A Rolling Stones Classic Hits a Big Milestone

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of Sticky Fingers

While fans of The Rolling Stones may have different opinions which is the best album by the ‘Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World’, I think most agree Sticky Fingers ranks among their top records. If I would have to pick one, it would be this gem that was released on April 23, 1971. This Friday marks the 50th anniversary of the record by a band that has existed for some 59 years and whose key songwriters became childhood friends in 1950. It’s just mind-boggling!

Sticky Fingers, the ninth British and the eleventh American studio album by the Stones, was the first they released under Rolling Stones Records. Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Mick Taylor, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts decided to form their own label in 1970 after the band’s recording contract with Decca Records had expired. Ten additional Stones albums appeared on that label until its discontinuation in 1992 when the Stones signed to Virgin Records.

The Rolling Stones in 1971 (from left): Charlie Watts, Mick Taylor, Bill Wyman, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger

Sticky Fingers also had a few other firsts. It became the Stones’ first studio album without any contribution from founding member Brian Jones who had been fired in June 1969 over his increasingly erratic behavior due to drug use. As we know, the story didn’t end well. Less than one month thereafter, Jones was found dead in his swimming pool – yet another great music talent tragically lost to drugs! Moreover, Sticky Fingers introduced the iconic tongue and lips logo of Rolling Stones Records, which has appeared on all Stones albums ever since.

The album’s original cover art work depicting a close up of a jeans-clad male crotch with a visible outline of a penis was conceived by none other than Andy Warhol. Unlike many fans assumed, it wasn’t Jagger’s crotch. Instead, Warhol “superstar” Joe Dallesandro claims to have been the model, though apparently this hasn’t been confirmed. Initial editions of the cover had a working zipper and perforations around the belt buckle that opened to reveal a sub-cover image of cotton briefs. Following complaints from retailers that the zipper damaged the actual vinyl records during shipping, the zipper was slightly pulled down toward the middle of the record to minimize the problem. Later reissues eliminated the working zipper and simply showed the outer photograph of the jeans.

In terms of the music, Sticky Fingers marked a return to a more basic and traditional Stones sound that mostly relied on guitar, bass, drums and percussion provided by the band’s key members: Mick Jagger (lead vocals, percussion, rhythm guitar), Keith Richards (guitar, backing vocals), Mick Taylor (guitar), Bill Wyman (bass) and Charlie Watts (drums). Long-time collaborators included Bobby Keys (saxophone) and keyboarders Billy Preston, Jack Nitzsche, Ian Stewart and Nicky Hopkins. The album was produced by Jimmy Miller, who had started to work with the Stones for Beggars Banquet from December 1968 and produced all of their albums until Goats Head Soup released in August 1973.

Time for some music. Unless otherwise noted, all tracks are credited to Jagger and Richards. Here’s the opener Brown Sugar. Songfacts notes that while the tune comes across as “a fun rocker about a guy having sex with the black girl,” the lyrics written by Jagger are actually “about slaves from Africa who were sold in New Orleans and raped by their white masters.” The Stones recorded the tune in Sheffield, Ala. in early December 1969 and performed it for the first time live during the fateful Altamont Speedway concert on December 6 that same year. Brown Sugar backed by Bitch also became Sticky Finger’s lead single on April 16, 1971.

Wild Horses is one of my long-time favorite tunes by the Stones. Referencing the liner notes from their 1993 compilation Jump Back, Wikipedia quotes Jagger: “I remember we sat around originally doing this with Gram Parsons, and I think his version came out slightly before ours. [It did, in April 1970 on The Flying Burrito Brothers’ sophomore album Burrito Deluxe – CMM] Everyone always says this was written about Marianne [Faithfull – CMM] but I don’t think it was; that was all well over by then. But I was definitely very inside this piece emotionally.” Added Richards: “If there is a classic way of Mick and me working together this is it. I had the riff and chorus line, Mick got stuck into the verses. Just like “Satisfaction”, “Wild Horses” was about the usual thing of not wanting to be on the road, being a million miles from where you want to be.” Wild Horses, with Sway as the B-side, was also released separately as the album’s second single on June 12, 1971.

