Rock Flashback: “Brown Sugar”

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mick ronnie keef Rock Flashback: Brown Sugar

(Getty Images/Dave Hogan)

When deciding not merely on the greatest [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Rolling Stones[/lastfm] singles, but on the greatest singles by anybody, “Brown Sugar” has to at least be in the semi-finals. Forty years ago this week, it hit the Billboard singles chart for the first time.

As usual, however, Billboard‘s chart was a little behind what was happening on the street. “Brown Sugar” showed up on radio station surveys across the country during the week of April 12 in San Francisco and Detroit, and charted in Cleveland and New York City days later. Demand for new Stones music was high — the band hadn’t released new studio material in nearly two years, since Let It Bleed and the two-sided hit “Honky Tonk Women”/”You Can’t Always Get What You Want” became worldwide hits in the summer of 1969. So “Brown Sugar” rocketed to the top: moving from 40 to 13 to 6 to 3 to 1, holding #1 for two weeks beginning May 29, 1971.

The song was recorded in early December 1969 at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Alabama, and was actually part of the setlist at the infamous Altamont concert days later. It’s also heard in the movie Gimme Shelter. But it sat in the can for over a year — and even then, it almost didn’t make it onto Sticky Fingers.

There’s a version featuring [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Eric Clapton[/lastfm] on guitar and [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Al Kooper[/lastfm] on piano that was allegedly considered for the album. I believe this is the same version that was mistakenly placed on early presssings of the Hot Rocks 1964-1971 compilation and is available now only as a bootleg.

The fact that it’s hard to understand what [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Mick Jagger[/lastfm] is singing certainly didn’t hurt the song’s popularity. (I’m reminded of Whoopi Goldberg in the movie Jumping Jack Flash, yelling at the record player, “Mick, Mick, speak English!”) I suspect lots of people would have been offended by the scandalous lyrics if they’d only known what they were. Like my parents, for example — they had to have heard me cranking my 45 that spring, but they never asked any questions about just what I was listening to.

It’s possible that the Stones were never more decadent than on “Brown Sugar.” They were certainly never better. Here’s the Clapton/Kooper version.

Like revisiting the past? Check out more Rock Flashbacks here

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