Image may contain: 6 people

Even though lots of people sell as many or more records as he does, Sly Stone is probably the most influential musician over the years. He changed the face of soul, and co-authored, with Jimi Hendrix, black psychedelic music, It is not only Sly’s string of hit singles, and the remarkable achievement of ‘Riot’, which confirms his musical genius.

Born in Texas, raised in the Bay Area, Sylvester Stewart was the second child of a religious family whose church encouraged music as a way to proclaim the Lord’s glory. No big surprise, then, that like so many other soul stars Sly started singing in church.

When he was eight, he cut his first record, with three of his siblings—all of whom would later start bands and then be members of the Family Stone. All of them were talented. But Sly was a prodigy, mastering keyboards, guitar, drums, and bass by the time he turned eleven.

It is sometimes difficult to see the extent of Sly’s genius. In June 1967, San Francisco’s counterculture dreams were peaking when a local music scenemaker named Sylvester ‘Sly’ Stewart led a motley-looking interracial, mixed-gender crew, half of whom were from his own family, into a recording session for Epic Records.

Over a few scattered hours, the group that became known as Sly and the Family Stone cut their debut in 1967, ‘A Whole New Thing” live in the four-track studio.  Led by singer-songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Sly Stone, and included Stone’s brother and singer/guitarist Freddie Stone, sister and singer/keyboardist Rose Stone, trumpeter Cynthia Robinson, drummer Greg Errico, saxophonist Jerry Martini, and bassist Larry Graham. It was the first major American rock group to have a racially integrated, male and female lineup

In high school, though, he kept mostly to the guitar as he joined local groups. A doo-wop outfit called the Viscaynes featured him and a Filipino pal in a then-unusual interracial lineup. They even cut a few singles for the local market, like “Yellow Moon”.  Studying at Vallejo Junior College, Sly honed his skills, picked up the trumpet, and mastered composition and theory. The opening and closing of “Underdog”  on ‘A Whole New Thing’ archly reflects that: recasting the “Frère Jacques” melody as a horn riff in a minor key, Sly tips his hat to Gustav Mahler, whose First Symphony did the same thing repurposing the kids’ tune as…wait for it…a funeral march.

Around him, the San Francisco scene was already percolating to multicultural visions inherited from the largely white Beats and mostly black jazzers who’d made the City by the Bay their west coast capital. The eager young wannabe soon found a way in. A local radio station called KSOL was rapidly growing its predominantly black audience by playing rhythm and blues. When Sly started as a DJ there in the early 1960s, he commuted each day from his parents’ home all the way across town to Merchandise Mart on Market Street, where KSOL’s offices and studios and 250-watt transmitter were.

Young Sly had the patter and the fire to succeed as one of the DJs who redubbed their station K-SOUL. He stirred popular white bands into the mix he thought would fit because of their obvious R&B influences, like the Animals, the Stones, and the early Beatles. It’s almost like he was on a mission to enact the musical equivalent of racial integration, mutual acceptance and interplay. And it apparently worked: He upped white audience numbers without losing black listeners, Later, Sly would aim to emulate their feat with his own music and succeed brilliantly… for a while.

Meanwhile, the local rock scene was probing exciting new shapes and sounds, the first waves of psychedelia. It was largely white kids, but that didn’t bother Sly, who was voraciously absorbing everything he heard and encountered.

In retrospect, it looks like Sylvester Stewart was training himself in nearly every aspect of the music business. Besides DJing, he produced records, wrote songs, and backed up touring stars. A tiny San Francisco label called Autumn Records, run by another local DJ and concert promoter named Tom “Big Daddy” Donahue (he’d coin the term “underground radio”), hired the young man with big ears as its principal producer.

Donahue, an ambitious giant of a man, first heard the teen at a Vallejo sock hop, then hired him to ramrod the house band at his big concerts, like the 1962 Chubby Checker “Twist Party” that landed at the humongous Cow Palace, usually the venue for (what else) livestock shows. That night it held 17,000 fans, making it the first big-time rock concert in Bay Area history.