Another highlight on Side One of Sticky Fingers is Can’t You Hear Me Knocking. At 7 minutes-plus, this is an unusually long track for the Stones. One of the song’s distinct features is a lengthy saxophone solo by Bobby Keys. Rocky Dijon and Billy Preston contribute percussion and organ, respectively. “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” came out flying,” Richards said, as quoted by Rolling Stones fan site Time Is On Our Side. “I just found the tuning and the riff and started to swing it and Charlie picked up on it just like that, and we’re thinking, hey, this is some groove. So it was smiles all around. For a guitar player it’s no big deal to play, the chopping, staccato bursts of chords, very direct and spare.”

This brings me to Side Two of the album. The first track I’d like to highlight here is Bitch, a tune with a great guitar riff and horn line. Like many other songs on the album, the Stones recorded it at the Stargroves estate in Hampshire, England, using their mobile recording unit. Songfacts points out Mick Jagger had multiple relationships, so the tune is not about Marianne Faithfull or any other specific woman for that matter. It’s safe to assume the song’s lyrics could not be written today without triggering a political fire storm. “When we were doing Bitch, Keith was very late,” recalled recording engineer Andy Jones, according to Time Is On Our Side. “Jagger and Mick Taylor had been playing the song without him and it didn’t sound very good. I walked out of the kitchen and he was sitting on the floor with no shoes, eating a bowl of cereal. Suddenly he said, Oi, Andy! Give me that guitar. I handed him his clear Dan Armstrong Plexiglass guitar, he put it on, kicked the song up in tempo, and just put the vibe right on it. Instantly, it went from being this laconic mess into a real groove. And I thought, Wow. THAT’S what he does.”

Next up is a track I’ve come to increasingly love over the years, even though it’s not a traditional Stones rocker: Dead Flowers. Nowadays, I would go as far as calling this must-play tune for every bar band my favorite Stones song – so much for a guy who used to dismiss country as hillbilly music for the longest time! Recorded at Olympic Studios in London in April 1970, Dead Flowers was written during a time when the Stones were embracing country and Richards’ writing was influenced by his friendship with Gram Parsons. “The ‘Country’ songs we recorded later, like “Dead Flowers” on Sticky Fingers or “Far Away Eyes” on Some Girls are slightly different (than our earlier ones),” Jagger observed, per Rocks Off: 50 Tracks That Tell the Story of The Rolling Stones, a 2013 book by Bill Janovitz. “The actual music is played completely straight, but it’s me who’s not going legit with the whole thing, because I think I’m a blues singer not a country singer – I think it’s more suited to Keith’s voice than mine.” Be that as it may be. What I particularly love about Dead Flowers are the great guitar fill-ins by Richards and Taylor throughout the song.

Let’s wrap things with one more tune: Moonlight Mile, the album’s excellent closer! Another track recorded at Stargroves at the end of October 1970, Moonlight Mile came out of an all-night session involving Jagger and Taylor. Notably, Richards was absent for the recording of this tune, so Taylor handled all guitar work. Songfacts also calls out contributions from Jim Price (piano) and Paul Buckmaster (string arrangements). “That’s a dream song,” Jagger reportedly said in 1978. “Those kinds of songs with kinds of dreamy sounds are fun to do, but not all the time – it’s nice to come back to reality.” BTW, even though Richards was nowhere to been when the tune was recorded, it still was credited to Jagger and him.

Sticky Fingers became the first Stones album to top both the U.S. and the UK albums charts. Based on a January 2020 article by news and entertainment outlet The Talko, it is the band’s best-selling record with about 21.7 million units sold, followed by Let It Bleed (21.3 million) and Aftermath (19.6 million). Sticky Fingers was ranked at no. 63 in Rolling Stone’s 2003 list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. While it lost some ground in the most recent revised list from September 2020, it still came in at a respectable no. 104. Sticky Fingers was also inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.

Given the album’s significance, you might think the Stones are celebrating the 50th anniversary with a major reissue. Not so. Instead, in early December, the band announced on Twitter a Red Limited Edition LP: Introducing… the Sticky Fingers Stones Red Limited Edition LP. 500 will be available in the Stones Carnaby  Street store from Thursday Dec 3rd & 500 available online later that day at 8pm GMT / 12pm PST. Sign up for reminders: https://the-rolling-stones.lnk.to/StonesSignUpSo. More Stones Red to come! While at first sight, this may be a bit disappointing, it’s important to remember that Sticky Fingers already saw a reissue in 2015. Plus, there’s Sticky Fingers Live At The Fonda Theatre 2015, a great 2017 release the Stones put out as part of their From the Vault series.

