Although credited to usual Stones writers Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, "Shine a Light" was largely a Jagger composition. He began writing the song in early 1968 when the Stones still had guitarist Brian Jones as a member. The song was originally titled "Get A Line On You" and dealt with Jones' ever-worsening addiction to drugs and his detachment from the rest of the band;
Saw you stretched out, in-a-room ten oh nine; A smile on your face, and tear in your eye; Could not seem to get a line on you; I could not seem to get a line on you; Oh sweet, sweet honey lover. Your Berber jewelry is jangling down the street; Smile on your face for every high school girl that you meet; Could not seem to get a line on you; Could not seem to get-a high on you; My, my sweet, sweet honey lover, now, oh
An early recording was made during the Beggars Banquet sessions of March 1968.
After Jones' death in 1969, "Get A Line On You" resurfaced and was re-written by Jagger and recorded again in July 1970. A third recording at London's Olympic Sound Studios in December 1971 resulted in the final version of the song, now titled "Shine a Light" with slightly altered lyrics;
Saw you stretched out in Room Ten O Nine; With a smile on your face and a tear right in your eye; Oh, couldn't see to get a line on you, my sweet honey love. Berber jewelry jangling down the street; Making bloodshot eyes at every woman that you meet; Could not seem to get a high on you, my sweet honey love
This final version featured Jagger on vocals, Stones producer Jimmy Miller on drums instead of Charlie Watts, and Mick Taylor on electric guitar and possibly bass instead of Bill Wyman (both claim credit, while Taylor is given credit on the record's sleeve). Also performing on the song are back-up singers Clydie King, Joe Green, Venetta Field and Jesse Kirkland. Billy Preston performs both piano and organ for the recording and had a distinct influence on Jagger and the song while mixing the album at Los Angeles' Sunset Sound Studios. Jagger claims visits to Preston's local church inspired the gospel influences apparent on the final recording. Richards was absent from these sessions.
"Shine a Light" first entered the Stones' setlist during the 1995 leg of the Voodoo Lounge Tour. A recording of this acoustic variation was captured and released on the 1995 live album Stripped. The Stones again played it during the Bridges to Babylon Tour and their most recent A Bigger Bang Tour.