In We’re No. 1, The A.V. Club examines a song that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be popular in pop music, and how that has changed over the years. In this installment, we cover The Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar,” which spent two weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Airplay chart starting on May 29, 1971.
“Brown Sugar” reached the top spot in the spring of 1971. It wasn’t the first No. 1 hit for the Rolling Stones and it wouldn’t be the band’s last, but it might have been the most critical. The song didn’t make the Rolling Stones stars or redeem what the band was doing in any kind of larger sense; what it did was revitalize its position as a counter-culture leader, spurring the Stones on to a period of nearly unmatched songwriting and musicianship. “Brown Sugar” also proved that even after a nearly a decade as provocateurs, the group still had the ability to create something truly shocking.
The few years before the recording of “Brown Sugar” and the rest of the material that would make up Sticky Fingers was kind of a wilderness period for the band. While they continued to remain wildly successful from a commercial standpoint—Between The Buttons, Their Satanic Majesties Request, and Beggars Banquet all notched top-three showings on the charts—the Stones were in the midst of a significant identity crisis, spurred by a deep and varied set of issues that the members of the band all had with the group’s founder and lead guitar player Brian Jones.
By 1968, as the Stones began working on Let It Bleed, Jones’ drug problems and overall flakiness made it almost impossible to get anything accomplished. When he did show up for recording sessions in early 1969, he was only able to contribute some autoharp on the song “You Got The Silver” and a bit of percussion on “Midnight Rambler.” It’s said that his addiction was so bad by this point that he couldn’t even play harmonica because his mouth would start bleeding. Jones received his walking papers that June.
As good as Keith Richards was on his own, the band felt that the Stones still sounded best with two guitar players. With a fall tour of the U.S. already booked, the band poached a young hot shot named Mick Taylor from John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers to take his place. About a month after he was given a pink slip by Mick Jagger, on July 3, 1969, Jones was found dead in his swimming pool. Two days later, Taylor made his live debut as a Rolling Stone in front of half a million fans in London’s Hyde Park that was restyled as a tribute to their fallen comrade.
Many people consider the 1969 jaunt through North America to be the Stones’ most dynamic tour outing ever. Taylor sparked a new energy within the band, as the best pure musician to ever call himself a Rolling Stone. By that December, the group’s creative juices were flowing. The Stones then decided to book time at Alabama’s famed Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in between gigs to lay down some tracks.
In just three days, the band managed to crank out renditions of “Brown Sugar,” “Wild Horses,” and “You Gotta Move.” As Keith Richards wrote in his memoir Life, “Muscle Shoals was a great room to work, very unpretentious. You could go in there, do a take, none of this fiddling about: ‘Oh, can we try the bass over there?’ You just went in, hit it, and there it was. It was the crème de la crème, except it was a shack in the middle of nowhere.”
“Brown Sugar” came from Mick Jagger, whose creativity was sparked while filming a part in the movie Ned Kelly in Australia. “My hand had got really damaged in this action sequence. So stupid,” he told Rolling Stone years later. “I was trying to rehabilitate my hand and had this new kind of electric guitar, and I was playing in the middle of the outback and wrote this tune.”
Although the structure of the song was in place, it took Jagger a while to come up with the actual words, which he finally did the night the Stones got to the studio. “It was already a fully developed song as far as the music went, but there were no lyrics,” producer Jim Dickinson recalled in a Gibson interview. “Jagger sat down with one of those green steno pads and filled up three pages. It took him 45 minutes. Then he stood up and sang. It was unbelievable.”
For such a simply framed pop song written so quickly, “Brown Sugar” hosts a multitude of highly radical themes and ideas. The first verse in particular—in which a black woman arrives in New Orleans from the Gold Coast of Africa to be sold off into slavery where she is whipped and raped by a “scarred old slaver”—is especially jarring. The Rolling Stones went down to the Deep South just a few years after end of the Jim Crow era and wrote a stark, caustic depiction of the worst evils of slavery and racism, although many have pointed to the song’s own racist tendencies. In a recent Permanent Records about Sticky Fingers, The A.V. Club’s Miles Raymer commented, “‘Brown Sugar’ never makes it clear whether it’s supposed to be taken as a cutting critique of deep-rooted Southern hypocrisy or a disturbingly glowing airbrushed portrait of old-timey institutionalized sexual exploitation.” Jagger himself now changes the line “hear him whip the women” to “you shoulda heard him” when performing the song live.
The second thrust at work in the song seems to be about Jagger’s own affinity for the carnal pleasures to be found in the beds of black women. Mick Jagger belted out an uptempo, sax-inflected rock ’n’ roll confessional about the sweet taste of his secret girlfriend—alternately rumored to be either singer Claudia Lennear or actress Marsha Hunt, but given his reputation, probably both—and turned it into a worldwide No. 1 hit. It should also be noted that Alabama, the state where the song was recorded, didn’t overturn the law that made interracial marriage illegal until 2000, when it became the last state in the union to do so.
An alternate theory posits that the song is actually a disguised love letter to heroin: “Brown sugar / How come you taste so good?” Jagger was rumored to have tried the drug by that time, and Keith Richards was a known heavy user. Behind the play on words, the idea that the song at large is about the drug itself unravels as soon as you begin to parse the lyrics, specifically the second and last chorus: “Brown sugar, how come you taste so good / Brown sugar, just like a black girl should.”
Given the material and the themes at work, it’s astounding that this record made such a huge mark on the charts; apparently the infectious energy of the music simply couldn’t be denied. For that reason, it would be a mistake not to talk about the contributions of saxophonist Bobby Keys. The logical move for any other group would have been to hand the song’s middle-section breakdown to Richards and Taylor to go at it with some weaving guitar interplay. Instead the Stones turned the song over to the big Texas sax man to lay down some nearly pornographic, wailing grooves. This inspired decision gives the track a slinkiness that makes it endlessly engaging.
“Brown Sugar” got its world premiere just a day or so after it was recorded. In the wake of the success of Woodstock, the Stones decided to hold a free concert festival of their own just outside of San Francisco at the Altamont Speedway on December 6, 1969. The group hired the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang to run security, which turned out to be a disastrous move. In every way that Woodstock was a shining example of peace, love, and social harmony, Altamont was the complete opposite. The crowd was unmanageable, drugs ran rampant, and in a scene captured in the documentary film Gimme Shelter, a young black man named Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death by one of the Angels. The eventual hit had about the worst introduction imaginable.
Due to a legal squabble with the Stones’ then-manager Allen Klein, “Brown Sugar” and the rest of Sticky Fingers languished on the shelf for over a year after the album was finished. The band revisited the track from time to time, both at Jagger’s home outside of London, as well as at Olympic Sound Studios, where Eric Clapton was invited in to lay down some slide work on an alternate take. That version existed in bootleg form for decades until it was finally polished and officially released this year as a bonus track on the remastered version of Sticky Fingers. But the band made the right move in ditching Slowhand, as his messy contributions get in the way of the song itself.
By the time “Brown Sugar” was finally released, the band was just a few short weeks away from working on its next record in the south of France. Having a No. 1 hit under its belt must have provided a jolt to the band’s confidence, helping to spur the Stones on to create a masterpiece: Exile On Main Street. But for as notorious as the sessions for Exile were, and for as infamous and decadent as the group’s resultant tour of America was in 1972—see the underground film Cocksucker Blues—the Stones never again managed to get as provocative on record as they did with “Brown Sugar.”