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

My Playlist: Emmylou Harris

While I had known her name for decades, it really wasn’t until July 2017 that I started paying closer attention to Emmylou Harris when seeing her in Philadelphia as part of a concert headlined by John Mellencamp. There was something special about this lady with her all-white hair who recently had turned 70. Now 73, Harris has been active for more than 50 years, released dozens of solo and collaborative albums, scored 20 top 10 hits on the Billboard country charts and collected numerous Grammy and other awards. This playlist is an attempt to shine a light on her long and impressive career.

Harris was born on April 2, 1947 in Birmingham, Ala. Her dad, Walter Harris, was a Marine Corps officer, while her mom Eugenia was a wartime military wife. After high school graduation in Woodbridge, Va., Harris went to the School of Music, Theater and Dance at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro on a drama scholarship. It was there where she started to learn songs by Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez on guitar and develop her musical aspirations. Harris dropped out, moved to New York City during the second half of the ’60s, and started performing on the folk circle in Greenwich Village while waiting tables.

In 1969, Harris married fellow songwriter Tom Slocum who wrote the title track for her debut album Gliding Bird. The folk record also included five songs written by Harris. The label Jubilee Records went under shortly after the release, so all distribution and promotion was ceased. Subsequently, Harris disowned the record. She regards her second release Pieces of the Sky from February 1975 as her official debut.

In 1971, after he had seen her perform, Flying Burrito Brothers co-founder Chris Hillman introduced Harris to his music partner Gram Parsons who became a key figure in her early career. Harris worked with Parsons on his solo debut GP from January 1973 and toured as a member of his band the Fallen Angels. Later that year, she also worked with Parsons on his second and final solo album Grievous Angel, which was released in January 1974, following his death from an accidental overdose of drugs and alcohol in September 1973.

In February 1975, the aforementioned Pieces of the Sky appeared. It’s the album that launched Harris’ career as a country artist and established what she became mainly known, i.e., covering songs written by other artists. The album also coincided with the formation of The Hot Band, Harris’ high-profile backing band until 1991. The initial lineup included James Burton (guitar), Glen Hardin (piano), Hank DeVito (pedal steel guitar), Emory Gordy, Jr. (bass) and John Ware (drums).

To date, Harris has released 21 solo studio albums, three live records and a dozen compilations. Additionally, her impressive catalog includes seven collaboration albums with artists like Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Rodney Crowell. Harris also has worked as a guest with numerous other artists, including The Band, Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash, Guy Clark, Bob Dylan, Sheryl Crow and Steve Earle, among others. Let’s get to some music!

While perhaps not as representative of Harris as her other records, I’d like to kick off this playlist with a tune from 1969’s Gliding Bird, which was written by her: Black Gypsy.

If I Could Only Win Your Love from her second album Pieces of the Sky became Harris’ first hit single, climbing to no. 4 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart in 1975. Co-written by Charlie Louvin and Ira Louvin who formed the country and gospel duo The Louvin Brothers, it also marked the first of only a handful of Harris singles that charted on the Billboard Hot 100, in this case at no. 58. Linda Ronstadt sang backing vocals on the album.

While Emmylou Harris is best known as a country artist, her song choices can be eclectic. Here’s an example from her third studio album Elite Hotel released in December 1975: A beautiful cover of The Beatles tune Here, There and Everywhere. Credited to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the McCartney ballad originally appeared on the Revolver album from August 1996.

Harris’ next album Luxury Liner from December 1976 included the first cover of Townes Van Zandt’s Pancho and Lefty, which subsequently became the revered singer-songwriter’s best known composition. The tune has also been covered by other artists, most notably Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, who recorded it as the title track of their collaboration album that came out in January 1983.

Roses in the Snow, Harris’ first ’80s album, appeared in May 1980. Unlike her preceding country and country rock records, this album was more bluegrass-oriented. Here’s a great rendition of the Paul Simon tune The Boxer, featuring beautiful harmony singing by Cheryl White and her sister Sharon White. The Boxer first appeared on Simon & Garfunkel’s final studio album Bridge Over Troubled Water from January 1970.

