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The Divine Spark of Sly & The Family Stone

   By James Calemine 

 

                                    “Time needs another minute, at least.”
                                                                     --Sly Stone


Few groups ever attain the musical power and wide commercial appeal of Sly & The Family Stone. From 1967-1974, the group proved a formidable band whose music crossed all social and musical barriers.

Sly Stone, a purveyor of funk music who influenced artists like George Clinton & P Funk, Prince, Rick James, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Outkast, Weather Report, Arrested Development, Earth, Wind & Fire along with countless others, still lurks in the reclusive distance somewhere for the past two decades. Whispers of Sly’s comeback have circulated for years.

                                                                          Perhaps the 2007 Epic/Legacy release of the 7-CD Sly & The Family Stone Collection might inspire Stone to release new music and return to performing. His story is one of sheer talent, fame, fortune, and an eerie darkness that still lingers like smoke.
If they never make music together again, this handsome boxset proves the undeniable greatness of Sly & the Family Stone’s first 7 albums that include bonus tracks, photographs, along with original and new liner notes. The Sly & The Family Stone Collection highlights what this multi-racial, multi-sex group accomplished during the apex of their illustrious career. 

                                                                       …
Born Sylvester Stewart on March 15, 1944, in Dallas, Texas, Stewart participated in a family gospel group at the age of 4. Stewart’s brother, Freddie (born June 6, 1946, in Dallas) and Rose (born March 21, 1945 in Vallejo, California) always played music together.

An early recording of the Stewart Four’s “On the Battlefield of My Lord” never surfaced, but gave a glimpse of the family ambition and aptitude for musical pursuits. Early on, the Stewart family moved to Vallejo, California, a suburb of San Francisco.

Stewart played piano and guitar early on. He soon learned to play drums, bass and horns. He began making records at 16. Sylvester and his brother Freddie recorded doo-wop singles in 1959 and 1960. Then Sly took songwriting control when he cut “A Long Time Alone”, “I’m Just A Fool” and “Help Me with My Broken Heart”. 

Soon Stewart met Jerry Martini, a white horn player from Colorado, and they played gigs at North Beach bars. When Stewart was still in high school they played in a group called the Viscanes.

A huge Bob Dylan fan, Stewart landed a DJ job on an R & B station in San Francisco where he learned to network his skills. A respected young DJ, Stewart already had a wife and three kids to support. He served as staff producer for Autumn Records where he worked with Billy Preston, The Mojo Men, Bobby Freeman, The Beau Brummels and Grace Slick who later sang in the Jefferson Airplane.

Around this era, Stewart changed his name to Sly Stone. Then he met trumpet player Cynthia Robinson who joined on with the siblings. Martini’s cousin, drummer Greg Errico, also began playing with The Family Stone. Texas bassist—Sly’s cousin—Larry Graham soon joined the band, completing the line-up of the original group. A family affair, indeed.

They gigged around playing songs by James Brown, Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding among others. In 1967, the group recorded their first album, A Whole New Thing in Los Angeles. The Family fused hybrids of soul, Motown, Stax, jazz, psychedelia (they were after all in the middle of San Fran’s hippie Mecca) and pop into one streamlined sound.

The opening track for A Whole New Thing was “Underdog” which set the tone for the group’s gradual ascent. “I know how it feels to expect to get a fair shake/But they won’t let you forget you’re the underdog/And you got to be twice as cool.”

This record, like the first few, contained an unrestrained exuberance. “If This Room Could Talk” stands as a mercurial song displaying the band’s capability for instantaneous virtuosity. “I Cannot Make It” provided dramatic musical changes that inspired movement…color…speed…action…sound…

Sly wrote all of the songs. Freddie Stone’s guitar playing always served as a quicksilver thread through these recordings. The band congealed quickly. Bonus tracks on A Whole New Thing include “Underdog”, “Let Me Hear It From You”, “Only One Way Out of This Mess”, “What Would I Do” and “You Better Help Yourself”.  The latter song proves a frenetic track which finds The Family channeling southern groups like Booker T & the MGs, the JBs and the Memphis Horns into one soul stew. These songs were recorded on a four track tape. Larry Graham, Freddie, Rose and Sly all provided backing vocals. A Whole New Thing held a big promise for the future.

Sly & the Family Stone’s second record, Dance To the Music, came out in 1968. The title track hit #8 in April of that year. The band’s unrestrained joyous tunes continued on this album. “Color Me True” represented an authentic picture of a band still connected to common folk in Sly’s lyric: “Do you laugh at the bosses jokes when they’re not funny?/Color me true/You might think you talk just like a player/Would you know how to talk to your city mayor?”

“I Ain’t Got Nobody” remains the dark horse song of this batch. Dance To the Music outsold the first record and the group’s momentum continued to expand. Six bonus tracks appear on this CD, including Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose”—the only song Sly didn’t write in this 7 CD boxset. The single version of “Dance To the Music” is included on the bonus list as well as an R & B fueled instrumental titled “Never Do Your Woman Wrong”.

