Brown Sugar

Brown Sugar
The Rolling Stones
Rolling Stones Records # RS19100
Released April 1971

From Sticky Fingers album.

The new Rolling Stones Records company sleeve, first used on Brown Sugar, RS19100

MUSICIANS
Mick Jagger- lead vocal, percussion
Keith Richards – electric guitar, acoustic guitar, backing vocals
Mick Taylor- electric guitar
Bill Wyman – bass guitar
Charlie Watts – drums
+
Ian Stewart – piano
Bobby Keys – saxophone

CHART:
US Billboard #1
UK #2
Canada #1
Germany #4
Ireland #2

ROLLING STONE #5 Best 100 Guitar Songs of All Time

ALBUM:
UK #1 for 5 weeks
US #1, triple platinum
Also #1 in Australia, Canada, Germany, Netherlands, Spain, Norway, Sweden

2015 reissue
US #5, UK #7

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

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

1971

I remember exactly where I heard Sticky Fingers for the first time. A new record shop, the back corner of the Criterion Arcade in Bournemouth. The first place I’d ever seen with listening posts and headphones instead of listening booths. It blew me away. I bought it immediately. To me, it’s the second best Rolling Stones album … Let It Bleed is the best. I’m not an Exile on Main Street fan.

I think we all need to listen to the song to get the context of the discussion.

You can discuss this. There is a comments box, but unlike Facebook, it’s not instant as I have to Approve it. This is basically a SPAM filter and I won’t censor any comments.

October 2021

So The Rolling Stones have dropped Brown Sugar from their 2021 set list. Reports quote a “critic” called Tom Taylor:

“A disgraceful act of gratuitous juvenilia, relishing on the ability to offend, rather than a considered analysis of the subject at hand.. 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. …

Tom Taylor, FAR out, 16 April 2021

Mary Whitehouse has been reincarnated then as a pompous fart. Considered analysis? Discerned appraisal? It’s a fucking ROCK SONG.

I have no idea of who this Mr Taylor is, but he may well be labouring on his thesis on Sexist Stereotypes in The Works of M. Jagger and K. Richards in the Department of Woke Studies at the University of Aldershot. This will run to several thousand pages … Stupid Girl, Honky Tonk Women, Some Girls, Under My Thumb, Beast of Burden, Starf*cker, Mothers Little Helper, Back Street Girl … the list would be endless. No one is going to stand up and declare Mick Jagger is a model of non-sexist behaviour.

In my case, I’m playing the song loud, and gyrating cheerfully and miming air guitar solos. I despair of a generation with no irony that believes history can be eradicated and rewritten in their own image.

What is the fuss about?

Keith Richards: 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 itI don’t want to get into conflict 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.
LA Times

Mick Jagger: 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.
LA Times

Mick Jagger (1995): Brown sugar being heroin and… the whole mess [is] thrown in. God knows what I’m on about in that song. It’s such a mishmash. All the nasty subjects in one go. I’d never write that song now … I’d probably censor myself. I’d think, ‘Oh God, I can’t. I’ve got to stop. I can’t just write raw like that.
Rolling Stone, 14 December 1995

Brown Sugar is gross, sexist and stunningly offensive to black women.
Vulture, 2015

Ian Brennan: 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. The issue is not that they ever wrote the song. Nor that they have ever sung it. The fault is that they keep singing it.
Chicago Tribune 13 October 2019

Ian Brennan: That they now retire the song is a victory. But that the band continue to play coy as to the reasons for their decision rather than just making a frank admission of the inappropriateness of the lyrics as the reason why they have chosen to no longer play the song live is an opportunity for healing and leadership missed.
Reported in The Guardian, 14 October 2021

(The thing is, Mick and Keith, stopping playing the song is not enough for these people. You have to make a public admission of guilt, bow your heads, apologize humbly and promise never to do it again).