How about a little encore? Ask and you shall receive, and it’s a true gem: a killer rendition of Can’t You Hear Me Knocking from the aforementioned Sticky Fingers Live At The Fonda Theatre 2015, which captures a gig before a relatively tiny audience of 1,200 people. It marked the opening of the Stones’ two-month Zip Code Tour in 2015 and also celebrated the above noted Sticky Fingers reissue. The band was truly on fire that night. I would argue that performance reaches the level of the legendary Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out. If you haven’t seen this clip before and dig the Stones, I’d highly encourage you to watch it. This is rock & roll at its best!

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; Time Is On Our Side; The Talko; Rolling Stones Twitter feed; YouTube

In Appreciation Of The Saxophonist

A list of some of my favorite saxophone players and solos

Music instruments have always fascinated me. I also have a deep appreciation of musicians who master their gear. Oftentimes, I wish I would have learned more than just the guitar and the bass. For those who know me and regular readers of the blog, none of this should come as a big surprise. I’ve written a bunch of posts on some of the gear I admire, from guitars like the Fender Stratocaster, Gibson Les Paul and Rickenbacker 360/12, to keyboards like the Hammond B3, as well as some of my favorite drummers and bassists. One the coolest instruments I haven’t touched yet is the saxophone.

Let me address the big caveat to this right away: Since I know next to nothing about jazz, this post focuses on genres that are in my wheelhouse: rock, blues and pop. While many of the saxophonists I highlight come from the jazz world, it’s still safe to assume I’m missing some outstanding players. On the other hand, where would I even start, if I broadened the scope to jazz? With that being out of the way, following is a list of some of favorite saxophonists and sax solos.

Raphael Ravenscroft

I imagine just like most readers, I had never heard of this British saxophonist until I realized he was associated with a 70s pop song featuring one of the most epic sax solos: Baker Street by Gerry Rafferty. The breathtaking performance put Ravenscroft on the map. He went on to work with other top artists like Marvin Gaye (In Our Lifetime, 1981), Robert Plant (Pictures At Eleven, 1982) and Pink Floyd (The Final Cut, 1983). Ravenscroft died from a suspected heart attack in October 2014 at the age of 60. According to a BBC News story, he didn’t think highly of the solo that made him famous, saying, “I’m irritated because it’s out of tune…Yeah it’s flat. By enough of a degree that it irritates me at best.” The same article also noted that Ravenscroft “was reportedly paid only £27 for the session with a cheque that bounced while the song is said to have earned Rafferty £80,000 a year in royalties.”

Wayne Shorter

The American jazz saxophonist and composer, who started his career in the late ’50s, played in Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet in the 1960s and co-founded the jazz fusion band Weather Report in 1971. Shorter has recorded over 20 albums as a bandleader and played as a sideman on countless other jazz records. He also contributed to artists outside the jazz realm, including Joni Mitchell, Don Henley and Steely Dan. For the latter, he performed a beautiful extended tenor sax solo for Aja, the title track of their 1977 gem.

Clarence Clemons

The American saxophonist, musician and actor was best known for his longtime association with Bruce Springsteen. From 1972 to his death in June 2011 at age 69, Clemons was a member of the E Street Band, where he played the tenor saxophone. He also released several solo albums and played with other artists, including Aretha Franklin, Twisted Sister, Grateful Dead and Ringo Starr and the All-Star Band. But it was undoubtedly the E Street Band where he left his biggest mark, providing great sax parts for Springsteen gems like Thunder Road, The Promised Land and The Ties That Bind. One of my favorite Clemons moments is his solo on Bobby Jean from the Born In The U.S.A. album. What could capture “The Big Man” better than a live performance? This clip is from a 1985 concert in Paris, France.

