The Rolling Stones

“Rocks Off,” “Tumbling Dice,” “Happy”—these are the songs that typically spring to mind when contemplating the Rolling Stones’ 1972 double-album tour-de-force, Exile On Main St. But tucked away at the end of Side 3—in the form of the gospel-blues ballad “Let It Loose”—is the crowning jewel in the Stones’ sprawling masterpiece.

Through the years much has been made of the debauched atmosphere in which Exile was recorded—specifically, in the drug-hazed basement of Keith Richards’ villa in the south of France. It was a sprawling Nazi palace, complete with swastikas on the floor vents, that Richards rented during the band's stint as tax exiles. Fact is, however, several sessions and overdubs took place at Sunset Sound studio in Los Angeles. It was there that “Let It Loose” took shape.

Exile on Main StreetProfoundly impacted by the gospel choir he had heard recently at a service at Reverend James Cleveland’s church, Mick Jagger strove to bring a similarly religious fervor to Exile’s blues ballads. The rollicking “Shine a Light” was the most overt example of that approach, but in “Let It Loose,” Jagger and his bandmates pitted pain against ecstasy in a way that would have done their secular blues heroes proud.

Who’s that woman on your arm / All dressed up to do you harm / And I’m hip to what she’ll do / Give her just about a month or two

With those words, in one of his most unaffected, heart-wrenching vocals, Jagger launches the song against the backdrop of beautifully plucked guitar lines played through a Leslie organ amp. Foreshadowing the choral blasts to come, background singers Venetta Fields, Shirley Goodman, Clydie King, and Tammi Lynn echo the last line like white-robed testifiers urging Jagger on.

The song then kicks into another gear, with Charlie Watts’ four/four drumming and guest pianist Dr. John steadying the ship, till Jagger cuts loose with an anguished wail (She delivers right on time!) that ratchets the song up yet another level. From that point forward, as athletes often say, Jagger is simply “in the zone,” singing with such unselfconscious abandon you can’t help but wonder what he’s pulling out of himself.

By the time he hits the words, I ain’t in love! / I ain’t in love!—flailing desperate against the tide of that emotion—it’s all you can do not to weep.

Underscoring the song’s magisterial qualities are succinct, head-held-high horn lines from saxophonist Bobby Keys and trombonist Jim Price. Additionally, one of the background singers (Fields, most likely) offers up a beautiful soprano in the fade-out.

Jagger has been vocal in his dismissal of Exile's reputation as the greatest rock and roll album of all time. And though the album is often cited as Keith Richards' artistic zenith, "Let It Loose" is Jagger’s finest vocal achievement. If much of Exile sounds like a gospel revival being staged by grievous sinners in search of transcendent salvation, then “Let It Loose” is the song that best embodies that spirit. Tellingly, the Stones have never performed the song live. Perhaps even the band is in awe of what they accomplished in this singularly authentic moment.