Of course, the real surprise may be that Brown Sugar lasted as long as it did. Even before the idea of “cultural appropriation” caught on, it was risky for The Stones to conjure with the demons of black slavery as they do in the first verse … Nobody blinked at those lyrics in the early 70s. Over the decades however, Jagger has discreetly censored himself.
Ed Power, The Telegraph, 13 October 2021,

Piers Morgan: I’m getting no satisfaction from seeing The Rolling Stones surrender to the woke brigade – when the charts are full of rappers glorifying violent sex, misogyny and guns, why is Brown Sugar the song that is deemed offensive?
Mail Online, October 2021

ADDED 23 OCTOBER:

Daily Mail 22 October 2021

An organised group of woke activists systematically targeted hundreds of thousands of devotees around the world by infiltrating their online fan club. The group of campaigners posed as hardcore Stones superfans to get access to the online subscription fan club IORR (named after their song It’s Only Rock and Roll ) before relentlessly hammering fans and discussion threads with angry political trolling posts slamming the song’s reference to slavery, The aggressive assault on the 40 year old club caused such a wave of hysteria among the fanbase and management that the band members felt compelled to make an announcement that the track would no longer be performed … Norwegian superfan Bjornulf Vik has now been forced to shut down the club’s subscription service and has started a widescale cull of new members to try and kick out the “woke” interlopersVik said, “IORR has been spammed by political posts related to Brown Sugar recently. It seems like it is impossible for some to discuss Brown Sugar without getting highly political and offensive.
Richard Eden, Daily Mail 22 October 2021

Thanks to Brien Szabo for posting this side-by-side Brown Sugar / Rap comparison on my Facebook page:

So the song …

Brown Sugar: The Rolling Stones, Rolling Stones Records 1971, rare picture sleeve

It opens Sticky Fingers in 1971. Yes, the album with the Andy Warhol sleeve with a real zip set in. You will see how many fans store their albums chronologically by the number of secondhand copies of Exile in Main Street sleeves with a dent from the zip on the back.

They’re all holding a copy on the rare picture sleeve above. Charlie Watts is just holding it. Somehow it’s staying up of its own accord on Mick Taylor (whats he propping it up with?) Bill Wyman has dropped his trousers, Keith Richards is campily revealing the zip front over his bum, and Mick Jagger has his hands about to go down the front to adjust the piece of hose pipe he was alleged to have stored in his pants.

It’s claimed that the original title was Black Pussy, and certainly young girl was black girl.

Mick Jagger: At the end of the 60s I had a little more time to sit around and play guitar, writing songs rather than lyrics for the first time. Brown Sugar was one of those songs. I wrote it in Australia, somewhere between Melbourne and Sydney, while I was in my trailer filming “Ned Kelly” – I had a whole bunch of time out there. I was simply writing what I wanted to write, not trying to test the waters.
Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Ronnie Wood: According To The Rolling Stones, 2003

Muscle Shoals

It was one of the first two songs they recorded at 3614 Jackson Highway, Muscles Shoals, Alabama.

In The Rolling Stones: Old Gods Almost Dead, Stephen Davis describes the studio as ‘where Aretha Franklin and other Atlantic soul stars did their most down home recordings.’ Not true. That was FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals … 3614 Jackson Highway was bought by the rhythm section on those records. Coincidentally, the next album in the Reviled series here is Cher’s 3614 Jackson Highway, the first album ever recorded there, just a few weeks before The Rolling Stones. The Stones had originally planned to record in Memphis, but their visas only allowed them to tour, but not to record. Jim Dickinson suggested they go to Alabama, as no one would know they were there. Stanley Booth accompanied them, with the Atlantic bosses.

Booth says that Jerry Wexler, the boss of Atlantic, had considered recording in Miami, but found that no one there had heard of The Band (an important criteria for Wexler). Wexler had used Muscle Shoals for Ronnie Hawkins’ Down in The Alley and had been impressed. It was however in a dry county. Wexler told him:

Hawkins had come into the dry Alabama county in his private plane with his private case of booze and dope and Miss Toronto, ‘I got my pot, my pills and my pussy,’ he said, ‘Let’s go to work.’