Curtis Amy

The American West Coast jazz musician was primarily known for his work as a tenor and soprano saxophonist. Among others, Amy served as the musical director of Ray Charles’ orchestra for three years in the mid-60s. He also led his own bands and recorded under his own name. Outside the jazz arena, he worked as a session musician for artists like The Doors (Touch Me, The Soft Parade, 1969), Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Carole King (Tapestry, 1971). One of the tunes on King’s masterpiece is the ballad Way Over Yonder, which features one of the most beautiful sax solos in pop I know of.

Dick Parry

The English saxophonist, who started his professional career in 1964, has worked as a session musician with many artists. A friend of David Gilmour, Parry is best known for his work with Pink Floyd, appearing on their albums The Dark Side Of The Moon (1973), Wish You Were Here (1975), Division Bell (1994) and Pulse (1995). He also worked with Procol Harum guitarist Mick Grabham (Mick The Lad, 1972), John Entwistle (Mad Dog, 1975) and Rory Gallagher (Jinx, 1982), among others. One of Parry’s signature sax solos for Pink Floyd appeared on Money. Here’s a great clip recorded during the band’s 1994 Division Bell tour.

Ronnie Ross

Albert Ronald “Ronnie” Ross was a British jazz baritone saxophonist. He started his professional career in the 1950s with the tenor saxophone, playing with jazz musicians Tony Kinsey, Ted Heath and Don Rendell. It was during his tenure with the latter that he switched to the baritone sax. Outside his jazz engagements during the 60s, Ross gave saxophone lessons to a young dude called David Bowie and played tenor sax on Savoy Truffle, a track from The Beatles’ White Album. In the 70s, his most memorable non-jazz appearance was his baritone sax solo at the end of the Lou Reed song Walk On The Wild Side. I actually always thought the solo on that tune from Reed’s 1972 record Transformer was played by Bowie. Instead, he co-produced the track and album with Mick Ronson. According to Wikipedia, Bowie also played acoustic guitar on the recording.

Walter Parazaider

The American saxophonist was a founding member of Chicago and played with the band for 51 years until earlier this year when he officially retired due to a heart condition. In addition to the saxophone, Parazider also mastered the flute, clarinet, piccolo and oboe. Here is a clip of Saturday In The Park and 25 Or 6 To 4 from Chicago’s great 2016 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction performance, which features Parazaider on saxophone.

Alto Reed

Thomas Neal Cartmell, known as Alto Reed, is an American saxophonist who has been a member of The Silver Bullet Band since it was founded by Bob Seger in the mid-70s. He has toured with Seger and the band for 40-plus years, starting with ‘Live’ Bullet in 1976. Reed has also performed with many other bands and musicians like Foghat, Grand Funk Railroad, Little Feat, The Blues Brothers and George Thorogood. Among his signature performances for Seger are the saxophone solo in Old Times Rock And Roll and the introduction to Turn The Page. Here’s a great live clip of Turn The Page from 2014.

Junior Walker

Autry DeWalt Mixon Jr., known by his stage name Junior Walker or Jr. Walker, was an American singer and saxophonist whose 40-year career started in the mid-1950s with his own band called the Jumping Jacks. In 1964, Jr. Walker & The All Stars were signed by Motown. They became one of the company’s signature acts, scoring hits with songs like Shotgun, (I’m A) Roadrunner, Shake And Fingerpop and remakes of Motown tunes Come See About Me and How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You). While Walker continued to record with the band and solo during the 70s and into the early 80s, one of his most memorable performances resulted from his guest performance on Foreigner’s 1981 album 4. His saxophone solo on Urgent is one of the most blistering in pop rock. Walker died from cancer in November 1995 at the age of 64.

Bobby Keys

No list of saxophonists who have played with rock and blues artists would be complete without Bobby Keys. From the mid-1950s until his death in December 2014, this American saxophonist appeared on hundreds of recordings as a member of horn sections and was a touring musician. He worked with some of the biggest names, such as The Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, George Harrison, John Lennon, Eric Clapton and Joe Cocker. Some of these artists’ songs that featured Keys include Don’t Ask Me No Questions (Lynyrd Skynyrd, Second Helping, 1974), Whatever Gets You Thru The Night (John Lennon, Walls And Bridges, 1974) and Slunky (Eric Clapton, Eric Clapton, 1970). But he is best remembered for his sax part on Brown Sugar from the Stones’ 1971 studio album Sticky Fingers.

Sources: Wikipedia, BBC News, YouTube