At the time they thought it was pretty sweet. The Rolling Stones were on top on this day in 1971 with their fifth American #1 song, “Brown Sugar.” That must’ve been a relief to them as it signaled a number of changes for the band and a return to form commercially. Remarkably their three previous singles had failed to chart on Billboard.
“Brown Sugar” was the first single off Sticky Fingers, which was not only their first album on their own self-named record label after they left Decca Records, but their first studio creation with Mick Taylor on guitar replacing (by then dead) Brian Jones. This one brought in Bobby Keys for a powerful sax bit and Ian Stewart on piano as well. It was also a bit of a return to their straight-forward, dirty rock origins after a few more experimental, psychedelic efforts to finish the ’60s. Fittingly, they’d recorded it (back in early 1969) at Muscle Shoals in Alabama. As Cashbox put it, the single was a “return to the fresh blues sound of the team’s pre-Satanic days.” So it was a bit of a risk. Would their fans return with them?
Lyrically it was a bit of a risk too, although few back then thought so. Some thought it was a veiled reference to heroin as that was sometimes nicknamed “brown sugar.” But a more careful listen seemed to suggest it was all about sex with Black women and what’s more, with lines like “sold in the market down in New Orleans”, one about slave women. Although at the time, it didn’t seem very risky or risque.
Mick Jagger wrote the lyrics and was the main composer (although as per their norm, Keith Richards got co-credit) and said “it was all to do with a combination of drugs and girls.” He, and the band were hot commodities then, so maybe not surprisingly, different girls or women claimed to have been his inspiration for it. Most noteworthy of those were Marsha Hunt, a girlfriend of his who had his child, and Claudia Lennear. Lennear was a backing singer for Ike & Tina Turner who was the subject for David Bowie’s “Lady Grinning Soul.” Bandmate Bill Wyman suggests it was her who was Mick’s “Brown Sugar.”
Either way, the song was a massive international hit, something that had eluded them a little in the previous couple of years. Besides the States, it also topped charts in Canada, Switzerland and a few other European lands and got to #2 in their UK, where it got them a gold record. They’d go on to score two more U.S. #1s, “Angie” and “Miss You.”
The song’s considered a classic. Rolling Stone has included it in their list of the 500 greatest songs of all-time and put it as a lofty #5 on a list of the greatest “Guitar songs”. They note “here the Stones lay waste to a battery of taboo subjects – slavery, sado-maschochism, inter-racial sex – and still manage to be catchy as hell.”
It was a highlight of their live set on many tours (even some concerts from before it was officially released), but the times, they are a-changin’. In 2021, the band bowed to pressure and removed it from their setlist. Mick Jagger said “it’s such a mishmash of all the nasty subjects in one go… I would never write that song now.” Keith Richards, on the other hand stated “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?”
Maybe they did, maybe they interpreted it another way. As did, perhaps, Pepsi and Kahlua…both of whom have used it in commercials.
By the way, if you like the song but thought “what it really needed though was Eric Clapton on guitar”, you’re in luck. They actually recorded a version of the song for the album with Clapton playing, but preferred the ’69 original when it was done. The Clapton one was eventually released on a deluxe reissue of Sticky Fingers however.