have a major outbreak of it.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is ironic about the SARS deal… I’m glad they did that.
      yea it is worn out but I can still listen to it…more than Start Me Up.

      Like

    1. We played this song and for years I would sing it. When we got our original singer back he asked me how to sing it…I said DON’T go by the lyrics….just mimic what Mick does…make the same kind of sounds he does or it won’t work…and it doesn’t if you go by the lyrics.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. p.s. I love how you started out the post:
    “If I ever met an alien and he/she/it wanted to know what rock and roll looked and sounded like…I would give them a picture of Keith Richards in 1972 and a copy of Brown Sugar. “

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Though I’ve heard this song hundreds of times, I honestly didn’t know it was about slaves from Africa who were sold in New Orleans and raped by their white masters. I feel stupid to admit I never understood the words in the opening line “Gold Coast slave ship bound for cotton fields”, also never bothering to look them up. Oh well…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Who knows if that is what he really sang…its almost impossible to tell. Mick made a living out of phrasing things so different.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. You know, I’ve never actually *looked* carefully at the lyrics. Yikes. Did not know the background. I’m surprised the woke crowd hasn’t slammed it.

    I like it and it has gotten a LOT of airplay but, I lean more towards Honky Tonk Women.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well it’s sleaze…. the Stones do sleaze lol…if this was the Beatles…then you would hear something probably. They did get a lot of flak for Under My Thumb.

      Like

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