Has there ever been a more entertaining song containing–as critic Robert Christgau enumerated— “slavery, interracial sex, cunnilingus, and less distinctly, sadomasochism, lost virginity, rape and heroin” as the Rolling Stones’ 1971 “Brown Sugar”? The song’s lyrics lay in wait for those who hear it in passing on classic rock radio, like an un-PC land mine. And you’ll only step on one when you’re dancing.
Last week, the Rolling Stones promoted the re-release/remaster/repackage of their 1971 album Sticky Fingers with an alternative take of the song, featuring Eric Clapton on slide guitar, and a sloppier, more festive sound. It’s the first official release of a version long since bootlegged.
Unlike many alternative versions found on deluxe editions, this recording came after the classic track was recorded, but the path of Sticky Fingers was a convoluted one.
For starters, it was Mick Jagger, not Keith Richards, who came up with the opening riff, something he wrote while in Australia filming Tony Richardson’s Ned Kelly as a way of rehabilitating his hand after injuring it. Jagger says he had Freddy Cannon’s rough-around-the-edges 1959 “Tallahassee Lassie” in mind, though you might be hard pressed to hear the influence.
The Stones recorded “Brown Sugar” at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Sheffield, Alabama in early December, 1969. It was just a few days after the release of their epochal Let It Bleed, and a week after the New York and Baltimore concerts recorded for Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!. Brian Jones was nearly half a year dead. Guitarist Mick Taylor was new.
And Muscle Shoals was not yet a studio of legend. It had been the home of one hit: R.B. Greaves’ humping-the-secretary single “Take a Letter, Maria.” Memphis was nearby and had better studios, but the Stones wanted to check out this new place.
On the first night, they recorded a cover of “You Gotta Move” by Mississippi Fred McDowell that ends side one of the album. The next day, they recorded “Brown Sugar.” Mick Jagger told a reporter upon entering the studio: “I’ve got a new one myself. No words yet, but a few words in my head – called Brown Sugar – about a woman who screws one of her black servants. I started to call it Black Pussy but I decided that was too direct, too nitty-gritty.”
Jim Dickinson, Muscle Shoals producer and session piano player, is quoted in Keith Richard’s 2010 book Life, “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!” Many years later Marsha Hunt, Jagger’s secret girlfriend at the time and mother of his first child Karis, would reveal the song was indeed about her, which makes the taboos of slavery and rape in the lyrics all that more disturbing.
The next day, the band focused on another new song called “Wild Horses” and then they were back on the road, premiering “Brown Sugar” at the disastrous concert at the Altamont Speedway where several people died.
The band wanted to release the song, but contractual problems with former label ABKCO halted their plans.
A year later, while the majority of Sticky Fingers had been recorded, the group celebrated Keith Richards’ birthday at Olympic Studios in London. The alternative version above comes from that party and features Al Kooper on piano and Eric Clapton on slide. Richards preferred this version, but it never made the cut, and listening to it now the official version sounds like the obvious choice: the sound of Muscle Shoals is undeniable.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.