(October 30, 2021). The Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” is a good ol’ bluesy rock jam featuring one of the most iconic guitar riffs of all time. As the band’s immense catalogue goes, it’s not their best song (that would be “Paint It, Black” IMHO). And it’s certainly not their worst (maybe “Fool To Cry”?).
But it’s easily their most controversial.
And now the 52-year-old tune (recorded at Muscle Shoals in 1969 but released on the band’s 1971 Sticky Fingers album) has been placed in the scrap pile heap of songs the legendary British rockers no longer perform live (for now, at least) because of its offensive lyrics about a slave owner engaging in non-consensual sex with Black girls.
The Stones have never been ones to shy away from courting controversy in their lyrics, particularly about Black women. Consider these lines from the title track to their 1978 album, Some Girls: “White girls they’re pretty funny, sometimes they drive me mad; Black girls just wanna get fucked all night, I just don’t have that much jam…”
The offending lyrics in “Brown Sugar” aren’t much easier to swallow: “Gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields, sold in the market down in New Orleans; Scarred old slaver knows he’s doing alright, hear him whip the women just around midnight.”
And if there was any doubt who those women were, the chorus made it clear: “Ah…Brown Sugar, how come you taste so good? Ah, got me craving the Brown Sugar, just like a Black girl should, yeah.”
The Stones’ Keith Richards is quoted in his book Life as having been disgusted when Mick Jagger wrote the lyrics to “Brown Sugar,” but not for the reason you might be thinking. He says in the book, “I watched Mick write the lyrics. It took him 45 minutes. It was disgusting. He wrote it down as fast as he could move his hand. I’d never seen anything like it…He had one of those yellow legal pads and he’d write a verse a page…and when he had three pages filled, they started to cut it. It was amazing.”
So it took Mick Jagger less than an hour to come up with those cringeworthy lyrics that have been immortalized in one of the band’s most beloved, and certainly most talked about tunes for over half a century. And it was the amount of time it took Mick to write it that Keith found disgusting?
For 50-plus years, “Brown Sugar” has appeared on Stones’ hits compilation albums, trade publications and critics’ best-of lists, and, most importantly, in Stones’ concert setlists. The song has been praised and condemned, dissected and analyzed, interpreted and reinterpreted—it’s likely drawn more ink in publications than any tune in the band’s nearly 60-year history, which is saying an awful lot.
Yet the Stones, despite—or perhaps in spite of—all the points made above, persisted in playing it live at their concerts. On their current “No Filter” tour—itself splintered into multiple legs due to the COVID-19 pandemic—the band initially included “Brown Sugar.” I saw the first leg in Chicago in June 2019, where they resumed a schedule that had been threatened by a sudden Mick Jagger illness. In that pre-COVID show, “Brown Sugar” was among the set’s final tunes. The Stones performed a rousing six-minute version of it which you can see here.
But a lot has happened since 2019 and, although they won’t say it, I’m guessing two unfortunate deaths in particular unwittingly forced the Stones’ hand in their decision to remove “Brown Sugar” from their set lists.
First was the murder of George Floyd, the Black man whose death in May 2020 reignited the Black Lives Matter movement worldwide and forced many an institution to reconcile its violent racist past (and present).
The second event, and the one most pertinent to the Stones, was the death of Charlie Watts earlier this year. Watts’ passing dealt a huge blow to the band but left them undaunted (in true Stones fashion). The band resumed the “No Filter” tour this summer in its first post-COVID/first post-George Floyd/first post-Charlie Watts leg with new drummer Steve Jordan, a longtime friend of Watts and sometimes contributor to the band.
But Steve Jordan is Black, a fact that very few, if any, of the pieces I’ve read about the Stones’ decision to cancel “Brown Sugar” have touched upon as a potential “filter” for a band that prides itself on having none.
When asked about his band’s decision recently, Keith Richards said to the LA Times, “I’m trying to figure out with the sisters quite where the beef is. Didn’t they understand this was a song about the horrors of slavery? But they’re trying to bury it.” (Note to Keith: it’s not just “the Sisters” who see the problem with “Brown Sugar.”)
Lead singer Mick Jagger told the paper the group wasn’t playing the song any more because it was “tough” to compile a set list for stadium shows. He said: “We’ve played ‘Brown Sugar’ every night since 1970 (it’s their second-most played after “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”). So sometimes you think, ‘we’ll take that one out for now and see how it goes’. We might put it back in.”
Nice try, Mick. You don’t just test the waters by pulling out a song that has been part of your core makeup for half a century to “see how it goes.”
But what else did you expect from a couple of nearly 80-year-old white guys whose charm lies in their crassness? It’s why brashly cocky songs like “Bitch” (the American B-side of “Brown Sugar”) exist in the first place. It’s why “Paint It, Black” (ironically Number One in America on the day I was born in June 1966) had that curiously placed comma in its initial pressings, which opened the door to speculation that it had a racial element to it (even though the song clearly didn’t). It’s why Sticky Fingers had that bulging front cover that left very little to the imagination.
Yeah, age may have mellowed these rock-n-roll bad boys over time, but to see them howl and prance around on stage—even this late in their careers—you’d never know it. Heck, it’s part of the reason fans love ‘em (and why even yours truly fulfilled a bucket list item to see them when they came to the Chi two-plus years ago).
But even the Stones have a filter. And performing a song like “Brown Sugar” that either glorifies violence against Black women, or jubilantly documents such violence in a historical context—take your pick—while a Black man, who is now an integral part of the group, keeps time on the drum kit behind them, is where they apparently drew the line.
The Stones have in the past shown their reverence for Black history, particularly Black musicians. In the June 2019 Chicago concerts alone, they paid homage to newly elected mayor Lori Lightfoot (the first openly gay Black woman to be elected to the position, who has since drawn the ire of far right-wing conservatives everywhere), and they included a video montage tribute to African-American blues and soul artists for the song “Write ‘Em All Down.” Mick famously appeared at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in 1972 for the filming of Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace, just six months after “Brown Sugar” topped the American charts. The Stones have long cited Black rock-and-roll pioneers like Chuck Berry and Little Richard as major influences.
The band deserves some (dubious) credit for finally finding and inserting their new filter—no discredit to the clearly talented Mr. Jordan—which gives the Stones the alibi they’ve likely long been seeking in figuring out how to gracefully retire a song that even they must know is hard to reconcile with history.
Consider it an opportunity lost, however, for a group as progressive-minded as they appear to be to not call out the song for its inappropriateness, or at the very least its insensitivity—even within the context of a newly woke environment—and continue to play coy with their reasoning, even leaving the door open for the song to return someday.
Yeah, that may very well happen. Just don’t be surprised if it doesn’t occur on Steve Jordan’s watch.
DJRob (he/him) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
You can also register for free (below) to receive notifications of future articles.