“Brown Sugar” is a song by English rock band The Rolling Stones. It is the opening track and lead single from the band’s 1971 album Sticky Fingers. Rolling Stone magazine ranked it #490 on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Though credited, like most Stones compositions, to singer Mick Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards, the song was primarily the work of Jagger, who wrote it sometime during the filming of Ned Kelly in 1969. Originally recorded over a three day period at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama during December 1969, the song was not released until over a year later due to legal wranglings with the band’s former label, though the Stones debuted the number live during the infamous concert at Altamont. In the film Gimme Shelter, an alternate mix of the song is played back to Jagger and Richards while they relax in a hotel in Alabama. This version differs from that on record by the inclusion of a rhythmic variation on the familiar staccato introduction for two out of every four bars for that part and it includes a guitar solo by Mick Taylor rather than Bobby Keyes’ sax solo.
The song, with its prominent blues-rock riffs, dual horn/guitar instrumental break, and danceable rock rhythms, is representative of the Stones’ definitive mid-period and the tough, bluesy hard-rock most often associated with the group. However, its lyrical subject matter has often been a point of interest and controversy. Described by rock critic Robert Christgau as “a rocker so compelling that it discourages exegesis”, “Brown Sugar’s” popularity indeed often overshadowed its scandalous lyrics, which were essentially a pastiche of a number of taboo subjects, including interracial sex, cunnilingus, slave rape, and less distinctly, sadomasochism, lost virginity, and heroin use.
In the liner notes to the 1993 compilation disc Jump Back, Jagger says, “The lyric was all to do with the dual combination of drugs and girls. This song was a very instant thing, a definite high point.”
An alternate version was recorded 19 December 1969 at Olympic Studios in London, after (or during) a birthday party for Richards. It features appearances by Al Kooper on piano, and Eric Clapton on lead guitar. It also features Richards singing the first verse, and loudly backing up the rest of the song. The alternate version is widely available on bootleg recordings. Richards considered releasing this version on Sticky Fingers, mostly for its more spontaneous atmosphere, but decided on the original.
“Brown Sugar” was eventually released in May 1971 as the first single from the album, becoming a number-one hit in the U.S. and a number two hit in the UK and has since become a classic rock radio staple. While the US single only featured “Bitch” on the B-side, the UK single featured that track plus a live rendition of Chuck Berry’s “Let It Rock”, recorded at the University of Leeds during the 1971 tour of the UK.
The song was performed steadily during the Stones’ 1970 European Tour, occupying a prominent spot near the end of the set list even though audiences were unfamiliar with it. It eventually opened the famed 1972 American Tour shows and has been a Stones concert stalwart since.
When the Rolling Stones perform “Brown Sugar” live, Jagger often changes the lyrics from, “Just like a young girl should,” to, “Just like a young man should.” The line, “Hear him whip the women just around midnight,” is often changed to the less offensive, “You shoulda heard him just around midnight.” This is evidenced in their live albums Love You Live, Flashpoint, Live Licks and Shine a Light. This change even occurs on the version recorded at Richards’ birthday party.
The song is also notable for being the first single released on Rolling Stones Records, and is one of the two Rolling Stones songs (along with “Wild Horses”) licensed to both the band and former manager Allen Klein (a result of various business disagreements) resulting in its inclusion on the compilation album Hot Rocks. “Brown Sugar” is also included on the most significant latter day Stones compilations, Jump Back and Forty Licks.
The song was later used in a 1998 Pepsi commercial with a fly singing a cover version of “Brown Sugar” after sipping on some spilled Pepsi. The commercial was used as part of Pepsi’s aggressive ad campaign of switching to a blue background on its cans & bottles after decades of using a white background.