That seemed to bode well for the Rolling Stones.

Charlie Watts: It’s one of Keith’s things to go in and record when you’re in the middle of a tour and your playing is in good shape. Muscle Shoals was very special -a great studio to work in, a very hip studio where the drums were on a riser high up in the air, plus you wanted to be there because of all the guys who had worked in the same studio. I just placed my drums where Roger Hawkins used to have his kit.
Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Ronnie Wood: According To The Rolling Stones, 2003

Stanley Booth reported a conversation with Mick Jagger:

Are there any vocal backing groups in Muscle Shoals?’ Jagger asked.
‘Depends,’ Booth replied, ‘What d’you need them for? What kind of thing?
Wooh. Certainly not to sing, man. I don’t like y’singin’, honey, but I love the way you move,’ came Jagger’s reply.
Stanley Booth: The True Adventures of The Rolling Stones, 1985

This theme was to re-occur.

Mick said to Jimmy Johnson, ‘We might need some background singers on this one, some black chicks.’
‘We use Southern Comfort, three girls from down here,’ Jimmy said.
‘I don’t care how they sing, long as they wear those silver shoes,’ Mick said
.
Stanley Booth: The True Adventures of The Rolling Stones, 1985

Recording

They’d started out with nineteen takes of You Gotta Move, on 2 December 1969, and Keith and Mick were working on Brown Sugar in the studio.

They recorded the backing track for the song the next day.

Mick Jagger: No, no. The tempo’s all wrong. It’s not so bouncy! It should sound fucking dirty.
Stanley Booth: The True Adventures of The Rolling Stones, 1985

Muscle Shoals guitar player Jimmy Johnson was engineer on the session and reports that he was frustrated by the absence of tuning on Charlie Watts drums and Bill Wyman’s bass playing being too quiet … it is somewhat muffled compared to later live versions. Later, most great Stones bass lines were actually Keith Richards or Ronnie Wood.

Charlie Watts: I don’t ever tune my drums. Why should I tune something I’m going to go out there and beat on? I’ll just go out there, hit it, and it will change.
Stanley Booth: The True Adventures of The Rolling Stones, 1985

Jagger’s vocal was put on the next day, 4th December. Jagger had forgotten his new line hear him whip the women just around midnight, and prompted by Charlie Watts, Jim Dickinson reminded him, just in time. This is the version they used, though Bobby Keys sax part was added later in London, where Glyn Johns did a final mix. A special mono mix was used for the single.

A good solid rock mover. Keith Richards acoustic guitar bites into the music, and Mick shouts out the vocal about Brown Sugar, who tastes so good just like a young girl should. A lusty lyric about slave days in New Orleans. Bobby Key’s sax and Ian Stewart’s piano help to make this one of the best tracks.
New Musical Express review of Sticky Fingers, 24 April 1971

The album opens with Brown Sugar, lovely dirty lyrics coupled with down the line rock.
Sounds, 24 April 1971

(Brown Sugar is) a double-dare-you triumph of bad taste, encompassing slavery, rape, racism and smack.
Graeme Thompson, The Rolling Stones Ultimate Music Guide, from Uncut.

Sticky Fingers: De Luxe 3 CD / DVD box set 2015
2015 single, included with the box set. Restores the US version B-side

When they got back to the UK after the disaster and shambles of Altamont, they recorded the song again in London at Olympic Studios with Al Kooper on guitar and Eric Clapton on slide guitar. Those versions are on the 2015 DeLuxe and Super DeLuxe Sticky Fingers box set. The slide guitar adds, but the louder backing vocals detract. It’s said this was an audition to see if Clapton would fit the group … though they had already selected Mick Taylor. The recording was part of a joint birthday party for Keith Richards and Bobby Keys … both born on 18th December 1943.

They were already bowdlerizing the lyric. Later live versions change whip the women round midnight to you should have heard him just around midnight.

