45 Years Ago: The Rolling Stones Embrace Disco on ‘Miss You’
None of the Rolling Stones thought "Miss You" would amount to much, and it certainly wasn't a top priority when they were recording their 1978 album, Some Girls.
The germ of the song was born when Mick Jagger and Billy Preston started fooling around with some ideas at Toronto's El Mocambo club in March 1977. (The Stones recorded a live album there, Live at the El Mocambo, which wouldn't be released until 2022.) "Billy had shown me the four-on-the-floor bass-drum part, and I would just play the guitar," Jagger recalled to Rolling Stone in 1995. "I was still writing it, actually. We were just in rehearsal."
When sessions for Some Girls began later that year, the rest of the Stones weren't that keen on the song; Jagger, a frequent patron of New York's disco club Studio 54, was the most interested in the music that was then dominating the airwaves at the time thanks to groups like Bee Gees and ABBA. "We just thought we'd put our oar in on Mick wanting to do some disco shit, keep the man happy," Keith Richards wrote in his 2011 book, Life. "But as we got into it, it became quite an interesting beat. And we realized, maybe we've got a quintessential disco thing here."
Drummer Charlie Watts was also somewhat unimpressed. "It was the dance thing at the time," he explained in 2000. "It was a case of trying to help [Jagger] write a song by playing the drums with him. That's all it is really; it's called being a band."
It was then a question of how to do disco Rolling Stones-style. "We'd always just adapt with what music was in the air," Ronnie Wood added. "We thought just about the beat, you know?"
Listen to the Rolling Stones' 'Miss You'
Bassist Bill Wyman did his homework, taking the rudimentary bass part Preston had played on a demo tape and working up something more solid. "'Miss You' took quite a time to come together," Some Girls engineer Chris Kimsey told Sound on Sound in 2004. "Bill needed to go to quite a few clubs before he got that bass line sorted out. But he did sort it out, and bless him, it made that song." The result was a thick walking bass line that fit neatly into Watts' four-on-the-floor drumming.
The song's famous harmonica turn was not played by Jagger, who typically handled the role within the band. Instead, the part was played by a musician named Sugar Blue, whom Wood said Jagger discovered busking on the streets of Paris. "You could give that guy a harmonica in one key and tell him to join in in the song in any key from A to G, and he would bend it on that same harmonica," Wood recalled. "The only other person I've met who's like that is Stevie Wonder."
Saxophonist Mel Collins, who had played on albums by Robert Palmer, Bryan Ferry and Eric Clapton, contributed to the song, too. Even though Collins wasn't the Stones' usual sax player, Bobby Keys' relationship with Jagger was strained at the time. Richards preferred their usual sideman.
"I was there with Mick and trying to [play] the solo of my life," Collins told Rolling Stone in 2021. "And in walks Keith. He walked towards me and I went to shake his hand. He completely blanked me and walked over to the other side, sat on a stool reading a copy of Melody Maker and completely ignored me. To be honest, it was very uncomfortable. But the end result is pretty good, I think. I didn't hear it for years. But when I heard it, I thought it wasn't bad." Collins said he played two or three takes total: "They ran out of tracks, so they had to use what I did."
Watch the Rolling Stones Perform 'Miss You' at Live Aid in 1985
Ian McLagan added electric piano, and the song, in all its dance-floor glory, was complete. Released in the U.S. on May 10, 1978, as the first single from Some Girls, "Miss You" went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
It arrived in the U.K. a few weeks later on May 26 and went to No. 3 - proof that the Rolling Stones could still be relevant in the disco era. "Out of it, we got a huge hit," Richards wrote in Life. "The rest of the album doesn't sound anything like 'Miss You.'"