Brown Sugar: The Rolling Stones (original and re-recording), and Phil Lesh & Friends

Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider the song Brown Sugar. This is a fascinating hard-rock song. We will start with the Rolling Stones original. We will then discuss a later re-recording of the same song, also by the Stones, and then a cover from Phil Lesh & Friends.

The Rolling Stones and Brown Sugar:

The Rolling Stones are one of our favorite rock groups. We have featured them several times in our blog. We have previously reviewed their covers of the Valentinos’ song It’s All Over Now here; the Chuck Berry song Sweet Little Sixteen here; the Temptations’ Ain’t Too Proud To Beg here; Irma Thomas’ Time Is On My Side here; and the Stones’ song Under My Thumb here.

Below is a photo of the Stones in 1969, following the death of Brian Jones. From L: drummer Charlie Watts; guitarist Mick Taylor; vocalist Mick Jagger; guitarist Keith Richards; bassist Bill Wyman.

Embed from Getty Images

The Rolling Stones first formed in the early 60’s, when Brian Jones and pianist Ian Stewart joined forces with singer Mick Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards. They began their career as leaders of a British blues revival, covering American blues standards by artists such as Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. After a short period they added bassist Bill Wyman and drummer Charlie Watts.

The Stones have been prolific, long-lived and exceptionally creative. Original member Ian Stewart was jettisoned in 1963, and Brian Jones was forced out in 1969 and died shortly afterwards; however, the remaining four Stones continued on until Wyman left the group in 1993; and Jagger, Richards and Watts still play with The Stones today.

Keith Richards and Mick Jagger have written songs for the group since the mid-60s. In September 1963, John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote I Wanna Be Your Man on the spot, during a visit with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. The two Beatles gave the song to the Stones, who recorded it shortly before the Beatles themselves released it.

Shortly after that, Jagger and Richards began co-writing rock songs, and over the years have produced a fantastic list of great rock tunes.

In our review of the Stones’ tune Under My Thumb, we mentioned that several Rolling Stones songs could be labeled as misogynist, because of the general treatment of women in the tune. The song Brown Sugar also falls into that category.

In fact, Brown Sugar could be considered the “mother lode” of songs about taboo subjects. It is as though Mick Jagger deliberately attempted to include every taboo he could think of into a single song.

How many taboos can we discover in Brown Sugar?  Let’s see, there is slavery; rape; loss of virginity; interracial sex; sado-masochism; and oral sex. To top it off, “brown sugar” is a euphemism for brown heroin!

Mick Jagger wrote the song in 1969, while on location in Australia for the movie Ned Kelly. Jagger commented on this song,
“It’s such a mishmash. All the nasty subjects in one go… I never would write that song now.”
And apparently Mick even toned the song down a bit. It is reported that his initial title for the song was “Black Pussy.” So, here are some of the lyrics to Brown Sugar.

Gold Coast slave ship bound for cotton fields
Sold in the market down in New Orleans
Scarred old slaver knows he’s doin’ all right
Hear him whip the women just around midnight

Brown Sugar, how come you taste so good
Brown Sugar, just like a young girl should

Drums beatin’ cold, English blood runs hot
Lady of the house wonderin’ when it’s gonna stop
House boy knows that he’s doin’ all right
You should have heard him just around midnight

Brown Sugar was recorded in December 1969, in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.  In that session, the band consisted of Jagger on vocals, Keith Richards on guitar, Bill Wyman on bass and Charlie Watts on drums.

And here is the audio of the record. It was the first song on the Stones’ 1971 album Sticky Fingers, and the lead single that was released from that album.

Golly, what a great rocking beat! The song breaks fast right out of the gate and never slows down.  Brown Sugar is an absolutely terrific rock and roll song to dance along with.

In addition to Richards’ terrific guitar licks, the song features the late, great Bobby Keys on tenor sax. Charlie Watts on drums and Wyman on bass keep the beat pulsating, and Mick Jagger’s vocals are supremely edgy. Even the castanets work well in this wonderfully-produced song.

Kudos to Muscle Shoals chief engineer Jimmy Johnson for this recording. In the two years between the recording in 1969 and the 1971 album release, there were significant advances in sound recording techniques; however, this recording was so powerful that the group stuck with the original.

Inspiration for the song Brown Sugar has been attributed to two African-American women. The first was Claudia Lennear, one of the ‘Ikettes’ with the Ike and Tina Turner Revue. Apparently Mick met Lennear when the Rolling Stones and Ike & Tina toured together in 1969, and Lennear has claimed that the song was written about her.

The other woman was Marsha Hunt, a model and actress with whom Jagger had a secret affair in the late 60s. In November, 1970, Hunt and Jagger had a child, Karis. Now that the existence of their child has been acknowledged, it is generally agreed that Brown Sugar was written with Marsha Hunt in mind.

Here is a live performance of Brown Sugar, from a Rolling Stones concert in Texas in 1972.

