For his latest Top 11 column, Frank Mastropolo looks at some of the most notable songs based on sweets.
I like to serve chocolate cake, because it doesn’t show the dirt.
11. “Brown Sugar” by the Rolling Stones
“Brown Sugar” was written primarily by Mick Jagger in 1969 but was not released until 1971 because of a dispute with Decca Records. The song shot to No. 1 shortly after its release. “I wrote that song in Australia in the middle of a field,” Jagger told Rolling Stone in 1995. “They were really odd circumstances. I was doing this movie, Ned Kelly, and my hand had got really damaged in this action sequence. So stupid. I was trying to rehabilitate my hand and had this new kind of electric guitar, and I was playing in the middle of the outback and wrote this tune.”
“Brown Sugar” was recorded at Alabama’s Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in 1969, when Jagger penned the lyrics. “You can’t imagine how nonchalantly Jagger wrote that,” session pianist Jim Dickinson told Gibson. “It was already a fully developed song as far as the music went, but there were no lyrics. Jagger sat down with one of those green steno pads and filled up three pages. It took him 45 minutes. Then he stood up and sang. It was unbelievable.”
Drugs and interracial sex are two of the controversial topics in the song. “The whole mess thrown in,” said Jagger. “God knows what I’m on about on that song. It’s such a mishmash. All the nasty subjects in one go . . . I never would write that song now.”
10. “Lollipop” by Ronald & Ruby and the Chordettes
Julius Dixson and Beverly Ross were an uncommon songwriting duo for the 1950s. Dixson was an older Black record executive; Ross a young white woman. Together they wrote Bill Haley’s “Dim, Dim the Lights” and “Lollipop,” a No. 2 hit for the Chordettes in 1958.
Ross was inspired when Dixson explained he was late arriving at a songwriting session because his daughter had gotten a lollipop stuck in her hair. “Lollipop” quickly came together. Ross, who sang well, recorded a demo with Ronald Gumm, Dixson’s 13-year-old neighbor. After a few publishers turned the song down, Dixson and Ross tried to release the demo as a single. The plan was complicated by the fact that Gumm was a young black man at a time interracial duos were almost unheard of. The duo was named Ronald & Ruby; Ross adopted the pseudonym, Ruby, to prevent any racial blowback.
RCA Victor capitalized on the delay by releasing a version of “Lollipop” by the Chordettes, who began as an all-woman barbershop quartet in the 1940s. The Chordettes’ version included a popping sound effect that made the song appealing. “Lollipop” by Ronald & Ruby was released soon after but only made it to No. 20 on the Billboard chart.
“Lollipop” by Ronald & Ruby
“Lollipop” by the Chordettes
9. “Wild Honey” by the Beach Boys
“Wild Honey” was written by Mike Love and Brian Wilson, and served as the title track to the Beach Boys’ 1967 album. The album’s liner notes read, “Honey, of the wild variety, on a shelf in Brian’s kitchen, was not only an aid to all of the Beach Boys’ health but the source of inspiration for the record ‘Wild Honey.’”
“Brian was doing this track with a Theremin and we were doing the song,” Love recalled in Goldmine. “I went into the kitchen and we were in this health food thing and wild honey was all-natural. So there’s this can of wild honey and we’re making some tea. So I said, ‘I’ll write the lyrics about this girl who was a wild little honey.’ And I wrote it from the perspective that that album was Brian’s R&B-influenced album, in his mind.”
“I was even thinking about Stevie Wonder at the time,” Love explained in Billboard. “What would Stevie Wonder say to his mother about a girl that maybe she didn’t want him to get involved with, but he says, ‘Screw it’ — he really digs this chick. That was the premise of the song.”
8. “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch) by the Four Tops
“I Can’t Help Myself” was a No. 1 hit in 1965 for Motown’s Four Tops. Levi Stubbs performed lead vocals on the tune written and produced by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland. Dozier told Performing Songwriter that the song came together quickly.
“The song was started with a bass figure, with me sitting at the piano. It wasn’t slowed down, like the usual songs. The bass line was the whole song, at that tempo. When I said, ‘Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch,’ it was over with. We went right in and cut it.”
Dozier’s inspiration goes back to his days as an 11-year-old who swept the floor of his grandmother’s home beauty shop. “I used to hear these women like chickens in a coop and they would talk about everything under the sun,” Dozier recalled in The Guardian.
“I had a chance to listen to how women thought and what their concerns were. Then when I started writing songs, I used a lot of those stories and sayings that I used to hear.”
