The recording of 1972’s Exile on Main Street was notoriously hectic and haphazard for The Rolling Stones. Due to the legendarily messy management situation involving the Stones, Allen Klein, and his company ABKCO, the band members were forced to live abroad as tax exiles, giving the album its title and main conceptual theme. The south of France was settled on as the ideal location, and recording quickly began to form in the basement of Keith Richards’ rented villa, Nellcôte.
However, problems arose almost immediately. Jagger was newly married to his wife Bianca, and subsequently only made scattered appearances. Bill Wyman lived a fair distance away and disliked the drug-fueled atmosphere of Nellcôte, causing him to be an infrequent presence as well. Even Richards himself could be flakey, occasionally not appearing at a session even though he resided only three floors above the recording studio. His heroin addiction had peaked during this time, and Richards usually only surfaced in the basement after the sun had gone down.
Except for one day when Richards uncharacteristically got up early. Most of the musicians and producers learned that showing up early was a fool’s errand (Charlie Watts drove nearly an hour every day just to get to the villa), so when Richards came in eager to start recording, he only found two of his close compatriots, producer Jimmy Miller and saxophonist Bobby Keys, present.
“’Happy’ was something I did because I was for one time early for a session,” Richards recalled in 1982. “There was Bobby Keys and Jimmy Miller. We had nothing to do and had suddenly picked up the guitar and played this riff. So we cut it and it’s the record, it’s the same. We cut the original track with a baritone sax, a guitar and Jimmy Miller on drums. And the rest of it is built up over that track. It was just an afternoon jam that everybody said, ‘Wow, yeah, work on it.’”
Miller was an experienced drummer and was no stranger to stepping in from behind the mixing desk on occasion. That’s him knocking out the signature cowbell intro for ‘Honky Tonk Women’, and it’s also him laying down the drum groove for ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’. During the times that Watts found it difficult to land on a rhythm (or during sessions when Watts just didn’t show up), Miller gamely stepped in. Exile was a prolific time for him as a musician, having appeared playing the drums on ‘Happy’, ‘Tumbling Dice’, and ‘Shine a Light’, plus contributing assorted percussion to tracks like ‘Sweet Black Angel’ and ‘Loving Cup’.
Eventually, Jagger came in to contribute backing vocals and percussion, most likely during the album’s overdub sessions in Los Angeles. But the majority of ‘Happy’ belongs to Richards, who lays down a number of guitar lines, bass, and lead vocals on the song. Keys’ baritone sax was later augmented by Jim Price’s trumpet and trombone, while Miller’s drum part was retained as well. When the final cut was mixed, the total number of Rolling Stones to appear on one of the band’s greatest songs was two: Richards and Jagger.