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‘Brown Sugar’: The Story Behind The Rolling Stones’ Song

Recorded at the famed Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama, The Rolling Stones’ classic ’Brown Sugar’ topped the American Hot 100 on 29 May 1971.

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The Rolling Stones Brown Sugar

The recording of Sticky Fingers began in December 1969 during an intense three-day session at Muscle Shoals Sound in Northern Alabama. This was at a time when The Rolling Stones had just finished a hugely successful tour of North America; finished with the exception of one free concert that they had recently agreed to play near San Francisco, at Altamont Speedway.

The Stones arrived in Alabama on Tuesday 2 December 1969 and in the early evening were driven to the studio at 3614 Jackson Highway, which is in Sheffield. It’s confusing because the place they were to record was called, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, and the city of Sheffield is next to the city of Muscle Shoals. To add to the confusion it is even likely that the band thought they were going to record in the same studio that Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, Otis Redding and a whole host of classic soul and R&B singers had frequented.

Confusingly the studio that they all used was in Muscle Shoals itself, it was Rick Hall’s Fame Studios – his first recording at his studio was Arthur Alexander’s ‘You Better Move On’ in 1961, it’s a song the Stones covered two years later for their first EP, released in January 1964.

Since opening Muscle Shoals Sound, and prior to the Stones arrival, The Swampers, as the former session musicians from Ric Hall’s studio were known, had recorded a Cher album, Boz Scaggs’s second, self titled, solo album, Lulu’s New Routes album and R.B. Greaves’ big hit single, ‘Take a Letter Maria’. Greaves was a protégé of Ahmet Ertegun the boss of Atlantic Records, and it was through him and fellow Atlantic man Jerry Wexler that the Stones ended up at Muscle Shoals. Atlantic was working with Memphis musician Jim Dickinson who is likely to have been the one that suggested Muscle Shoals Sound;

Arriving at 3614 Jackson Highway, the band was confronted by arguably the least glamorous studio facility of their entire career, possibly Regent Sound was as bad, but it was in London. Constructed in 1945 the 75 by 25 foot building was across the road from a cemetery, and prior to it opening as a studio it was used to store headstones and grave slabs. There was a small, ‘front office’, behind that a control room that got crowded with any more than 8 or 9 people in it and the recording room, which was 25 feet wide, and 35 feet deep, with a 15 foot high ceiling.

After they finished recording a cover of Mississippi Fred McDowell’s ‘You Gotta Move’, Mick and Keith sat in the middle of the studio, on two folding chairs, finishing, writing, ‘Brown Sugar’, a song Mick had started while filming Ned Kelly in Australia in the summer of ’69. They were watched by Jim Dickinson, who later professed his amazement at the process, saying “I’ve seen some pretty serious songwriters in my day, but I never saw anything like Mick Jagger was doing”.

Dickinson was especially taken by Mick’s ability to absorb Southern colloquialisms that he heard from people around the studio and introduce them into his lyrics. Jim says that Mick sings “Skydog slaver” in the first verse (but then possibly changed it during the vocal overdubs); Skydog was the Swampers name for 22 year old Duane Allman who worked at Muscle Shoals Sound with Boz Scaggs and Lulu during the summer before the Stones arrived.

Mick failed to nail his vocal for ‘Brown Sugar’ on that first night but returned to it on their last night at Muscle Shoals Sound; Mick and Keith, accompanied by a bottle of bourbon, were over-dubbing the vocals. The buzz from the three days in Muscle Shoals affected everyone and there was even talk, as they finished the session, of putting out ‘Brown Sugar’ and ‘Wild Horses’ as a single as soon as possible.

As the band stepped out into the early morning light from the artificial light of the studio there were several carloads of kids hanging around for a glimpse of the band. The Stones went back to the Holiday Inn in Florence to grab breakfast, to pack and to get ready to leave. Later on Friday they flew back to Atlanta, changed planes and then flew to San Francisco and the nightmare of Altamont. Meanwhile on that same day, back home in England, Decca released the band’s new album, Let It Bleed.