Brown Sugar, Top of The Pops, BBC, April 1971

On the BBC April 1971 Top of The Pops the play out has Jagger exhorting Kneel down, Brown Sugar! Under BBC rules then, the band were miming but Jagger’s vocals were live and are really, really great.

That lyric

This is Mick Jagger. It is not Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen or Paul Simon. People do not write long analyses of his lyrics. That is partly in his favour. Robbie Robertson once said he never printed the lyrics on the album, because the best rock songs are gradually perceived and integral with music, like Chuck Berry. (Then on Cahoots he changed his mind for his worst ever lyrics).

Mick kept his voice somewhat back in the mix too. I never recall discussing a Stones lyric, except when trying to learn the words to a song. So this is a first for me.

Jim Dickinson: They started running down Brown Sugar the first night, but they didn’t get a take. I watched Mick write the lyrics. It onIy 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, then turn the page, and when he had three pages filled, they started to cut it. It was amazing!
Quoted in Keith Richards, Life, 2010

Is ‘brown sugar’ cunnilingus, heroin or both? Stanley Booth details the presence of marijuana, cocaine and bourbon fuelling the sessions, but not heroin. But Mick would simply have known the expression.

‘Taste’ changes so easily to ‘dance’ in taste so good and Jagger was always wily. He pronounces ‘taste’ (which was transcribed onto the sheet music) more like ‘test’ whereas in my Southern English accent it would have a longer ‘a’ sound … ‘tay-ste’. An eye to radio bans? The ‘taste’ fits the then new Rolling Stones tongue logo.

Then you have slavery, sadism, whipping the women, prostitution, and with kneel down, Brown Sugar you have fellatio.

Some of the vehement critics have added pedophilia. OK, Jerry Lewis’ 13 year old bride was pedophilia. Bill Wyman was dating Mandy Smith when she was 13 and he was 47. He admits having sex when she was fourteen, and they were married when she was 18 and he was 52. I’d call that pedophilia. It was definitely illegal.

However, that’s nothing to do with this song.

Maybe they were referring to ‘the young girl’ in the lyric, which was a n opportune switch from the intended ‘black girl.’ I always supposed they meant ‘young’ as opposed to 30-something, or middle-aged. I’d’ve called twenty young, even then (Now 50-something is young). Others may read it differently … but Mick Jagger was not Bill Wyman.

verse one

The song falls into its three parts. They are three flashes of Southern history, and at the time Jagger was fascinated by the South. We are in three separate time zones, This is how it starts:

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

This is the origin of black people in the Americas. He’s not condoning it. Who wants to identify with a scarred old slaver rapist? It’s a potted history lesson of how they got there.

If it is scarred old slaver:

Jim Dickinson: If you listen to the lyrics he says Skydog slaver (though it’s always written scarred old slaver). What does that mean? Skydog is what they called Duane Allman at Muscle Shoals, because he was high all the time. And Jagger heardsomebody say it and thought it was a cool word so he used it. He was writing about literally being in the South. It was amazing to watch him do it.
Quoted in Keith Richards, Life, 2010

By the time they debuted the song live and faster at the Marquee Club in 1971, the last line had changed to You shoulda heard him just around midnight. Did Mick decide to change so it was it just easier to mirror the other two verses? We’ve also switched to dance so good.

verse two

Then we’ve moved on from those early days, and we’re now in an ante-bellum mansion,

Drums beating, cold English blood runs hot,
Lady of the house wonderin’ where it’s gonna stop.
Houseboy knows that he’s doin’ alright.
You shoulda heard him just around midnight.

Verse two’s chorus has BLACK GIRL on the LP not young girl. It’s repeated after the guitar solo.