The Stones are in great rocking form in this concert. Mick Jagger is strutting and prancing across the stage, while giving us some energetic dance steps. Mick Taylor appears on guitar along with Keith Richards, and I think that may be Bobby Keys on tenor sax.

It’s hard to imagine that the Rolling Stones are still touring, more than 50 years after the band formed. Apparently Keith Richards is now having significant problems with arthritis.  In addition, during the Stones’ performance at the 2006 Super Bowl halftime show, it was not clear that Keith understood what planet he was on.

But far be it from me to criticize the Stones, as they have proved to be one of the greatest and most durable rock music acts of all time. So, let them do whatever the hell they wish – to paraphrase their line from Brown Sugar, “yeah, yeah, yeah, woooo.”

The Rolling Stones re-record Brown Sugar:

On Dec. 18, 1970, at a birthday party for Keith Richards, the Stones re-recorded Brown Sugar. This recording session featured Eric Clapton on guitar and Al Kooper on piano.

This version is interesting for several reasons. First, it is the only Rolling Stones tune I know that includes Eric Clapton on guitar. Second, the song floated around on bootleg records for years, before it was finally released in 2015. So, despite having been recorded more than 45 years ago, “officially” it is relatively new. And here it is.

This is a really tasty version of Brown Sugar. Eric Clapton is stunning on slide guitar, and Mick Jagger’s vocal style here is significantly funkier than on the original recording.  Keith Richards considered including this version on the Sticky Fingers album because of its raw immediacy. However, the Stones eventually decided to stick with the original version.


Rolling Stones logo, designed by John Pasche, that first appeared on the 1971 Sticky Fingers album.

Rolling Stones logo, designed by John Pasche, that first appeared on the 1971 Sticky Fingers album.

In the above photo in the video for the Stones’ alternate Brown Sugar take, the boys are holding the famous Sticky Fingers album cover, designed by Andy Warhol. It showed the groin area of a pair of jeans, and featured an actual working zipper.  That album also included the first appearance of the Stones’ lips-and-tongue logo, which we show below.

Below is a photo of a very young Eric Clapton as a member of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers in 1966.

From L: John Mayall, Hughie Flint, Eric Clapton, John McVie (later with Fleetwood Mac).

Embed from Getty Images

Following the death of Brian Jones, guitarist Mick Taylor came to the Stones from John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Taylor lasted only a few years before he departed, for a number of reasons.

One reported issue that hastened Taylor’s departure was friction between him and Keith Richards. Another factor was that Taylor apparently did not like the gigantic tours and enormous publicity that accompanied the Stones.

A third reason was that Taylor was frustrated with what he perceived as a lack of professionalism by the Rolling Stones. Taylor was a very sophisticated guitarist and a perfectionist. Apparently the Stones’ rough and raw garage-band sound was not really his thing.

A final straw was that Taylor developed a heroin habit during his tenure with the Rolling Stones. He decided that the best way to kick his addiction would be to distance himself from the band.

When Taylor left the Stones, they spent some time searching for a replacement. They invited several famous guitarists to play with them, including Peter Frampton. In some cases, particularly with Jeff Beck, the Stones did not really come out and announce that he was being auditioned as a new guitarist. Instead, they simply asked him to sit in with the band for a couple of numbers.

So, I am wondering if having Eric Clapton join them for a session could have been a “secret audition” to see if he might join the band in the future?  But Eric never joined the Stones, and in retrospect it seems unlikely that Clapton would have been a good fit with Mick, Keith and the boys.

In any case, once Ronnie Wood left The Faces in 1975, he joined the Stones as a second guitarist, and it appears to be a great match. Wood has now been with the Stones for over 40 years, and they are still going strong. Their most recent gig was an historic concert in Cuba.

Phil Lesh & Friends and Brown Sugar:

Phil Lesh was a founding member and bass player with the Grateful Dead for many years before the group finally disbanded. He has had a fascinating musical history.

Initially, Lesh was a trumpet player, who specialized in both classical and jazz music. After spending time at the College of San Mateo, he enrolled in the music program at Berkeley before dropping out.

While working at the post office, Lesh met a bluegrass musician named Jerry Garcia. Jerry talked Lesh into playing bass with Garcia’s rock group The Warlocks. This was an interesting choice, because Lesh had never before played electric bass.

As a result of his classical background and because he was self-taught on bass, Lesh developed a highly original style, one that incorporated contrapuntal elements reminiscent of Bach. Other stylistic aspects of Lesh’s playing involved his incorporating melodic elements into his playing, as well as improvised segments.

Improvisation became an essential element once The Warlocks changed their name to the Grateful Dead, and eventually the band began playing long, rambling jams that  typically featured extended improvised segments.

"1967 Mantra-Rock Dance Avalon poster" by Harvey W. Cohen -

“1967 Mantra-Rock Dance Avalon poster” by Harvey W. Cohen –

At left is a poster for a “Mantra-Rock Dance” event at the Avalon Ballroom, where the Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company performed.  The poster urges attendees to “bring cushions, drums, bells and cymbals.”

