Why ‘Tumbling Dice’ Was Like ‘Pulling Teeth’ for Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones released “Tumbling Dice” on April 14, 1972. Like many Stones classics, the journey to get to that point was a long one.
The song began its life in 1969, originally under the title “Good Time Women.”
“It was one of those songs with a very simple structure that evolved out of us just jamming,” guitarist Mick Taylor noted to Blender magazine. “It even had an early vocal with completely different words.”
“Good Time Women” was one of the ideas the band brought with them to the Nellcote mansion in the South of France in 1971, where they recorded Exile on Main St. while avoiding the U.K.’s hefty upper class income tax.
Listen to 'Good Time Women'
The famous sessions featured the band working in the property’s basement, recording in gruelingly hot and humid conditions.
“The humidity was incredible. I couldn’t stand it,” added Mick Jagger. “As soon as I opened my mouth to sing, my voice was gone. It was so humid that all the guitars were out of tune by the time we got to the end of each number.”
Almost as exhausting as the heat: the pace at which the Stones worked.
“They would play for days without coming in and listen[ing] to anything,” recording engineer Andy Johns noted in the book Rocks Off: 50 Tracks That Tell the Story of the Rolling Stones.
Indeed, even when inspiration struck, the process would get drawn out. The riff in “Tumbling Dice” is a perfect example.
“I remember writing the riff upstairs in the very elegant front room, and we took it downstairs the same evening and cut it,” Richards recalled. “A lot of times when ideas come that quick, we don’t put down lyrics — we do what we call ’vowel movement.’ You just bellow over the top of it to get the right sounds for the track.”
Though the song’s structure was coming together, it took a long time to get the tune just right.
“We worked on that for a couple of weeks at least, just the basic track,” noted Johns. “I know we had a hundred reels of tape on the basic track.” The exact number of takes the band laid down is unknown, but some have estimated it around 150 tries.
“That was a good song,” Johns admitted, “but it was really like pulling teeth. It just went on and on and on.”
Listen to 'Tumbling Dice'
The next stage in the process saw the Stones leaving France and heading to Los Angeles to complete the album. It was there that Jagger formulated what would be the song’s final lyrics. Though not a gambler himself, the frontman knew he wanted to utilize gambling imagery. As luck would have it, he gleaned knowledge from an unlikely source.
“I sat down with the housekeeper and talked to her about gambling,” Jagger revealed. “She liked to play dice and I really didn’t know much about it. But I got it off of her and managed to make a song out of that.”
With its blues influence and upbeat tempo, “Tumbling Dice” offered a distinctive groove. Released as the first single from Exile on Main St., the song quickly rose up the charts, peaking at No. 7 in the U.S. and No. 5 in the U.K.
“Tumbling Dice” has remained a fan favorite in the decades since. The track has been covered by a wide range of artists, including Linda Ronstadt, Keith Urban and Phish. It has also maintained a permanent place in the Stones’ set lists, ranking as the fourth most performed song in the band’s repertoire.