In February 1985, Harris released The Ballad of Sally Rose, a concept album loosely based on her relationship with Gram Parsons. The record also stood out for another reason. Like her debut 16 years earlier, it illustrates Harris is more than just a cover artist. All songs were co-written by her, mostly together with her then-second husband Paul Kennerley, an English singer-songwriter, musician and record producer, who also produced this record. Here’s White Line, one of the record’s two singles.

Next, I’d like to jump to the ’90s and Wrecking Ball, Harris’ 18th studio album. The record became her first since Pieces of the Sky that did not make the country charts. Perhaps that wasn’t too surprising, given the music moved away from her traditional acoustic to a more edgy and atmospheric sound. Producer Daniel Lanois who produced and co-produced various U2 albums like The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby undoubtedly had something to do with it. Here’s the title track written by Neil Young who also provided harmony vocals. Young had first recorded the tune for his 1989 studio album Freedom. And, coming back to U2, Larry Mullen, Jr. played drums on most of the album’s songs including this one.

Given the significance of collaboration albums in Harris’ catalog, I’d like to at least acknowledge one: Trio II from February 1999, the second album she did together with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt. All tracks had actually been recorded in 1994, but label disputes and conflicting schedules had prevented the release at the time. While I’ve featured it on the blog before, I just couldn’t resist including the ladies’ angelic rendition of After The Gold Rush, the title track of Neil Young’s third studio album from September 1970. Interestingly, while the remake did not chart when it was released as a single from Trio II, it won the 2000 Grammy for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals. The intensity of this version is just killing me. This is why I dig vocals!

In September 2003, Harris released Stumble into Grace, her second album of the current century. Like some of her previous records, it includes a significant number of her own compositions. She also co-wrote most of the remaining tracks. Here’s the opener Here I Am, one of her tunes.

I’d like to wrap up this playlist with a track from what is Harris’ most recent solo album, Hard Bargain, released in April 2011. Her two latest records are collaborations with Rodney Crowell from February 2013 and March 2015. There’s also the Complete Trio Collection, a compilation of the Trio I and Trio II collaborative albums with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, which came out in September 2016. Given the enormous role of Gram Parsons, it felt right to highlight opener The Road, a tune Harris penned about her musical mentor – the first to focus on his death since Boulder to Colorado, a song from Pieces of the Sky. It’s also noteworthy that Hard Bargain became Harris’ highest chart entry since the above Roses in the Snow from 1980, peaking at no. 3 on the Billboard Top Country Albums. It also hit no. 18 on the Billboard 200, her highest mainstream chart success since 1977’s Luxury Liner, a remarkable late-stage career success.

Emmylou Harris has sold 75 million records in the U.S. alone. She has won 14 Grammy awards out of 48 for which she had been nominated. She has also won numerous country, bluegrass and Americana awards, and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in February 2008.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

Clips & Pix: Emmylou Harris & the Hot Band/Ooh Las Vegas

I rarely post clips twice but felt the above warranted an exception. I previously included this amazing footage in a July 2017 post about the British TV music show The Old Grey Whistle Test. It captures Emmylou Harris, who appeared on the program in 1977 with The Hot Band, her backing group from 1974 until 1991. That band couldn’t have selected a better name – I mean, holy smoke!

Ooh Las Vegas was co-written by Gram Parsons and Ric Grech. Harris included her rendition of the tune on her third studio album Elite Hotel released in December 1975. She also sang on Parsons’ original from his January 1974 studio record Grievous Angel. I think both versions are fantastic and represent county rock at its finest. Call it hillbilly music, if you want – I don’t care, this just rocks!

The Hot Band featured Albert Lee (lead guitar, vocals), Rodney Crowell (guitar, vocals), Emory Gordy Jr. (bass, vocals), Glen D. Hardin (piano), Hank DeVito (steel guitar) and John Ware (drums). Harris provided lead vocals and guitar.

I really need to further explore Emmylou Harris. The more of her music I hear, the more I like her. It’s already clear to me she absolutely deserves more than just one clip. Look for a post on her in the near future.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube