Brown Sugar (Rolling Stones song)
"Brown Sugar" is a song recorded by the English rock band the Rolling Stones. Written primarily by Mick Jagger, it is the opening track and lead single from their album Sticky Fingers (1971). It became a number one hit in both the United States and Canada. In the United Kingdom and Ireland, it charted at number two. In the United States, Billboard ranked it as the number 18 song for 1971. 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.
|Single by The Rolling Stones|
|from the album Sticky Fingers|
|B-side||"Bitch"/"Let It Rock" (UK)|
|Released||16 April 1971|
|Recorded||2–4 December 1969|
|Studio||Muscle Shoals Sound, Sheffield, Alabama|
|The Rolling Stones singles chronology|
Inspiration and recordingEdit
Though credited to Jagger–Richards, "Brown Sugar" was primarily the work of Jagger, who wrote it sometime during the filming of Ned Kelly in 1969. According to Marsha Hunt, Jagger's then-girlfriend and the mother of his first child Karis, he wrote the song with her in mind. Former Ikette Claudia Lennear disputes this claim, saying that it was written about her. In 2014, Lennear told The Times that she is the subject of the song because she was dating Jagger when it was written. Bill Wyman stated in his book Rolling with the Stones (2002) that the lyrics were partially inspired by Lennear.
"Brown Sugar" was recorded over a three-day period at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield, Alabama, from 2 to 4 December 1969. The song was not released until over a year later due to legal wranglings with the band's former label. At the request of guitarist Mick Taylor (who had joined the band as Brian Jones' replacement in July 1969), the Stones debuted the number live during the infamous concert at the Altamont Speedway on 6 December 1969.
In the liner notes to the compilation album Jump Back (1993), Jagger says, "The lyric was all to do with the dual combination of drugs and girls. This song was a very instant thing, a definite high point".
In the Rolling Stone interview (14 December 1995, RS 723) Jagger spoke at length about the song, its inspiration and success, and taking credit for writing the lyrics. Keith Richards also credits Jagger with the song in his autobiography. Jagger attributed the success of the song to a "good groove". After noting that the lyrics could mean so many lewd subjects, he again noted that the combination of those subjects, the lyrical ambiguity was partially why the song was considered successful. He noted, "That makes it... the whole mess thrown in. God knows what I'm on about on that song. It's such a mishmash. All the nasty subjects in one go... I never would write that song now." When interviewer Jann Wenner asked him why, Jagger replied, "I would probably censor myself. I'd think, 'Oh God, I can't. I've got to stop. I can't just write raw like that.'"
An alternative version was recorded on 18 December 1970, at Olympic Studios in London, during a birthday party for Richards and Bobby Keys. It features appearances by Al Kooper on piano, and Eric Clapton on slide guitar. The alternative version, which had previously been available only on bootleg recordings, was released in June 2015 on the Deluxe and Super Deluxe editions of the reissued Sticky Fingers album.
"Brown Sugar" was released in April 1971 as the first single from the album. While the US single featured only "Bitch" as the B-side, the British single featured that track plus a live rendition of Chuck Berry's "Let It Rock", recorded at the University of Leeds during the 1971 tour of the United Kingdom.
The song is also the first single released on Rolling Stones Records (catalogue number RS-19100) and is one of the two Stones songs (along with "Wild Horses") licensed to both the band and former manager Allen Klein (a result of various business disagreements) resulting in its inclusion on the compilation album Hot Rocks 1964–1971. "Brown Sugar" is also included on the most significant latter-day Rolling Stones compilations, Jump Back, Forty Licks and GRRR!.
To promote the song, the Rolling Stones performed on Top of the Pops with the performance taped sometime around late March 1971, and being shown on 15 April and 6 May. They performed "Brown Sugar", "Wild Horses" and "Bitch" for the show's segment dedicated to albums, which was shown on 22 April 1971; due to BBC practices at the time, the performances were erased and all that remains is "Brown Sugar". Saxophone player Trevor Lawrence mimes to Bobby Keys's actual solo.
In the United Kingdom, the single was originally issued in mono using a now-rarely heard bespoke mono mix. This mono mix has never been used on any compilation.
The song was performed routinely during the Stones' 1970 European Tour, occupying a prominent spot near the end of the set list even though audiences were unfamiliar with it. The band opened the shows of their infamous 1972 American Tour with "Brown Sugar", and it has since become a Stones concert staple. However, in more recent times Jagger has changed some of the more controversial lyrics when performing the song live. For example, the first verse line 'I hear him whip the women just around midnight' has been replaced with the more simple 'you should have heard him just around midnight.'
In October 2021, The Los Angeles Times reported that Jagger and Richards had stated that they would be reluctantly dropping the song from their concert setlist due to its controversial lyrics, though they expressed hope to bring it back in the future. "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. At the moment I don't want to get into conflicts with all of this shit. But I'm hoping that we'll be able to resurrect the babe in her glory somewhere along the track", Richards said. Jagger said of the song "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." The song was last performed live in August 2019.
Writing for Sounds in 1971, Penny Valentine praised "Brown Sugar", stating that it was her "choice as the best track". Writing for The Rag, rock critic Mike Saunders found the single to be the "only especially noteworthy" track of Sticky Fingers (1971).
The lyrical subject matter has often been a point of interest and controversy. Described by rock critic Robert Christgau as "a rocker so compelling that it discourages exegesis", "Brown Sugar"'s popularity indeed often overshadowed its provocative lyrics, which were essentially a pastiche of a number of taboo subjects, including slavery, rape, interracial sex, cunnilingus, sadomasochism, lost virginity, and heroin. Fifty years later, critic Tom Taylor concludes that the song "does not offer one considered thought to the subject matter that it sings of..." and "the atrocity of the slave trade, rape and the unimaginable suffering therein should not be adorned with gyrating, glib lyrics, guitar solos and no redeeming features in the way of discerned appraisal."
In 2019, music producer Ian Brennan wrote a piece for The Chicago Tribune condemning the song for its lyrics, calling out the themes of "slavery, rape, torture and pedophilia" heard in "Brown Sugar" and calling for the song to be pulled from the radio and the band's setlist. "The violence and stereotypes depicted by the lyrics of the Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar" are repulsive, yet the song continues to be broadcast without a peep by radio stations around the world and is blasted in cafes, airports, gyms, shopping centers and the ilk, even now well into the #MeToo and #TimesUp era," Brennan wrote.
|United Kingdom (BPI)
|United Kingdom (BPI)
^ Shipments figures based on certification alone.
The Rolling Stones
- Mick Jagger – lead vocals, percussion
- Keith Richards – electric guitar, acoustic guitar, backing vocals
- Mick Taylor – electric guitar
- Bill Wyman – bass
- Charlie Watts – drums
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