The Dead were very active in the Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco. Early on, they teamed up with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, who took their bus “Furthur,” their music and their LSD-manufacturing operation all the way across the U.S. Along the way, the Dead participated in both the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and Woodstock in 1969.

For most bands, the litmus test of success was to produce single records that cracked the Billboard Top 40 pop charts. The Grateful Dead only ever had a single song make it into the top 50. However, that didn’t stop the band from selling over 35 million albums and being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.

The Grateful Dead’s leader and frontman was lead guitarist Jerry Garcia, who shared lead vocal duties with fellow founding member Bob Weir. Garcia was also an excellent banjo and steel guitar player, and from time to time in his early career moonlighted on those instruments with various West Coast folk and bluegrass combos.

However, Jerry was quick to point out that he was merely one member of the Dead ensemble. From their founding in 1965 until Garcia’s death in 1995 from a heart attack he suffered at a drug-rehab clinic, the Dead were more or less permanently touring.

The group is believed to have given more than 2,300 concerts – or perhaps more precisely, jam sessions. The Dead generally did not prepare a set list for any given concert, preferring instead to pick songs on the spot from a playlist that usually contained about 100 songs. During their life span, the Grateful Dead played over 500 different songs at their various performances.

Perhaps the most unique feature of the Grateful Dead was their relationship to their fans, or Deadheads. It was not unusual for Deadheads to follow the band on concerts from town to town.  Since each concert was a unique live jam, Deadheads would have a different experience at each venue.

Whereas most bands take extreme measures to prevent fans from filming their concerts, the Dead had exactly the opposite impulse: they actively welcomed Deadheads taping their shows. They even allowed several fans to tap into the Dead’s own soundboards.

The net result was that the Deadheads began to resemble more a gigantic extended commune than the ‘normal’ followers of musical groups. Deadheads were an exceptionally eclectic lot, ranging from 60s-era hippies to professional athletes, from panhandlers to distinguished scientists.

Below is a photo of Fare Thee Well, the final concert of the Grateful Dead from Chicago on July 5, 2015. From L: Bill Kreutzmann; Trey Anastasio; Mickey Hart; Phil Lesh; Bob Weir; Jeff Clementi; Bruce Hornsby.

Embed from Getty Images

After Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995, the members of the Dead continued on in various combinations, two of which were Furthur and The Dead. At that time, Lesh formed a group called Phil Lesh & Friends, that is still touring.

Here are Phil Lesh & Friends in a live cover of the Rolling Stones’ Brown Sugar.

In addition to Lesh, the group here includes Jackie Greene on lead vocals, John Kadlecik, Adam MacDougall and Joe Russo. Sitting in for this song is guitarist Larry Campbell. This is from a concert at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY from November, 2012.

The group produces a nice hard-charging version of this classic song. Larry Campbell’s guitar work is very enjoyable, and of course Phil Lesh (at right) keeps the beat pumping along with his bass line.

The fans are clearly having a great time, and the shouted invocation at the end – “yeah, yeah, yeah, wooooo” is an invitation for the entire audience to sing along.

Phil Lesh’s health has been problematic for some time. He suffered from a persistent Hepatitis C infection that required a liver transplant in 1998. Then in 2006 he revealed that he had prostate cancer, the disease that had earlier killed his father.

Most recently, in 2015 Lesh announced that he had surgery for bladder cancer. We hope that Phil Lesh manages to kick his ailments, and that he keeps on truckin’ as long as possible.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Brown Sugar (The Rolling Stones Song)
Wikipedia, The Rolling Stones
Wikipedia, Eric Clapton
Wikipedia, The Grateful Dead
Wikipedia, Phil Lesh
Wikipedia, Marsha Hunt
SongFacts: Brown Sugar by the Rolling Stones

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. From 2002 to 2018, he and his wife shared their college-town experiences with two delightful cats, siblings Lewis and Clark, who enormously enriched their lives. Together with his colleague Steven Vigdor, Tim is co-author of a blog "Debunking Denial," that discusses the difference between skepticism and denial as manifested in various current issues. He is also co-founder of "Concerned Scientists of Indiana University," a group that supports evidence-based science, funding for science research, and policies based on the best available scientific information. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
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7 Responses to Brown Sugar: The Rolling Stones (original and re-recording), and Phil Lesh & Friends

  1. Jim S. says:

    Thanks for the post on this song. I personally consider it the greatest rock n’ roll song ever. Can’t get enough of it. And yes if that live version was really from 1972 that was Bobby Keys. He was on that infamous tour. BTW, I can’t remember the last time I heard Mick sing the ‘whip the women’ line. I think he finally figured out it wasn’t politically correct.


    • Jim – appreciate your comments. I agree about Brown Sugar, however the song is sufficiently raunchy that I don’t use it for my class (I play a “song of the day” at beginning of class). I thought the sax player looked like Bobby Keys, but am wary of making a mistake. And yes, I think that when Mick sings it in public nowadays, he changes several of the lyrics!


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