It would be nearly seventeen months before ‘Brown Sugar’ was released and then, starting 29 May 1971 it topped the American Hot 100 and stayed there for two weeks. It was some session in Muscle Shoals Sound and it was some song, a song that has been played at just about every Rolling Stones concert since it was recorded. It is a classic, and who knew that Duane Allman may have got a mention?

Hear ‘Brown Sugar’ and the rest of Sticky Fingers that can be bought here.

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39 Comments

39 Comments

  1. MarkM

    May 29, 2015 at 4:04 pm

    I hate to be the one to say this, but I highly doubt the story is true. The late Jim Dickinson, as talented as he was, had quite a reputation for hyperbole & tall tales in regards to his musical legacy & what he witnessed in various studios, to the point that one writer made it a point not to use any of his anecdotes about Stax that others had widely used over the years, simply because they didn’t stand up to the scrutiny of 11 years of research & interviews that writer did for his book. Besides, a listen to the original song bears out that Mick did indeed sing “scarred old slaver” as you can distinctly hear him sing the “Rs” in “scarred” & hear him sing “old”. Keep in mind that Mick is a singer who frequently & deliberately garbled his words, so this tale becomes even more unlikely. I’d take this story with a shaker full of salt myself.

    • elizabeth

      May 29, 2015 at 10:07 pm

      I do remember hearing this story..there’s also a lot about the backup girls singing for the stones too. Keith and Mick were in fact drawn to the south studio because of the slide guitar and renowned (in England) Delta sound. There’s also a backup story of how they arrived there driving thru the South.

    • JOHN Dryden

      June 1, 2015 at 4:39 am

      Mark,read Keith Richards biography,and you will find it is true…

      • BillM

        June 1, 2015 at 6:07 pm

        John, Keef isn’t exactly…accurate…100% of the time in his recollections either, tho he obviously achieved “print the legend/if it isn’t true it ought to be” status decades ago.

        IMO, Mick clearly sings “scarred old slaver” on the final version. “Skydog” was unique to Duane (who the Stones didn’t know) & had nothing to do with slavery or “Southern colloquialisms” http://allmanbrothersband.com/modules.php?op=modload&name=FAQ&file=index&myfaq=yes&id_cat=2#q156

    • SouthernPen

      June 1, 2015 at 6:55 pm

      Thanks Mark. Finally someone has the nerve to publicly thrown Jim Dickinson under the bus. Sure, a gifted keyboard player as he was, he was a serious opportunist who would jump in front of a camera just so he could gain attention. He told stories that would make people roll their eyes in disbelief. Quoting Dickinson in a story says a lot about the creditably of a writer who publishes his words.

    • liilii1964

      June 3, 2015 at 9:30 pm

      It is a true story! I am from this amazing part of our planet and grew up with it being retold. If you watched Muscle Shoals Sound before you posted this comment, you would not have posted this comment.

  2. uDiscover

    May 29, 2015 at 4:17 pm

    We beg to differ on Skydog vs Scared, Mark Scare Old makes no sense, whereas Skydog has a whiff of logic about it. Of course we cannot ask Jim, but he tells the story convincingly on video…why lie?

    • Paul D

      May 29, 2015 at 6:57 pm

      actually I think “scarred old slaver” (scarred not scared) makes alot more sense than “Skydog slaver”…

    • Mark McKendrick

      May 29, 2015 at 7:33 pm

      Where on earth are you getting “scared” from…?
      No-one has said “scared”. It’s “scarred” as in “…bears a scar….”.
      How did you people get your jobs…?

    • Rocky Bass

      May 31, 2015 at 7:59 am

      scarred old slaver of course makes sense whereas sky dog slaver is complete nonsense! I met Jim a few times while recording in Memphis in the 90’s he was cool but his reputation as a bit of a bullshitter was well known.

