Revisiting the Rolling Stones’ Controversial ‘Brown Sugar’
The Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar" is a stew of controversial topics: Slavery, rape and interracial sex are just a partial list. The first single release from the Sticky Fingers, it was written primarily by Mick Jagger in 1969, and released in the U.K. on April 16, 1971. Despite its controversial subject matter, "Brown Sugar" shot to No. 1 in the U.S. shortly after its stateside debut on May 7.
"I wrote that song in Australia in the middle of a field," Jagger told Rolling Stone in 1995. "They were really odd circumstances. I was doing this movie, Ned Kelly, and my hand had got really damaged in this action sequence. So stupid. 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.
"But why it works?" Jagger continued. "I mean, it’s a good groove and all that. I mean, the groove is slightly similar to Freddy Cannon, this rather obscure ‘50s rock performer – 'Tallahassee Lassie' or something. Do you remember this? 'She’s down in F-L-A.'"
The identity of the woman who inspired the song has been debated for years. Singer and novelist Marsha Hunt, mother of Jagger's first child Karis, claims in her autobiography Real Life that she is the inspiration for "Brown Sugar." But backing singer Claudia Lennear believes the song is based on her. "Around the time 'Brown Sugar' became a hit for the Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger and I were always seen together in restaurants and nightclubs in Los Angeles," Lennear told the Express. "That’s why people thought the song was about me, and Mick later confirmed that it was."
Listen to the Rolling Stones' 'Brown Sugar'
"Brown Sugar" was recorded at Alabama's Muscle Shoals Sound Studio during sessions from Dec. 2–4, 1969 that also produced "Wild Horses" and "You Gotta Move." Jagger took little time to write the words to "Brown Sugar." "You can’t imagine how nonchalantly Jagger wrote that," session pianist Jim Dickinson told Gibson. "It was already a fully developed song as far as the music went, but there were no lyrics. 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."
In Keith Richards' Life, Dickinson clears up an often-misheard line. "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 in Muscle Shoals, because he was high all the time. And Jagger heard somebody say it and he thought it was a cool word so he used it."
The Rolling Stones debuted "Brown Sugar" a few days later at their infamous concert at Altamont. Legal wrangles with their manager, Allen Klein, kept the Sticky Fingers LP out of record stores for more than a year. During the delay, the Stones recorded an alternate version of "Brown Sugar" with Eric Clapton on slide guitar and Al Kooper on piano.
Jagger admitted in 1995 that his lyrics may have gone a bit far. "God knows what I’m on about on that song. It’s such a mishmash. All the nasty subjects in one go. […] I never would write that song now. I would probably censor myself. I’d think, 'Oh God, I can’t. I’ve got to stop. I can’t just write raw like that.'"