Dozier’s grandfather flirted with his wife’s customers as they came up the walkway to have their hair done. “He used to say things like ‘Good morning sugar pie, honey bunch,’ to these women and those little things stuck with me.”
7. “No Sugar Tonight” by the Guess Who
“No Sugar Tonight,” written by Randy Bachman, was first released in 1970 as the B-side of “American Woman,” which became a No. 1 hit. The song was later paired with Burton Cummings’ “New Mother Nature.” The guitarist explained in Randy Bachman’s Vinyl Tap Stories that he wrote the song after an encounter on a San Francisco street with “three rough, tough street guys.”
“I could feel a confrontation coming. Suddenly this battered little brown car pulls up in front of them . . . This little woman steps out and starts yelling at one of these tough guys. The other two scatter; they don’t want anything to do with this.
“‘You’re nothing but a no-good bum!’ she’s yelling. ‘You left me at home with the kids again. You’re supposed to be looking for a job and here you are with your buddies checking out the girls.’
“So he sheepishly goes around to the passenger side door. Finally she says to him as he’s getting in the car, ‘And baby, when you get home you ain’t gettin’ no sugar tonight.’”
6. “Popsicles and Icicles” by the Murmaids
The Murmaids, an early ’60s girl group, were sisters Carol and Terry Fischer and their friend, Sally Gordon. The high school classmates were in their mid-to-late teens when Mike Post, who would become a famous composer of television themes, introduced them to the recording business.
“At that time, he was starting to go into the studios and record some of his songs, just trying to get started in the business, and he would ask us to go in and sing background for him,” Terry Fischer told Classic Bands. “And so we used to do that every now and then. One day, we were in there singing and Kim Fowley, who was our producer, knew Mike from I don’t know where, and he came in and really liked us and said, ‘You girls want to make a record on your own?’ and we said ‘Oh, sure!’ And that was the beginning. It happened very, very fast.”
Fowley, who became a well-known singer and producer, brought the teens “Popsicles and Icicles,” written by David Gates before he rose to fame as the lead singer of Bread. The Murmaids signed with Chattahoochee Records and the tune was a No. 3 hit in 1964. “The downside is it lasted about six months and then it was finished,” said Fischer.
“I guess we did about two television shows and a local concert here. And that’s all we did. At that time, we got a statement from the record company charging us an exorbitant amount of money against royalties. They said, ‘You’re not getting any money. We don’t have it.’ Everyone else got paid. Kim Fowley got paid. The musicians got paid. We were paid nothing. So, that was the end of the Murmaids.”
5. “Sweets for My Sweet” by the Drifters
“Sweets for My Sweet” reached No. 16 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1961, the first hit by the Drifters with Charlie Thomas on lead vocals. This was not the Drifters of the 1950s that featured Clyde McPhatter. Thomas was a member of the Five Crowns, an R&B group that performed along with the original Drifters at New York’s Apollo Theater in late 1958. Drifters manager George Treadwell, who owned the group’s name, tired of its members’ drinking and infighting and fired all of them. Treadwell offered the Five Crowns the opportunity to become the Drifters group most fans now know from hits like “There Goes My Baby” and “Under the Boardwalk.”
“Sweets for My Sweet” was written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman. Pomus was the legendary composer of a long list of hits for the Drifters, Elvis Presley and others including “This Magic Moment,” “Save the Last Dance for Me,” and “Little Sister.”
Thomas told Craig Morrison that Pomus wrote “Sweets for My Sweet” for him. “He was just one gorgeous guy,” said Thomas. “You couldn’t meet a better guy, and he was handicapped. But he was a sweetheart. His heart was bigger than his wheelchair. That’s what I always told him, ‘Your heart is bigger than your wheelchair, Doc.’ On his birthdays we used to go out and party a lot down in the Village. I miss him very, very much.”
British Invasion band the Searchers scored a No. 1 hit in the UK with “Sweets for My Sweet” in 1963, a single that failed to chart in the US. The song’s success in Britain would lead to another sugary song that introduced the Searchers to US audiences.
“Sweets for My Sweet” by the Drifters
“Sweets for My Sweet” by the Searchers
4. “Sugar and Spice” by the Searchers
Producer Tony Hatch brought the Searchers “Sweets for My Sweet,” the band’s No. 1 debut single. In search of their next hit, the Searchers reluctantly agreed to record “Sugar and Spice,” written by an unknown, Fred Nightingale.