  3. Rick Andresen

    May 29, 2015 at 5:40 pm

    Thank you for that interesting story. Interesting for sure especially with them not knowing they were about to head into that train wreck called Altamont.

    I think in a broader scope but helping in even pointing the plane in the direction of Alabama; you can never say enough about the influence Gram Parson had over Keith especially. The 18 months they were holed up at the “Chateau” provided the perfect opportunity to expand. . From everything I read is was all about partying and exploring new musical directions. Also to this day I think Keith downplays Grams’ influence just to keep the peace with Mick. Gram had worn out his welcome and perhaps had overstayed his visit.

    • uDiscover

      May 29, 2015 at 5:57 pm

      Rick, interesting points you make

    • Long Haired Redneck

      May 31, 2015 at 9:52 am

      Actually quite enough has been said about the influence of one of many of the people Keith Richards took drugs with. Let it go. The Stones were playing shows with George Jones on their first American tour,This is were they met Bobby Keys. Gram Parsons in no way Introduced them to country music. Ry Cooder, who actually was in the studio with them and not just at a few parties maybe showed them a few things as did the countless other musicians American or not they encountered before getting stoned with Parsons. It seems to most people that The Stones influenced Parsons more than the other way around. And when has Richards ever tried to keep peace with Jagger? Have you read his book?

  4. tommymac

    May 29, 2015 at 7:30 pm

    Dickinson told another interesting story about the lyrics to Brown Sugar, and took credit for helping Mick remember the line that comes after “scarred old slaver.” He told this story in an interview that appeared in Goldmine magazine many years ago (and I wish I still had my copy). During one series of takes, Mick sang the line “Hear him whip the women just around midnight.” When Mick began recording the final takes, he changed that line to match a similar line later in the song, to “You should have heard him just around midnight.” Dickinson says he was sitting in the control booth with Charlie Watts at the time. Jim turned to Charlie and said, “Earlier he was singing ‘hear him whip the women.’ I think that’s a great line.” Charlie said in his usual direct style, “Tell him.” Jim said, “Oh no, I can’t tell Mick Jagger how to sing his own song!” Charlie got up, punched the intercom button, and said emphatically, “Tell him!” With Mick looking expectantly at the control booth, Jim stammered “Uh, well, earlier you were singing “hear him whip the women” and I think that’s a great line.” Mick said, “Oh, yeah, thanks!” and the rest is history. Now, is that Dickinson hyperbole or a true story? I guess Charlie might remember. At least it jives with Charlie’s personality. I can definitely see him reacting in that way.

  5. George Myers

    May 29, 2015 at 7:41 pm

    Some of Gregg and Duane Allman’s music was with Metric Music Company (BMI) as was Marianne Faithful’s “Come And Stay With Me‎” (1965). Maybe Mr and Mrs. Sydney Amder brought them together. Sailcat! Pure speculation.

  6. George Myers

    May 29, 2015 at 7:44 pm

    Chuck Leavell?

  7. Julian W. James

    May 30, 2015 at 1:53 am

    Mick DID sing: “…. I’m no schoolboy but I know what I like, you shoulda heard me just around midnight” which is perfect for the line and the song. “Scarred old slaver knows he’s doin’ alright, hear him whip the women just around midnight” sets that up, adding to the diversity, meanings, richness, and impact of the song! Jagger, like Dylan, tried a lot of varied lines and variations and didn’t always remember (or even know, until the end) the right line at the right time. “Scarred old slaver” (NOT Skydog slaver) is the perfect line at the perfect time, AND “hear him whip the women just around midnight” avoids redundancy while setting up the ‘key’ verse, which is what the song is about, Brown Sugar (with a little bit of history drummed in! [“Drums beatin’, cold English blood runs hot”] ). Besides, the Stones could have (?) used some slide guitar by Duane on “Wild Horses” but instead sent the tape to Sneaky Pete to lay down a (great) pedal steel guitar track. I would have LOVED to hear Duane on slide AND Sneaky Pete’s pedal steel part!!!! But alas, it didn’t happen, and Mick DIDN’T sing “Skydog slaver” on the record, but “Scarred old slaver” (plain as day–just listen to it!). [ FYI: Wild Horses is one of my favorite songs, and in my opinion one of the prettiest love songs ever! And I usually only like the songs that really rock! ] Rock on! Love the Brothers, and the Stones.