Do those slinging the pedophilia accusation include the ‘houseboy’? If so they’re ignorant of American English. ‘Boy’ is a demeaning term of address to males, infantilising them. It’s not exclusively racist by any means … it is used white to white as well, and many a peace marcher or hippy can testify to its terrifying effect when uttered by the local sheriff. But ‘houseboy’ would be exclusively racist, and he would be a houseboy all his life, right into old age. ‘Bellboy’ would often be racist, though again, not exclusively.

The Houseboy knows that he’s doin’ alright … with the lady of the house. We’re many years on. These are not new arrivals from the Gold Coast. It was what was called miscegenation at the time of the Civil War. Was it a woman raping a man? I think not. It was inter-racial sexual relations. It could be post 1865 too. You could say it’s vigorous creation of coffee coloured people by the score (in the words of Blue Mink on Melting Pot).

You cannot eradicate this history. George Washington was a slaveholder, with 317 slaves when he died. Twenty were of mixed race.

Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder who took his slaves to the White House. He had a long relationship with his slave Sally Hemmings. Their offspring were debated for years until DNA tests in 2000 established that Jefferson was, as suspected, the father of Sally Hemmings’ children. On his death, he freed five members of the Hemmings family, but another 130 slaves were sold and families broken up.

Add Benjamin Franklin (as a young man), Patrick Henry, John Hancock, James Madison … some of them opposed the slave trade, some wished to end slavery, but they remained slaveholders.

verse three

The next verse moves on again. I think to the 20th century. The tent show:

The tent show: From Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Ah … I bet your mama was a tent show queen
And all her boyfriends were Sweet Sixteen
I’m no schoolboy but I know what I like
You shoulda heard me just around midnight

You shoulda heard me. The first time the narrator enters the song. A tent show? See the film of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom set in the 1920s, or Levon Helm’s descriptions of Midnight Rambles at Carnivals in the 1950s. These were after hours burlesque shows, probably with a touch of striptease. That brings in the prostitution … introducing 16 year old boys to sex or at least to voyeurism at the show. Sixteen is the age of consent in the UK, so not pedophilia either.

The narrator is older, but also indulges.

The muses

Mick Jagger liked black female singers. He was instrumental in encouraging ex-Ikette P.P. Arnold to start a solo career, and got her signed by his manager Andrew Oldham, who ran Immediate Records.

It is the finest combination of Keith Richards’ guitar and Mick Taylor’s guitar that cement it as one of the greatest rock songs. I’d say it’s Mick Jagger’s fascination with Marsha Hunt from afar (judging by the reported content of love letters from Australia), which he’s then framed into a filmic scenario of three views of the Deep South. He was being ironic, playful and to me, slightly comic. Irony projects issues. Randy Newman would have been proud of him.

On Randy Newman, how do these Woke critics cope with Sail Away (probably the best popular song on slavery).

There was a double play on ‘brown sugar’ but when it came to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, Jagger focussed on the first and the third, NOT the second, while Richards leaned towards the second and third.

On the other hand, in Tony Sanchez’s Up and Down With The Rolling Stones, he says you can take the entire slavery and whipping motif in the song as about addiction. See the Skydog Slaver note above.

Marsha Hunt

Both Marsha Hunt and Claudia Lennear had relationships with Jagger and both have claimed to have inspired it.

Marsha Hunt had Jagger’s daughter and their relationship lasted nine months. Jagger was writing to her throughout the filming of Ned Kelly, when the song was written so her claim to be the inspiration is solid.

Claudia Lennear was in Ike and Tina Turner’s Ikettes when they supported The Rolling Stones on tour in 1969. Bill Wyman reckoned she inspired the song..

Mick Jagger & Claudia Lennear

Mick Jagger: Claudia Lennear she was like the hot one of the Ikettes. She was a great dancer, Very hot. Beautiful girl.
Twenty Feet From Stardom. 2014

Claudia Lennear: I am Brown Sugar. As in the song. Through and through, along with the taste. And you can take that any way you want. It’s really interesting how life works, because if I am, or was, the muse for Brown Sugar … most people attribute it to me, I was a gift to The Rolling Stones, but the Rolling Stones were a gift to me, because I’ve never been able to live that down.
BBC Sounds Podcast

She also spoke about it in 2014:

Jon Snow: These days, could you get away with singing Brown Sugar?
Claudia Lennear: Probably not. It’s just something that over time … just like the National Anthem … it sticks with you.
Channel Four News, 21 February 2014

Claudia Lennear also inspired David Bowie’s Lady Grinning Soul.

