Rocks Off: The Magical Tones of the Mick Taylor-Era Stones
By the time Sticky Fingers was released 40 years ago in 1971, The Rolling Stones had become the best American band from England. Keith Richards and Mick Jagger were born in Dartford, Kent, and yet the sound of the album’s tracks “Brown Sugar,” “Wild Horses,” “Sister Morphine,” “Dead Flowers,” “Moonlight Mile,” “Bitch” and “I Got the Blues” fell in right alongside the sole cover, Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “You Gotta Move,” thanks to the group’s careful assimilation of blues licks, New Orleans and Memphis grooves, and the drawl that crept into Jagger’s voice more and more as the ’60s gave way to the next decade.
But with Sticky Fingers, the Stones also fully unveiled a new secret weapon — guitarist Mick Taylor. Sticky Fingers was the first Rolling Stones album made entirely without Brian Jones, and Taylor’s stunning Gibson Les Paul tone and fluid playing, which straddled rock, jazz and blues effortlessly, took the band to new instrumental heights. Check out Taylor’s six-string hound dog bay on “I Got the Blues” and his gravelly leads on “Brown Sugar,” or the magical riffs and licks on “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” capped by the then 21-year-old’s superb outro solo.
Many — especially lovers of six-string derring-do — consider Taylor’s years with the Stones to be the band’s finest period. And, indeed, during his 1969 to 1975 tenure the band recorded the monumental albums Let It Bleed (with Taylor on just two tracks, including slide on “Country Honk”), Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street, Goats Head Soup and It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Taylor’s tone during that era was based on his exceptional vibrato and touch, as well as a series of superb Gibson instruments and the distinctive amps of the day. As the Stones moved into the recording of Exile On Main Street, Taylor was using a Gibson ES- 345 and Gibson SG, but until then — and for the Sticky Fingers sessions — his main arsenal was a series of Gibson Les Paul Standards built from 1958 through 1960. In 1967 he’d bought his first Les Paul Sunburst from Keith Richards, and that was his main guitar for his pre-Stones gig with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and for Sticky Fingers.
Taylor’s tone on cuts like “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” and “Brown Sugar” is a result of the blend of his Les Paul’s humbuckers, mahogany neck, body mass with thin gauge strings — .009s for slinky bending — and Ampeg amps. Live he used especially powerful versions of the latter: 300-watt SVT heads running two 4x12 cabinets. This was before he moved to Marshalls. He also used a Cry Baby wah-wah pedal and a glass slide, when duty called for either. In lieu of an actual vintage Ampeg, a good tube simulating overdrive pedal with the bright end turned down can help get modern players into the right zone.
Another secret weapon deployed on Sticky Fingers for achieving the regional Southern American sound that also served Exile On Main Street so well was the additional players they brought into the studio. These musicians comprised a stellar cast of roots masters from the States, including the late Memphis piano and production legend Jim Dickinson, Billy Preston and roots guitar kingpin Ry Cooder.
It also helped that part of the album was cut at Muscle Shoals Studios in Alabama. Nonetheless, the majority of Sticky Fingers was recorded with the Stones’ mobile studio at Jagger’s country estate in England. The sessions began in March 1970, and when they concluded, “Sister Morphine,” which had been put to tape the year before and left off of Let It Bleed, was added to the album’s mix.
Sticky Fingers had other notable turns. The original release’s cover was designed by Andy Warhol and featured a photograph of a man wearing tight jeans with an actual working zipper. Later issues dispensed with the zipper, which plagued retailers, shippers and distributors by cutting through the shrink-wrap, scarring covers and making stacking difficult. The disc also marked the debut of the Stone’s now-famed lolling-tongue-and-lips logo and of their “Rolling Stones” record label, trumpeting their split with Decca Records.
All of this additional work and care paid off, of course, when Sticky Fingers immediately went to the top of the British and American album charts and “Brown Sugar” hit the apex of the U.S. singles chart. Jagger wrote the song, and it’s been reported that the version on Sticky Fingers was actually recorded at Muscle Shoals along with “Sister Morphine.” And as hard-core Stones fans know, another famous version of the tune, which has been bootlegged, was cut in London in December 1970 as part of a jam celebrating Keith Richards’ birthday, with Al Kooper on piano and Eric Clapton on slide.