    • Emotional Rescue

      May 31, 2015 at 2:53 am

      You guys do know your Stones…but never forget the hard working Scottish guy (& 5th member) -reading the paper in the photo (above) and his very big (under-stated) part in their history…..respect to you all.

      • Paule Deneau

        May 31, 2015 at 11:46 am

        The guy reading the paper in photo: Ian Stewart…amiright. He eventually hired Chuck Leavell /piano/ for the Stones in the eighties. Leavell btw did the piano solo on ‘Jessica’ for the ABB. I’m nearly eighty yrs old and just discovering a lot about everything, but love good music whatever the stripe. Lots more listening to do here!

    • Mike Ricca

      November 21, 2015 at 4:31 pm

      “Scarred old slaver knows he’s doin’ alright, hear him whip the women just around midnight.”

      It’s actually; “Scarred old slaver knows he’s doin’ alright, hear him with the women just around midnight.”

  8. Pete bidgood

    May 30, 2015 at 6:43 am

    I love too hear good stories about the stones and Almond brothers, I got a few of my own stories with those boys , check and see I got fever of 103!

    • Terry Johnson

      May 30, 2015 at 2:38 pm

      Pete, it’s the “Allman” brothers, not “Almond”.

  9. Joe Fish

    May 30, 2015 at 9:58 pm

    Great stories,,, some confusing grammar though.

  10. Curt

    May 30, 2015 at 11:25 pm

    Back to Gram Parsons “wearing-out his welcome…”

    Love the Stones and all their music, however it might have been cross-pollinated; but what is probably closer to the truth is that the Stones (notably Mick and *Keith*) wore-out Gram…

    Ask Emmylou Harris on the subject; no blove lost for the the Glimmer Twins there!

    • Curt

      May 30, 2015 at 11:30 pm

      Confusing typos too…

      “blove” = love

  11. kit

    May 31, 2015 at 3:17 am

    I worked with Mick Taylor in the early 1990’s and he told me that when they recorded in Muscle Shoals Keith hardly played any guitar and that the track Can’t You Hear Me Knocking was included because of the Allen Klein situation (complicated) and because they didn’t have any more songs with vocals. He also said that Jim Dickinson ‘hustled’ his way into the session and played the old upright piano just outside the control room constantly throughout the sessions until (against Jagger’s wishes) Keith insisted he play on Wild Horses. Taylor says that Mick and Keith were constantly at each other’s throats and rarely stayed in the studio together for vey long and that throughout these and the subsequent sessions at Olympic Studios in London where the bulk of Sticky Fingers was recorded Richards played very little guitar. If i remember right the control room was at the back of the building not by the front entrance.

  12. Sam Re

    May 31, 2015 at 4:12 pm

    Yeah, great line, almost as good as ” I’ll stick my knife right there in your throat baby and that hurts !” Or “when the blitzkrieg rang and the bodies stank.”
    Hey mick, shut the fuck up, ok ?”
    Oh yeah and “when the whip comes DOWN !”
    And he’s not even a competent singer. He is a good rapper though. So much of that stuff is rap.
    Keith Richards was raving about a Stones tour “Mick was actually singing !”
    I like Charlie Watts drumming and Keith’s rhythm playing. That’s it.

