Not Your Brown Sugar: Marsha Hunt

Even those of us who love The Rolling Stones have to give a side eye to “Brown Sugar.” Listen closely to the lyrics: a fantasy about a slave master abusing his slaves. And “abusing” in this context is putting it mildly. The lyrics are disturbing enough, but they become even more so considering that the song was “inspired” by American-born model, actress, singer and dancer Marsha Hunt — the mother of Mick Jagger’s first child. However, to relegate Marsha Hunt as simply Jagger’s secret flame is not only an insult but also erases her legacy in pop culture.

Born on April 15, 1946, Marsha emigrated to the UK from Pennsylvania in the 1960s and became part of the swinging London scene when she left home at age 19. In 1967, she married Mike Ratledge of Soft Machine in order to prevent deportation. She first got widespread recognition from a now iconic image of a nude Marsha with a glorious afro. The promo for the stage musical Hair!, of which she was a performer, was supposed to be the cover image of Vogue magazine. However, it was relegated to the inside spread, so Marsha did not have the opportunity to make history as the first black woman on the cover of the magazine although she did become the first black woman to grace the cover of the UK publication Queen.

Even though she did not make the cover of Vogue, Marsha’s stage work garnered her lots of attention and she signed a record deal. By 1971, she released her first album Woman Child. Recorded over two years, the album blends rock and soul with blues and funk to make it one of the most distinct creations of the 1970s. The album includes two songs actually released in 1969, a cover of Dr. John’s “Walk on Gilded Splinters” (which she performed at the Isle of Wight Festival with her band White Trash in 1967) and the rock-fueled “Desdemona,” previously covered by the group John’s Children in 1967. The latter track was written by T.Rex’s Marc Bolan who also collaborated with Marsha on many other tracks on the album.

While the two were rumored to have had a torrid affair at the time, the music from this collaboration speaks for itself. The lyrics of “Desdemona” (“lift up your skirt and fly”) may have been a bit too racy for airplay, but it is a favorite among Marsha’s fans. Marsha also covered the track “Hot Rod Mama” as “Hot Rod Poppa,” another heavy rock outing from the album that was actually the B-side to the “Walk on Gilded Splinters” single. The flowery, spacey “Stacey Grove” also features Bolan’s touch, but Marsha provided the vocals for her album’s version.

However, none of these cuts compare to the ethereal quality of The Supremes’ cover “My World Is Empty Without You.” Marsha’s haunting vocals over strings and congas bring a nuance to the lyrics that the Motown version just doesn’t quite get. The track has a timeless quality that transcends anything from the late 60s and early 70s and definitely creates a departure from Bolan’s sound as well. The one track that comes close to equaling anything the two did together is the lazy but sublime “Hippy Gumbo,” which served as the B-side to the “Desdemona” single.

Woman Child also included covers of Paul Simon’s “Keep the Customer Satisfied” and The Troggs’ “Wild Thing,” which provided the album’s finale in grand style. It would be another two years before Marsha released another album. However, 1973 brought one of her most beloved and enduring songs. “(Oh No! Not!) The Beast Day” takes it catchy refrains straight from the games little black girls (used to) play on the sidewalk and commit it to a funk-rock groove that had to come from the 70s but still sounds both ahead of its time and timeless.

Interestingly, “(Oh No! Not!) The Beast Day” was not featured on Marsha’s second album, released under her new band’s name Marsha Hunt’s 22. Attention! Marsha Hunt was not simply more of the same as Woman Child. The album had some of the eclectic mixture of styles as the previous effort, but still showcased Marsha’s style that would eventually begin to lean more heavily toward funk. “Baby John” is a rather affable tune with a deep groove while its B-side “Black Flower” finds Marsha in a duet on a rather striking ballad.

Attention! Marsha Hunt would be the only album Marsha released with Marsha Hunt’s 22. No doubt much of her focus went into raising her daughter Karis who was born in 1970. Furthermore, Marsha continued acting. Most fans remember her from an appearance in Dracula AD 1972. However, music was never far from her heart. She changed along with the times. By the time she released Marsha in 1977, she had turned to disco.

Marsha yielded a now classic disco cut “The Other Side of Midnight.” Around this time, Marsha also had a hit with a single not included on the album, “C’est La Vie.” New fans may have even discovered some of Marsha’s rock roots when a greatest hits compilation recharted “Keep the Customer Satisfied” with “Desdemona” as its B-side in 1977. Unfortunately, Marsha’s last official single, “May 77,” was also released that year.

Even though music is no longer Marsha’s primary outlet, she has remained busy and grown in status over the past 40 years. Many now associate her more with her stage work including a play by her daughter that she directed. However, Marsha has also established herself as a successful writer. Her book Repossessing Ernestine: A Granddaughter Uncovers the Secret History of Her American Family (1996) is a memoir that finds Marsha exploring the life of her grandmother Ernestine, committed to an asylum.

Ten years later, Marsha would continue her own story with Undefeated (2006) with the nearly 60 year old recreating the iconic pose that defined the 1960s. However, this photo was taken five weeks after Marsha underwent a mastectomy and refused to undergo reconstructive surgery. Both memoirs were critically acclaimed for Marsha’s lyrical writing style, a style that translated to her works of fiction Joy (1991), Free (1994) and Like Venus Fading (1998).

Even with her battles with cancer, Marsha continues to live life on her own terms. She is the embodiment of the manic carefree pixie girl, but ironically her work ethic made her an icon as she was the only Hair! cast member who would get up early enough for the publicity photo shoots. She had a bitter paternity battle with Mick Jagger and is glad he didn’t have a relationship with their daughter until she was nearly a teen, but she speaks fondly of Jagger as a person. Once known for her towering afro, she keeps her hair close crop after it grew back when her chemotherapy ended. History may want to relegate Marsha Hunt to her brief relationship with Jagger, but she is an icon in her own right with her contributions to rock and the arts.