"Brown Sugar" is a song by The Rolling Stones. It is the opening track and lead single from their 1971 album Sticky Fingers. Rolling Stone magazine ranked it #495 on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and at #5 on their list of the 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time.
Though credited, like most of their compositions, to the singer/guitarist pair of Mick Jagger and 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 from 2–4 December 1969, the song was not released until over a year later due to legal wranglings with the band's former label, though at the request of guitarist Mick Taylor, they debuted the number live during the infamous concert at Altamonton 6 December. The song was written by Jagger with Marsha Hunt in mind; Hunt was Jagger's secret girlfriend and mother of his first child Karis.
In the film Gimme Shelter, an alternative mix of the song is played back to the band while they relax in a hotel in Alabama.
The song, with its prominent blues-rock riffs, dual horn/guitar instrumental break, and danceable rock rhythms, is representative of the Stones' definitive middle period and the tough, bluesy hard-rock most often associated with the group. In the liner notes to the 1993 compilation album 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." The song is in compound AABA form.
In the Rolling Stone interview (14 December 1995, RS 723) with Jagger, he spoke at length about the song, its inspiration and success — including claiming credit for writing the lyrics. He attributed the success of the song to a "good groove". After noting that the lyrics could mean so many lewd subjects, he again noted that the combination of those subjects, the lyrical ambiguity was partially why the song was considered successful. He noted, "That makes it... the whole mess thrown in. 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." When Jann Wenner asked him why, Jagger replied, "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.'"
The 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 slavery, interracial sex, cunnilingus, and less distinctly, sadomasochism, lost virginity and heroin.
An alternative version was recorded on 18 December 1970, at Olympic Studios in London, after (or during) a birthday party for Richards. It features appearances by Al Kooper on piano, andEric Clapton on slide guitar. The alternative 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.
A live performance from 1971 is often shown on TV in place of a music video.
"Brown Sugar" was eventually released in May 1971 as the first single from the album, becoming a #1 hit in the US and Canada and a #2 hit in the UK and has since become a classic rockradio staple. While the American single featured only "Bitch" as the B-side, the British 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.
In the UK the single was originally issued in mono using a now very rarely heard bespoke mono mix. This mono mix has never been used on any compilation.
The song was performed routinely 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 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 evident 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 (catalogue number RS-19100) and is one of the two 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 1964–1971. "Brown Sugar" is also included on the most significant latter-day Rolling Stones compilations, Jump Back, Forty Licks and GRRR!.