Hear the Never Released Version of The Stones’ “Brown Sugar,” With Eric Clapton on Slide Guitar

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mick Jag­ger Tells the Sto­ry Behind ‘Gimme Shel­ter’ and Mer­ry Clayton’s Haunt­ing Back­ground Vocals

The Rolling Stones Release a Soul­ful, Nev­er-Heard Acoustic Ver­sion of “Wild Hors­es”

Watch the Rolling Stones Write “Sym­pa­thy for the Dev­il”: From Jean-Luc Godard’s ’68 Film One Plus One

Gimme Shel­ter: Watch the Clas­sic Doc­u­men­tary of the Rolling Stones’ Dis­as­trous Con­cert at Alta­mont

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.

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