Sly & The Family Stone

TrackAlbum
Dance To The MedleyDance To The Music
Everyday PeopleStand!
Family AffairThere'’s A Riot Goin' On
I Want To Take You Higher (live)Woodstock Experience / Stand!
If You Want Me To StayFresh
LifeLife
M’'LadyLife
PoetThere'’s A Riot Goin’' On
Que Sera SeraFresh
Stand (Live, Isle of Wight)Higher CD / Stand!

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Contributor: Peter Viney

Greil Marcus in “Mystery Train” (1975) wrote the seminal book on rock and roll and American culture, selecting just six key artists: Harmonica Frank, Robert Johnson, The Band, Sly Stone, Randy Newman and Elvis Presley. He was saving Dylan for several more tomes. I’ve done Toppermosts on Randy, Elvis and The Band (Cal Taylor did one on Robert Johnson), and so Sly Stone is a natural. Or rather Sly and The Family Stone. Marcus chose well … the band had black and white, male and female, guitar/organ and horns, psychedelia and soul, pop and funk, all in its repertoire. They made strong life-affirming and succinct pop singles, but could perform long funky live versions with major improvisation. There were touches of humour, musical quotes and references. It sounded wild and chaotic at one level, but was tightly controlled at another. Sly sang. His brother Freddie (guitar) and sister Rose (keyboards) sang. Bassist Larry Graham sang. Cynthia Robinson played trumpet and sang some of the odder bits. Add Greg Errico on drums, Jerry Martini on sax and the three members of Little Sister on backing vocals.

The songs Sly & The Family Stones chose for singles were the right ones; after all Sylvester Stewart (aka Sly Stone) had been a major DJ, known for mixing in soul with Dylan and Beatles. He first recorded as a kid in 1952, but throughout the 60s was recording and producing others. There are two compilations of his work on the Ace label. Precious Stone covers 1963-65 with solo work, and work with Billy Preston and Bobby Freeman. Listen To The Voices covers 1965-70. Among the artists he produced were Grace Slick & The Great Society who he escorted through 200 takes of White Rabbit without nailing it. He apparently deserted them after 50 takes of Free Advice. Sly & The Family Stone were a union of Sly’s band, Sly & The Stoners, and his brother’s band, Freddie & The Stone Souls. The avowed aim was mixing the West Coast psychedelic sound with soul.

Their first album was A Whole New Thing recorded live in the studio in 1967. Trip To Your Heart begins with the mass yelling as of souls in purgatory and you know it’s not a trip by bus. If This Room Could Talk is more commercial and I shortlisted it when I got down to fourteen tracks. The vocal gymnastics point to their later successes. But the album failed to sell after which CBS/Columbia urged them to a more directly radio-friendly sound, resulting in Dance To The Music.

The Dance To The Music album was the breakthrough with the title track opening it and Dance To The Medley closing it. The last is a twelve minute extended rethink of the Dance To The Music concept with three sections, Music Is Alive, Dance In, and Music Lover. The initial hit song was such a great concept that more of the same is welcome. But you need both the full thing and the distillation. I’ll take the full thing here. Higher evolved later to become I Want To Take You Higher.

Even with the three essential Sly & The Family Stone singles, Dance To The Music, M’Lady and Everyday People you can get esoteric. Perfect 45s like these invariably sound better on mono singles rather than stereo LPs, and the 2013 box set Higher! and the single CD sampler Higher! restore these three to their pristine 45 edit, mono mixes (never before on CD?)

M’Lady was the lead track on the Life! album in 1968. Listen to the vocal gymnastics, then the horns and bass come in and they chant ‘M’lady’ till they get started. The speaker-cone destroying bass part by Larry Graham is one of the perennial influential bass parts. There is so much going on in this song. Life is a phenomenal track, though the sentiment that You don’t have to come down was to prove Sly’s downfall eventually. Sly liked one word titles. Fun is another.

The next album Stand! was Sly’s greatest rock album, coming in 1969. Five of his best-known songs are crammed on there: Stand!, Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey!, I Want To Take You Higher, Sing A Simple Song (which is anything BUT simple) and the biggest hit, Everyday People. That has to be heard on the single edit. Sly had used the tune of Freres Jacques on Underdog on the first album, and Everyday People is a hypnotic mix of rhythmic playground chant and soul message song. It was never a major hit in Britain (late 30s in the chart) but it was a massive number one hit in the USA. Different strokes for different folks became a well-known phrase or saying as a result. Dave Marsh’s “The Heart of Rock ‘n’ Soul: The 1001 Best Singles Ever Made” places it at #18. I wouldn’t place it any lower.

For the others you’re spoiled for choice over versions. I Want To Take You Higher was the highlight of the Woodstock film, and one of the few undubbed tracks on the movie. It’s now emerged that drummer Corky Laing was employed replacing drums on several others.

