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Brown Sugar – Rolling Stones

There has been a good deal of speculation as to whom ‘Brown Sugar’ was about…

Brown Sugar – Rolling Stones

Rolling Stones RS 19100 (UK/USA)

Recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound, Alabama (1969) & Olympic, London (1970)

Released 16th April 1971

Writers Mick Jagger & Keith Richards

Producer Jimmy Miller

UK #2   5/71   USA #1   1/5/71  2 weeks

Released a week before Sticky Fingers, the album from which it came, ‘Brown Sugar’ appeared in Britain as a 3-track single including ‘Bitch’ and the non-album live track, ‘Let It Rock’. This was the first release on the group’s Rolling Stones label with the familiar ‘tongue’ trademark (designed by Andy Warhol, who also created the famous Sticky Fingers ‘zip-fastener’ album sleeve), a worldwide deal struck with Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic Records. As before at Decca, the Stones licensed their recordings to Atlantic, but this time they made sure that they owned the masters which they were able to take with them when the deal with Atlantic ended. This was rather different from the situation with the Decca material.


The group’s erstwhile manager Allen Klein and his ABCKO company had managed to obtain the rights to all the Stones 1960s masters and thus the group still have no control over that material in 2017. Klein also owned ‘Brown Sugar’ and the Sticky Fingers album track ‘Wild Horses’ since the songs, though not released until 1971, were recorded in 1969, and came under his management agreement which covered the Decca/London years. His ABCKO company also maintains control over the publishing rights to all this material plus the entire Sticky Fingers album, an unhappy situation, not unlike Paul McCartney’s loss of his Northern Songs/Dick James Music Beatles copyrights first to Associated Televison, and later to Michael Jackson. (Since Jackson died, these copyrights have now passed into the hands of Sony Music who’d lent him a few hundred million dollars using the Beatles’ copyrights as security)

There has been a good deal of speculation as to whom ‘Brown Sugar’ was about, if not a composite of various African-American women Jagger had dated including, Claudia Lennear of Ike & Tina Turner’s backing singers, the Ikettes, and Marsha Hunt with whom Jagger had a child, Karis, born in November 1970. ‘Brown Sugar’ was also a euphemism for heroin, though Jagger had originally called the song, ‘Black Pussy’, a title he later decided was a little too direct! Written in a field in Australia during the summer of 1969 while he was filming Ned Kelly, Jagger has recalled, “I’ve written riffs that people assume are Keith’s. That was the first one I did. I’ve done many since.” ‘Brown Sugar’ was recorded at Muscle Shoals, Alabama in early December while the band were on the US tour that would culminate in the notorious free concert at the Altamont Speedway where 18-year-old Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death by a Hell’s Angels security guard. Documented in the movie Gimme Shelter, the band were performing ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ at the time. They also played ‘Brown Sugar’ at Altamont, the first time it was played live, though it would be some while before the track appeared on record.

As previously mentioned, the Stones financed and recorded their own material which was then passed on to Decca for release, and consequently they were under no obligation to give Decca ‘Brown Sugar’ even though it was recorded in December 1969 while the group were still under contract to the company. The track also featured Bobby Keys on saxophone and regular Stones studio keyboards man Ian Stewart on piano, overdubs added in London the following year. Relations between Decca and the Stones had always been ‘strained’ to say the least with endless quarrels regarding lyrics, album covers, etc.

Their final studio album for Decca, Let It Bleed, was in fact released on the 5th of December 1969 while the band were still in America, and just a few days after they’d laid down ‘Brown Sugar’. When the group’s contract came to an end in July 1970, they still owed Decca/London one final single, but instead of giving the company ‘Brown Sugar’, in a final act of humourous defiance they delivered the unreleasable ‘Cocksucker Blues’, saving ‘Brown Sugar’ for their custom label debut in 1971. (Decca UK released ‘Street Fighting Man’ instead, a 1968 US only single from Beggars’s Banquet) There is another version of the song that was recorded in 1970, as Keith Richards has explained; “We cut a version of ‘Brown Sugar’ with Al Kooper, it was a good track. He’s playing piano on it at Bobby Keys’ and my birthday party, which was held at Olympic Studios.” Apparently Eric Clapton also plays on this version, though it has never been officially released, and only appears on numerous bootleg albums.


Copyright © 2017 SongStories/Tony Burton

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