As a teenager, I adored everything about Veronica (aka Ronnie Spector) and The Ronettes. The look. The voices. The records. Then P.P Arnold was a favourite. I have Desdemona and Walk on Guilded Splinters by Marsha Hunt. So Mick Jagger found black women especially attractive. His penchant is the basis of the song. Others may have an enhanced enthusiasm for blondes, or redheads or women with curly, long or short hair, or Italians or Asians or sub-continent Indians or Latin Americans or Russians or women with French accents or Inuit (igloos are uncomfortable). OK, Mick would probably tick “all of the above.” He’s not alone in finding a section of humanity particularly desirable. In Rod Stewart’s case it’s leggy tall blondes with long hair.

I’m sure most women could make lists about desirable male qualities from ‘hate hairy chests’ to ‘love hairy chests.’

Mick is cautious and avoiding trouble by dropping it from the 2021 tour. I’m not sure that Keith gets that, as a reason but then he probably doesn’t care either. Mick’s caution is based on the Woke furore in articles a couple of years ago. Trouble is, most of their most popular songs might run into the same issue. I think him unwise to go along with it. Give these buggers an inch, they’ll take your whole catalogue.

I know
It’s only rock ‘n’ roll,
but I like it.

Mick jagger & Keith richards, It’s Only Rock ‘n’ roll

Versions of the song also appear on:

From The Vaults: Live atThe Marquee club 1971

From The Vault series: The Marquee Club Live in 1971 (2018)

Love You Live 1977

Love You Live: 2 LP set 1977

The shortest version, a good minute is knocked off.

Flashpoint: Live 1989-90, 1991


By 1989-90’s Steel Wheel’s tour (on the Flashpoint-Live album, the ‘taste‘ is much clearer … but in verse one’s chorus Jagger sings Just like a young man should. After verse two, it’s just like a young boy should (twice). Verse three is man.

Forty Licks 2002

Shine A Light 2008

In the live Shine A Light concert in 2008, it’s gal, but a boy slips into the chorus when he’s exhorting the audience to sing Yeah! Yah! Yeah! This version indicates that Daryll Jones is a better bass player than Bill Wyman, and Chuck Leavell’s piano is brilliant.

Grrrr! 2012
Honk 2019

6 thoughts on “Brown Sugar

  1. A superbly written article which unfortunately distracts from and misses the fundemental question we have all waited 50 years to hear an answer to.
    “How come she tastes so good?”

    It’s only Rock n Roll.

    Like

  2. A clarification: – To make “Brown Sugar” a sin is a well-connected, well-organized and – at least here in Sweden – state-funded plot against the traditional notion of the “love generation” about how life is organized. To control our music is to give us a big kick in the butt to remind us that we are wrong and that we have no say.

    I recommend everyone who have enjoyed Mr. Viney’s writings about music (not least in The Band Guestbook) to join the debate. There are a lot of albums reviewed in this site!

    Like

  3. This reminds of the controversy surrounding Ram Jam’s cover of “Black Betty” from 1977 — no one wanted to hear the reasoning that the “controversial lyrics” were credited to black, American folk & blues singer Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter.

    A second the “superbly written” comment. A very well-reasoned read.

    Like

    1. Yes, and In The Pines / Black Girl, which dates back to before records, but was also made known by Leadbelly. The Four pennies had a hit with it, but when Kurt Cobain covered it, he changed ‘Black Girl’ to ‘My Girl’.

      Like

      1. Yes. That’s right. I totally forgot about that skiffle (cover) hit and its modern connection to Cobain

        Like

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