I was going to choose the single edit of Stand! but Higher! has the longer Isle of Wight Festival live version. That’s the one. Though the Woodstock Experience CD from 2009 has the complete Woodstock set, and a happy hour or three can be spent deciding on preferred versions. In absolute contrast, Sex Machine is 13 minutes 47 seconds of mainly doctored guitar workout, with heavily processed vocal tracks which Sly also employed on his Small Fries records, (which were like funky versions of The Chipmunks). Sly didn’t usually stretch out like this on albums.

Hot Fun In The Summertime was the next single, and not on the Stand! album. It mainly sounds like a bland middle-of-the-road song, with sudden hot soul interventions.

The greatest hits largely tell the early part of the story. By this point, Black Power activists were urging Sly to drop the white guys in the multi-racial band. 1970 was spent in a haze, with The Greatest Hits album rounding up the singles so far. Thank You Falettin’ Me Be Mice Elf Again was issued as a single along with it.

1971 brings There’s A Riot Goin’ On, which is part of the quartet of seminal, influential early 70s albums with What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye, Superfly by Curtis Mayfield, and Innervisions by Stevie Wonder. The title track would waste a selection, because it closes side one of the album and is timed at 0m 00s. Family Affair, Brave and Strong, (You Caught Me) Smilin’ and Runnin’ Away were the singles. Family Affair is another sampler’s dream. The Black Power politics he was asked to include are both muted and mutated by Sly:

One child grows up to be
Somebody that just loves to learn yeah
Another child grows up to be
Somebody we just love to burn
Mom loves the both of them
You see it’s in the blood,
you see it’s in the blood
Both kids are good to Mom
Blood’s thicker than the mud,
it’s a family affair

Thank You For Talkin’ To Me Africa was a long re-look at Thank You Falettin’ Me Be Mice Elf. The whole album emerges through a slow motion murky funky haze, reflecting the state he and the band were in. Celebrity guests included Ike Turner and Bobby Womack. Like the contemporary albums mentioned above, it works perfectly as a whole and flows, so it’s hard to choose between songs. It was a toss up between Poet and (You Caught Me) Smilin’ for a second selection. Poet is a template for so much 70s funk, while (You Caught Me) Smilin’ has a ferocious front vocal accompanied by a gentle choir. The guitar/horns solo is the Family Stone at their best.

Fresh was the point where lifestyle was getting harder to overcome. On one hand you have lovely melodies as on the single that came first, If You Want Me To Stay, on the other you have essential funk. Que Sera Sera is taken at a soporific pace that Doris Day couldn’t have imagined. The CD sleeve notes suggest it was the swansong for the band, ‘their last great album’. I’d agree. Babies Makin’ Babies, In Time and Frisky are all major tracks. Frisky is anything but ‘frisky.’ But for the genre it’s remarkable that only In Time and Que Sera Sera break the five minutes length barrier. Even when stretching out, Sly still had radio length somewhere in his mind. When I started this article, I was assuming Stand! and There’s A Riot Goin’ On would have the most selections. A few recent listens to Fresh and it’s definitely up there with them.

Small Talk in 1974 wasn’t the end, though it marks the break up of the original Family Stone. Again 3 to 4 minutes is Sly’s album track aim. Time For Livin’ was the single, and his final hit. Loose Booty is the best-known, a fast funk track with chanted Meshack, Shadrack, Abendego and tries a tad too hard for his late 60s style. The 2009 Sony compilation Space Cowboy was done by a funk fan, missing most of the singles, but opening with Loose Booty and closing CD1 with the very long Sex Machine. I’d prefer the single hits focussed compilations, particularly Higher! the most recent.

The next albums were deep funk and are rounded up on Who The Funk Do You Think You Are: The Warner Bros. Recordings. It’s years since I heard them and the general critical consensus is avoid anything after Small Talk.

I was tempted to buy 2012’s I’m Back: Family & Friends which are retreads with celebrity guests (Bootsy Collins, Jeff Beck, Johnny Winter), but no, the reviews were scathing and I have seen 21st century Sly. I believe that Sly was one of the most important innovators in black music. No, delete that restrictive ‘black’. Just music. I also know that Sly & The Family Stone in 2007 performed the worst concert I have ever experienced (see review below). I had been warned by American friends not to go. Every appearance since the late 70s has been pissing on his own legend, sadly. If he had gone the way of Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, or Sam Cooke I’m sure he would now be held in deserved higher esteem.

Official Sly & The Family Stone Website

The Family Stone – still playin’

Cynthia Robinson (1946-2015)

Sly and the Family Stone biography (iTunes)

Review: Sly & The Family Stone in the UK 2007

TopperPost #137

1 Comment

  1. Rob the Organ
    Dec 4, 2013

    Peter, a difficult task well done. I remember well that so appalling was your S&TFS experience in 2007, it took a 30 minute conversation on the phone!

    My own shout would be for Love City, but must be the Woodstock version that we saw on the extra/directors cut TV series. Sly was a great composer, singer, producer, a dab hand on the organ (just listen to those opening notes on Love City – simple as hell, but such authority) and his decline – a phenomena that a friend of mine described as “a very slow death, starting around about 1975” with tongue only partly in cheek – is one of the biggest tragedies of performing arts, right up there with Richard Manuel’s cessation of writing after 1970 and listless path thereafter.

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