The Inappropriate Meaning Behind “Brown Sugar” by The Rolling Stones

Some songs age better than others. The bad boys of rock ‘n’ roll singing about sex and drugs wasn’t very far out of character in 1971. However, bringing in slavery, rape, and abuse somehow didn’t stop a song from hitting the top of the charts. Let’s look at the story behind “Brown Sugar” by The Rolling Stones.

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Gold Coast slave ship bound for cotton fields
Sold in the market down in New Orleans
Skydog Slaver knows he’s doing alright
Hear him whip the women just around midnight
Brown sugar, how come you taste so good? Uh-huh
Brown sugar, just like a young girl should, uh huh, oh (Woo)

Original Title

Mick Jagger began writing the song with the working title “Black Pu–y.” In 1995, the singer told Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone magazine: “I wrote that song in Australia in the middle of a field. They were really odd circumstances. I was doing this movie, Ned Kelly, and my hand had got really damaged in this action sequence. So stupid. I was trying to rehabilitate my hand and had this new kind of electric guitar, and I was playing in the middle of the outback and wrote this tune.”

Guitarist Keith Richards wrote in his 2010 memoir, Life: “I’m the riff master. The only one I missed and that Mick Jagger got was ‘Brown Sugar,’ and I’ll tip my hat there. There, he got me. I mean, I did tidy it up a bit, but that was his words and music.”

Drums beating, cold English blood runs hot
Lady of the house wonderin’ when it’s gonna stop
House boy knows that he’s doing alright
You shoulda heard ’em just around midnight
Brown sugar, how come you taste so good now?
Brown sugar, just like a young girl should now (Yeah)

It’s About the Groove

Continued Jagger: “It’s a good groove and all that. I mean, the groove is slightly similar to Freddy Cannon, this rather obscure ’50s rock performer—’Tallahassee Lassie’ or something. Do you remember this? ‘She’s down in F-L-A.’ Anyway, the groove of that—boom-boom-boom-boom-boom—is ‘going to a go-go’ or whatever, but that’s the groove.”

Ah, get on, brown sugar. How come you taste so good?
Ah, got me craving the the brown sugar
Just like a black girl should, yeah

Muscle Shoals

The Rolling Stones recorded the song during a three-day stop in Alabama. Richards wrote in Life: “Oiled up and running hot, in early December we ended up at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Sheffield, Alabama, at tour’s end. (Not quite the end, as their infamous gig at the Altamont Speedway loomed just days away). There we cut ‘Wild Horses,’ ‘Brown Sugar,’ and ‘You Gotta Move.’ Three tracks in three days in that perfect eight-track recording studio. Muscle Shoals was a great room to work, very unpretentious.”

“Brown Sugar” debuted onstage during the fateful set at Altamont, at which the Hell’s Angels were handling the security and one killed a young man. The Stones ended up finishing the Sticky Fingers album in France.

Ah, and I bet your mama was a tent show queen
And all her boyfriends were sweet sixteen
I’m no schoolboy, but I know what I like
You shoulda heard me just around midnight

An Ikette

According to bassist Bill Wyman’s 2002 book Rolling With the Stones, the lyrics were partially inspired by a black backing singer in Los Angeles named Claudia Lennear. She was a backup singer/dancer for Ike and Tina Turner as well as appearing on records by Joe Cocker and George Harrison. In August 1974, Lennear appeared in Playboy magazine in a pictorial called “Brown Sugar.”

Brown sugar, how come you taste so good, baby?
Ah, come down, brown sugar
Just like a young girl should, yeah

One of the Band’s Biggest Hits

Despite the unfortunate subject matter, the song resonated with the listening public. It regularly populated the band’s setlist for decades. In 1993, Jagger wrote in the Jump Back liner notes: “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.”

In 1995, Wenner asked Jagger point blank if “Brown Sugar” was referring to heroin. The singer confirmed it was but also affirmed it was about the female anatomy, “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.”

Said pianist Jim Dickenson: “I watched Mick write the lyrics. It took him maybe 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, just write a verse, and then turn the page, and when he had three pages filled, they started to cut it. It was amazing! If you listen to the lyrics, he says, ‘Skydog slaver.’ What does that mean? Skydog is what they called Duane Allman in Muscle Shoals because he was high all the time. And Jagger heard somebody say it, and he thought it was a cool word, so he used it. He was writing about literally being in the South. It was amazing to watch him do it.”

I said, yeah, yeah, yeah, woo
How come you, how come you taste so good?
Yeah, yeah, yeah, woo
Just like a, just like a black girl should
Yeah, yeah, yeah, woo

Pulled from the Setlist

After five decades of playing the song live, the band suddenly stopped performing it. In 2021, Jagger told the Los Angeles Times, “We’ve played ‘Brown Sugar’ every night since 1970, so sometimes you think, we’ll take that one out for now and see how it goes. We might put it back in.” Added Richards, “Didn’t they understand this was a song about the horrors of slavery?”

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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