“Tony Hatch tricked us good style with that,” drummer Chris Curtis told Spencer Leigh. “We were looking for a follow-up to ‘Sweets For My Sweet’ and I was going on the American idea: if that one’s a hit, follow it with something similar. He sensed that was what I wanted, so he lied to me. He told me that he had heard this bloke, Fred Nightingale, in a pub singing ‘Sugar And Spice.’”
“He said he found the song,” singer Mike Pender recalled in Pop Culture Classics. “He played it to us. And we said, ‘We don’t have a single for our next record. Are you saying you’d like us to record this song?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I think you’ll have a hit with it.’ He was our mentor at the time, so we just went along with him and said, ‘Okay, let’s do it.’”
Hatch was right; “Sugar and Spice” reached No. 2 on the UK charts and was the first of many successes in the States. “We only found out later that the name on the label, Fred Nightingale, was just an imaginary name,” said Pender. “It was really Tony Hatch who wrote it.”
3. “Tutti Frutti” by Little Richard
Tutti frutti, from the Italian “all fruits,” is ice cream that contains the flavors of many fruits. In 1955 Little Richard used it as the title of a song that would define rock and roll rhythm. “Tutti Frutti” reached No. 21 on the Billboard Rhythm & Blues chart in early 1956 and was Little Richard’s first big hit.
By 1955, Little Richard had spent four unproductive years recording for RCA Victor and Peacock Records as a blues and R&B singer in the mold of B.B. King and Ray Charles. Signed by Specialty Records, Richard was brought to New Orleans, where he recorded eight unimpressive sides by midway into his second day. During a lunch break, Richard took over the bandstand at a local haunt, the Dew Drop Inn, and pounded out a song he’d played live for years: “Tutti Frutti.”
Richard told Rolling Stone that the song had its roots in Macon, Georgia, where he worked at the Greyhound bus station. “I was washing dishes at the time. I couldn’t talk back to my boss man. He would bring all these pots back for me to wash, and one day I said, ‘I’ve got to do something to stop this man bringing back all these pots for me to wash,’ and one day I said, ‘A wop bop alu bop a wop bam boom, take ‘em out!’ and that’s what I meant at the time.”
Richard’s original lyrics were raunchier than the recorded version: Tutti Frutti, good booty / If it don’t fit, don’t force it / You can grease it, make it easy. Richard told the Wall Street Journal how “Tutti Frutti, good booty” became “Tutti Frutti, all rooty”—hipster slang for “all right.”
“I used to go up on stage in clubs to sing boogie-woogie blues but I’d forget the words. So I made up dirty ones to fill out the songs. I was doing then what the rap groups do today. When I recorded ‘Tutti Frutti’ for Specialty, we cleaned up the words. We had to. No radio station was going to put those original words on the air.”
2. “Wild Honey Pie” by the Beatles
Paul McCartney wrote and recorded “Wild Honey Pie” without any input from the other Beatles. It was released on 1968’s The Beatles, also known as the White Album. Its title is the only thing in common with “Honey Pie,” also written by McCartney for the album. McCartney said in Many Years From Now that he decided to experiment after John Lennon recorded “Yer Blues.”
“We were in an experimental mode, and so I said, ‘Can I just make something up?’ I started off with the guitar and did a multitracking experiment in the control room or maybe in the little room next door. It was very homemade; it wasn’t a big production at all. I just made up this short piece and I multitracked a harmony to that, and a harmony to that, and a harmony to that, and built it up sculpturally with a lot of vibrato on the strings, really pulling the strings madly. Hence, ‘Wild Honey Pie,’ which was a reference to the other song I had written called ‘Honey Pie.’ It was a little experimental piece.”
1. “Honey Pie” by the Beatles
Paul McCartney wrote “Honey Pie” as a tribute to the music hall style of early 20th century Britain. John Lennon contributed lead guitar to McCartney’s piano. “Both John and I had a great love for music hall, what the Americans call vaudeville,” McCartney explained in Many Years From Now. “I very much liked that old crooner style, the strange fruity voice that they used, so ‘Honey Pie’ was me writing one of them to an imaginary woman, across the ocean, on the silver screen, who was called ‘Honey Pie.’
“It’s another of my fantasy songs. We put a sound on my voice to make it sound like a scratchy old record. So it’s not a parody, it’s a nod to the vaudeville tradition that I was raised on.”
“John played a brilliant solo on ‘Honey Pie,’” George Harrison said in 1987. “Sounded like Django Reinhardt or something. It was one of them where you just close your eyes and happen to hit all the right notes . . . sounded like a little jazz solo.”