By May 1968, Sly & the Family Stone played New York’s Fillmore East with Jimi Hendrix. In July, the group released a single, “Life”, and a b-side “M’Lady”—two positive, up-beat popular tunes that epitomized the band’s vibe. That fall, at London’s Heathrow airport, the band was kicked out of England for a small amount of marijuana. The group would not return across the pond until 1969.

The third album, Life, hit the streets in fall of 68. Freddie Stone’s screaming guitar riff opens the album with “Dynamite”. “Into My Own Thing”—a heady number that highlights Sly’s lyrical ability and the group’s musical power amazes. On “Dynamite” Cynthia Robinson fuses a horn medley from “Dance To the Music” into the song, a periodic re-occurrence on Sly’s records. “Plastic Jim”, “I’m An Animal” and “Jane Is A Groupie” shows outside influences creeping into Sly’s psyche.

The bonus track “Pressure” would’ve fit nicely on the original LP, but at least it can now be heard.  “Sorrow”, another bonus instrumental, exhibits Larry Graham’s thumping bass on Errico’s solid beat, Freddie’s quick hooks, Rose, Cynthia, Jerry providing musical Technicolor--and of course--Sly in a loose, creative space where some of their best tracks like this one never made the cut. Life didn’t produce huge hits like the previous two albums, which put the group at a crossroads in their career. 

                                                                             …

                                          “Stand, they will try and make you crawl.”
                                                                                “Stand!”

The breakthrough came with the fourth album, Stand! The title track opens the CD and upholds the group’s positive sentiment, but “Don’t Call Me Nigger Whitey” introduced a darker edge into the music. Serious racial and political unrest divided the country in 1969, and the masses looked to Sly—who seemed to appeal to blacks and whites—for a mystical solution for peace. “Sing A Simple Song” emerged as the band’s overall simplistic overall vision.

“Everyday People” hit #1 on the charts and remains the band’s signature song. Sly still preached amid chaos that trying to stay humble never hurt anyone: 

                                              “I am no better and neither are you
                                               We are the same whatever we do 
                                               You love me you hate me you know me and then
                                               You can’t figure out the bag I’m in
                                               I’m everyday people.”

The song propelled the group into instant stardom. “You Can Make It if You Try” promised hard work paid off. Paranoia leaked in on “Somebody’s Watching You”. “Sex Machine”, a 13-minute funk template displayed The Family Stone’s instrumental dynamic led by Brother Freddie. This album influenced even the most seasoned and successful musicians and led many upstarts to Sly’s door.

 Sly, one of the few black acts dominating the charts, became a cultural magnet during turbulent times in America as well as his personal life. On July 4, 1969, The Family shared a bill on the Newport Jazz Festival with Led Zeppelin and James Brown. In August of 1969, Sly & The Family Stone played at Woodstock (a highlight of the movie) with Jimi Hendrix, The Band, Joan Baez, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Grateful Dead and Santana.

Soon the single “Hot Fun In The Summertime” hit #2 on the charts with a melodic hook and a friendly message that anyone could enjoy. This album would serve as the last straightforward approach or message Sly would promote. He developed a taste for luxury and drugs that began to obscure storm clouds gathering in the distance.

On a personal level the group began attracting parasites, groupies and vampires that all successful bands experience, which surely contributed to Sly’s upcoming creative delay. In December, “Everybody Is A Star” and the decadent funk anthem “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again)” sold many copies, and shed some cognizance of the impending darkness with the lyrics: “Dyin’ young is hard to take/Sellin' out is harder.” 
                                                                         …

                                                       “If you want me to stay
                                                        I’ll be around today
                                                        To be available for you to see
                                                        I’m about to go
                                                        And then you’ll know
                                                        For me to stay here
                                                        I’ve got to be me.”
                                                                   --“If You Want Me To Stay’

In 1970, Sly missed 26 of 80 gigs. In 1971, he missed 12 of 41. The group began to stagnate due to Sly’s nefarious distractions. In November 1970 a Greatest Hits album was released that shot to #2, selling one million copies in two months.

In the fall of 1970, Sly rented a Spanish mission-style home at 738 Bel Air Drive in Beverly Hills owned by John Phillips of the Mamas and Papas. Sly spent most of his time in the spacious recording studio located in the attic. The house was used in the opening credits of the TV show The Beverly Hillbillies.

At this point, Sly sat in the driver's seat. Musicians like Joe Hicks, Bobby Womack, Jim Ford, Ike Turner, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis and Billy Preston stopped by the mansion to jam. 

There’s a Riot Goin On, released in 1971, marked Sly & The Family Stone’s fifth studio album. These songs sounded much different than the previous four albums. Songs from Riot sound murkier, darker, mellower, less-danceable, and funkier than any of their previous work. Riot is a late night record. Sly began employing a drum machine on these sessions, and Larry Graham suspected Sly of erasing his bass parts and re-recording them. Soon band members felt alienated. Chaos descended on 738 Bel Air Drive.