  13. Pedro

    June 1, 2015 at 4:07 am

    This whole story and the comments are some of the worst trash I have ever seen. In the first place, anyone who thinks Mick Jagger was singing “Skydog slaver” will also believe that the Beatles filled their songs with “secret” messages that Paul was dead. More importantly, why is everyone so concerned about ONE word in the song while ignoring the the fact that ALL the lyrics to Brown Sugar are glorifying the enslavement, brutalization, degradation and rape of black women thru-out history and right up to the present. That’s right, they are glorifying it. Mick Jagger has often said he could not write such lyrics today. Too little, too late, Mick, – but at least he’s more aware than the mindless fans who sing along and go “Yeah, ROCK AND ROLL!!!!” And no, I’m not advocating censorship, but at least people should TRY to have a clue about what’s right and wrong in the world, and also, leave Duane Allman out of this. He had absolutely nothing to do with these vile lyrics.

  14. SlopeRocker

    June 1, 2015 at 7:38 pm

    The Clapton version of Brown Sugar is TERRIBLE! No feel for the song whatsoever…

    • Durtysox

      June 5, 2015 at 6:56 am

      I have a few bootlegs with the Clapton/Brown Sugar version.
      Never liked it.

  15. Elena

    June 1, 2015 at 7:54 pm

    Ah blitzkreig rang? I don’t think so…it’s raged.

  16. Doug

    June 2, 2015 at 12:20 am

    So, I got here from a link from the official Rolling Stones Facebook page. If they linked this story specifically to draw attention to the link with Duane Allman to the song , that is good enough for me. All you so called experts go argue with Mick.

  17. Leonel serna

    June 2, 2015 at 10:19 am

    Muscle Shoals attracted some of the greatest Southern Rock bands, Allman Bros, Lynrd Skynrd, Mountan, I’ve read Clapton & Keefs autobiographies and both admit there were no greater session players than Muscle Shoals. Clapton had been wanting to record with Duane, Allman, Allman Bros were touring in Florida, Eric got him to Muscle Shoals Where they recorded Layla, and few other assorted love songs.On the Layla sleeve names session players Bobby Whitlock,Carl Radle,Jin Gordon,and couple more. Yes Muscle Shoals Studio has alot of history!

  18. Leonel serna

    June 2, 2015 at 10:19 am

    Muscle Shoals attracted some of the greatest Southern Rock bands, Allman Bros, Lynrd Skynrd, Mountan, I’ve read Clapton & Keefs autobiographies and both admit there were no greater session players than Muscle Shoals. Clapton had been wanting to record with Duane, Allman, Allman Bros were touring in Florida, Eric got him to Muscle Shoals Where they recorded Layla, and few other assorted love songs.On the Layla sleeve names session players Bobby Whitlock,Carl Radle,Jin Gordon,and couple more. Yes Muscle Shoals Studio has alot of history!

    • David Parker

      June 7, 2019 at 3:52 pm

      Uh, Layla was recorded at Criteria Studios in Miami, not Muscle Shoals.

  19. Durtysox

    June 5, 2015 at 6:43 am

    GG back from the grave!
    ALL RIGHT!!!

  20. David

    March 16, 2017 at 3:47 pm

    Also, the Stones stayed in the Holiday Inn in Florence, not in Sheffield. I live just a couple of blocks from where it used to be and I would crash the swimming pool with friends in high school. There’s an historical marker on the corner now and tall Ramada Inn in one corner of the field. The hotel was a sprawling two story that surrounded a terrific swimming pool. Frank Sanatra talking on the phone, poolside, would have looked just right.

  21. Bill Howell

    April 14, 2017 at 10:06 am

    I don’t understand the anger in some of these comments. After all, it’s only Rock-N-Roll, but we like it, eh? Therefore, all ye with anger in thou hearts, chill, for heavens sake!!! Ya’ll ought to either eat a peach for peace or w”rap” up your anger and send it to a fan-page more suited to your attitude. People, can’t you feel it? Love is everywhere. Don’t let all our be in vain. Have you heard about the Midnight Rider? Well, we’re not gonna let ’em catch him; We’re not gonna let ’em catch the Midnight Rider.

    • yrwehere

      December 11, 2017 at 7:54 pm

      I’m talking ’bout the Midnight Rambler, the one you never seen before.

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