The only thing that is known for sure about the song “Brown Sugar” is that it is the first track on the Rolling Stones 1971 album, Sticky Fingers. Above is an alternative take featuring guitar God Eric Clapton, which was released as a part of series of remastered tracks celebrating the Stones upcoming North American tour.
As for the meaning of the song’s lyrics, there is great disagreement between members of the band and rock journalists alike. Some claims include:
- Many cite the obvious: the lyric is about slaves from Africa who were sold in New Orleans and raped by their white masters. The subject matter is quite serious, but the way the song is structured, it comes off as a fun rocker about a white guy having sex with a black girl.
- According to former Stones bassist Bill Wyman: “Mick Jagger wrote the lyric. It was partially inspired by a black backup singer named Claudia Lennear, who was one of Ike Turner’s backup singers (Ikettes). Jagger and her met when The Stones toured with Turner in 1969.” (David Bowie also wrote his Aladdin Sane track “Lady Grinning Soul” about her.)
- Others say that the American-born singer Marsha Hunt is also sometimes cited as the inspiration for the song. She and Jagger met when she was a member of the cast in the London production of the musical Hair, and their relationship, a closely guarded secret until 1972, resulted in Jagger fathering a daughter named Karis.
- According to the book Up And Down With The Rolling Stones by Tony Sanchez, all the slavery and whipping is a double meaning for the perils of being “mastered” by Brown Heroin, or “Brown Sugar.”
- Another legend has it that Mick Jagger started writing this while he was filming the movie Ned Kelly in the Australian outback. He recalled to Uncut in 2015: “I wrote it in the middle of a field, playing an electric guitar through headphones, which was a new thing then.”
- In his 2010 autobiography Life, Keith Richards floats his take as to what the lyrics “Scarred old slaver know he doin’ alright” are all about. Some poor guy at their publishing company probably came up with that transcription for the lyrics, but Jagger was most likely singing, “Skydog Slaver,” as “Skydog” was a nickname for Muscle Shoals regular Duane Allman, since he was high all the time.
- Some cite the bands interest in all types of women as a bi-product of their success. A source says that originally Mick Jagger wrote the song’s title as “Black P*ssy.” He decided that this was a little too direct and changed it to “Brown Sugar.”
In a Rolling Stone interview in December 1995, Jagger 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 having a “good groove”. After noting that the lyrics could mean so many lewd subjects, he again noted that the combination of those contavercial subjects, the whole lyrical ambiguity was an element in why the song was considered successful. Jagger 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 followed up by asking 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.’