Riot’s opening track, “Luv N Haight” contains a disturbing yin and yang narrative within a deep rhythmic groove. “Just Like A Baby’ sounds like a zombie-powdered love song. On ”Poet”, Sly looks into the magic mirror: “My only weapon is my pen/I’m a songwriter.”

The centerpiece song, “Family Affair” rose to #1. “Brave And Strong” showcased Sly’s new sparse, tight-bass approach including fewer horns. “Time” finds Sly at his blissed-out, Zen master best when he mumbles the line: “Time, they say is the answer…”

“Spaced Cowboy”, another laid-back hedonistic ditty reveals: “Everything I like is nice/That’s why I try it twice.” It began to sound like the band was descending, and the critics issued their doubts on the band’s creative spark. Riot’s bonus tracks “My Gorilla Is My Butler”, “Do You Know What?” and “That’s Pretty Clean” are all groove-oriented instrumentals founded on thick bass, organ and a steady beat. One can only imagine the rarefied air surrounding this recording session.

Later Larry Graham and Greg Errico quit the band. Rusty Allen replaced Graham on bass and Andy Newark filled the drum position. When original members of a successful band quit the community musical dynamics change on various levels. Yet, Sly Stone still had a few tricks up his sleeve. 

In 1972 Sly began recording Fresh. Existing in the storm for so many years, Sly began showing signs of understandable weariness. Longtime members leaving the band, record company pressure, drugs, women and money can destroy even the most seasoned creative souls.

On Fresh’s opener, “In Time” (later rendered by Miles Davis), Sly sings “There’s a mickie in the tastin’ of disaster/In time, in time you get faster.” Sly’s fascination with time continued. Fresh contains some of Sly’s most cryptic and clever insights. Gone was the pop element to the music. Now, it was funk-plain and simple. Ingredients of soul and R & B never disappeared, but Sly seemed disinterested with radio-friendly rehash.

“Let Me Have It All” mirrors the professional pressure Sly felt for a while: “You have turned into a prayer/I can feel I’m almost there/Closer closer to the top/Lookin' down is quite a drop.” “Frisky” conjures a dense beat, but Larry Graham’s bass licks are missed. However, without question, Fresh contends with Sly’s first three albums.
The classic “Thankful N Thoughtful” ranks as one of his finest augmentations of gospel-tinged lyrics into his own funk: “Sunday morning, I forgot my prayer/I should be happy I still be there/Something could come and taken me away/But the mainman felt ‘Syl’ should be here another day.”

“Que Sera, sera” was a song made popular in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. Sly’s version was a sardonic, soulful resignation to ruthless change washing over passing time. “Babies Makin’ Babies” reflects a stark realism an epidemic of young people raising children: “From the womb/To the tomb.” Fresh bonus tracks include alternate versions of five of the album’s songs; amid distractions, disintegration and flux, Fresh remains a classic.

A year later, in 1974, Small Talk was released. The record was a moderate hit. Around this time, Sly got married onstage in front of 20,000 paying fans before his Madison Square Garden show.

Small Talk completed the trilogy of mellow, low-bottom, laid back funk records in the vein of Riot and Fresh. Small Talk sounds cleaner, but spontaneous like Riot. Violinist Sid Page plays with a prominence on these compositions. The title track opens Small Talk with Sly trying to console his fussing infant son. Sly tries to remain positive on this record, but it’s a struggle—his weariness prevails.

“Mother Beautiful”, an ode to all mothers, isn’t danceable but emits an organic mood best heard with the shades drawn, relaxing on the couch. Sly’s honesty overflows in “Time For Livin’”: “Time for livin’/No time for making up a monster to sell/Time for livin, time for givin'/No time for breakin' out a lie to tell.”

In “Can’t Strain My Brain” Sly sings “I know how it feels to worry all the time.” Mysteriously, Brother Freddie sounds low in the mix on Small Talk. With “Loose Booty”-the album’s gem--Sly once again pulls a rabbit out of the hat with a sheer joyous 3-minute song harkening back to the old days.

“Holdin’ On” spells out Sly’s mentality at this point in his career and life. “Better Thee Than Me” employs complex horn progressions few jazz ensembles ever master. “Livin’ While I’m Livin” and “This Is Love” (a full-circle return to Sly and Freddie’s doo-wop days) end the album with not a bang but a whimper. A bonus track, another instrumental, “Positive” proves Sly’s throwaways might result in a hit for a band with lesser talent.

Small Talk marked the end of Sly & the Family Stone’s musical endeavors. Sly made various solo albums and other collaborations with various musicians such as George Clinton on P Funk’s Spanking of Electric War Babies, but then Sly disappeared. Various stories and reports resulted through the years, whispers of demise and comebacks. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, rumors persisted Sly & the Family Stone might return, but the events never materialized. A 2006 live Sly—blonde Mohawk and all--performance at the GRAMMYs teased fans concerning his recent activities, but Sylvester Stewart remains elusive as ever.

Even if we never hear from Sly & The Family Stone again, this latest 7-CD Collection embodies the divine spark of a musical genius.

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