The "Brown Sugar" Sessions: Jimmy Johnson on Recording the Stones

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Were you the only engineer on hand for the Stones sessions?

Yes, I did all those myself, along with my assistant, Larry Hamby. It was supposed to be Jimmy Miller, from what I understand, but he didn't show up. It was my intention to assist him when the whole thing started, because I heard they would be bringing their own people. As it was, he never made it down. So I became the unofficial-official engineer for all those sessions.

Did you cut all the basic tracks here?

They did some overdubbing later, of backgrounds, saxophone and acoustic guitar. But electric guitars, lead vocals, piano and even the percussion was done right there, Jagger did that. Mick Taylor was on those sessions, of course, and during "Wild Horses" Jim Dickinson showed up, from Memphis. What happened is that their touring piano player, who was also their road manger, Ian Stewart, he played on "Brown Sugar" some, but during "Wild Horses" Jim Dickenson was out behind the where we put the guitar amps "Do you remember Paul Simon's 'Kodachrome' where we went to double time and the tack piano comes in, the piano kind of goes crazy? That was our tack piano, an old upright piano; we put tacks on the hammers so it sounded like a honky tonk. Anyway, Jim was back there just tiddling on it, playing along with what they had settled on as the groove, and Keith walked by and said, "Hey you need to play that!"

Let's try to reconstruct how "Brown Sugar" was tracked. First, what mics did you have set up, starting with the drums?

We only had three mics on the drums. We ran a U47 up over the top up over the top, about nose high to the drummer. We had a high stand out in front, with the mic facing downward at the kit, from the bass drum in with a little boom that came over the snare. So it gave a good overview of the whole kit, so you could play with a lot of dynamics and you could get an incredible sound. In fact, Charlie Watts wanted to buy that microphone! But of course, I wouldn't sell it. He couldn't get over the sound we were getting.

On the bass drum we used the E-V 666, a fantastic dynamic mic for the time. It was on a little stand looking to the backside of the drum. Then I had a hi-hat mic, which I think was another (E-V) RE-15, though it could have been a little (E-V) 635A, that remains in question.

Charle Watts, suffering U47 envy.

The RE-15 was a better mic, had more response. We avoided using the 635A unless we had to. Actually, if not the RE-15 it might have been an SM57, more likely than the 635A.

And Charlie brought all his own drums?

Yes, he brought all of this own kit.

What guitar was Keith playing?

It was a Gibson, but not a Les Paul. Do you know that model that was right under the Les Paul, the solid body double cutaway-what is that? Oh yeah, the SG. I think it was an SG, and as I recall it was black. I remember it had those sharp horns on the cutaways. That's what he played most of the time he was here.
And Mick Taylor?

Taylor, to my recollection, was playing a Strat. And guess what we came up with for Bill Wyman? Do you remember those Plexiglas body basses that were around then? I checked with David Hood later and he says it was a Dan Armstrong. So to the best of our recollection, that's what it was. He played through Davidís Fender Bassman setup, the tube head and separate box.

And the guitar amps?

Keith played a Fender Twin, and so did Mick Taylor, and they brought those in with them. The loudness on those tracks really came from Keith. I had it put in that back booth and shut the door on it.

So Mick's was out in the room?

Yeah, it was out, set where I normally played. If you looked from the control room it was on the left side, about the middle, facing toward the front. You see, we had all these wonderful baffles, covered with burlap, with that pink insulation underneath. We would corner off the sound with a couple of baffles up against each other. It would just knock the directness off, it took a lot of top end off.

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