Sly was quickly slotted in as Donahue’s go-to guy on stage and in the studio. He was getting a musical education that filled his toolbox with versatile skills he’d soon use for himself. Since the music biz’s earliest days, songs pushing new dances had been a reliable way for black artists to get to mainstream white audiences. No doubt young Mr. Stewart filed that knowledge to tap into for “Dance to the Music”

But he also produced an eclectic batch of Bay Area faves. like The Great Society which features Grace Slick unspooling an obbligato line of raga-ish vocalese; he also apparently ran the sessions for “Someone to Love” Both cuts make clear why Slick would jump ship and join Jefferson Airplane; as she once put it, “They had a real rhythm section.” Sly watched drummer/singer Jan Errico with real interest: there were very few females playing instruments in rock bands, never mind drums, and singing too. As it happened, she had a brother-drummer named Gregg, who would join the Family Stone.

In keyboard player Billy Preston, Sly found a soul brother. Another Texas-born child prodigy, Preston started backing gospel and soul stars from Mahalia Jackson to Sam Cooke when he was ten. The keyboard wizard was barely 20 when he and Sly co-wrote three tunes. that appear on 1966’s Billy’s album ‘Wildest Organ in Town!. Sly arranged. The album also boasted songs by the Beatles, Stones, James Brown, and Wilson Pickett—an integrated music love fest very like Sly’s playlists had been at KSOL.

Preston’s year-long gig on the TV show Shindig!, which introduced him to a huge audience, had just ended when the record was released on a major label. It didn’t exactly burn up the charts, but the pair continued to collaborate, For years they’d grace each other’s records with guest shots, refusing to be hemmed in by musical styles and expectations,

No photo description available.

Once Sly merged his band (Sly and the Stoners) with his brother Freddie’s (Freddie and the Stone Souls), the Family Stone was born.

They found a home base to hone their music in Redwood City, a club called (nudge-nudge-wink-wink) Winchester Cathedral. A few months of that, and they’d forged a unique sound and a phenomenal stage show. Not surprisingly, Sly used down time at Autumn’s studios to record the band. And so the 24 cuts compiled on ‘Sly and the Family Stone offer tantalizing insights into how the band evolved.

A rousing early iteration of “Dance to the Music” pumped by Graham’s already-distinctive bass and a blistering guitar solo. But the hard-driving soul of “I Ain’t Got Nobody” their first official single, got them the ear of an Epic employee, who tipped Dave Kapralik, head of A&R. They were so engulfing and powerful onstage that he signed them immediately, then became their manager. And into Epic’s studio they went. The album flopped. But their manager and label head pressed Sly to write hit singles—the ingredient they were sure was lacking on their first album. So he did: ‘Dance to the Music” and ever since, ‘A Whole New Thing’ has been dissed or ignored.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“A Whole New Thing’ (1967)

It’s ear-opening to check out how far they’d developed their winning combo of musical sophistication, wry humor, and gutsy immediacy on ‘A Whole New Thing’. It may have been a four-track recording done live, but the stereo image bursts at the seams with richly layered sonics, showcasing Sly’s adept production skills as well.

It kicks things off with a protest song that doesn’t just nod toward Mahler but pumps its anti-racism message up with Larry Graham’s burbling bass and Greg Errico’s funky drumming, sharp-creased horns, and vocals worthy of Motown—which duly took lessons from it. The album heralds the sound of the Family Stone’s future funk with Graham’s near-solo spot and the ba-boom-boom scatting following the tongue-in-cheek TV Indian theme from the horns. “Run, Run, Run” opening with surprising melodica and xylophone, finds Sly refracting the hippie vs square world through his black eyes and inventive twists: the middle vocal section riffs off the Turtles, and listen for the Mothers of Invention touches.

The track has an astounding horn opening, with a sour horn flourish cuing you that something’s gonna go wrong in this deep Stax-style soul ballad about honesty between lovers. But even here there’s playfulness: write me a letter to tell me if you’re cheating, the singer pleads. Really?! The odd-meter tumbling horn riff that opens and punctuates  boldfaces the experimental mindset underlying so much of this underappreciated disc’s twists and turns. The quavery group YAAHHH will become a Family Stone hallmark, and that deep tremolo keyboard solo still sounds unique. The foregrounds the unexpected twists of psychedelicized soul, as does the angular spaciness and wit of “I Hate to Love Her” Its is rife with swampy guitars and Staples-inflected vocals.

The killer track , though, is “Only One Way Out of This Mess” with its off-kilter, almost snarky horns, rumbling bass, and driving beat. It was the band’s tour-de-force onstage; between its inventive sound and anthemic lyrics, it’s clearly of a piece with their future hits. But it was cut a few weeks after the other tracks, and for some reason—probably the usual rush during that frenetic time to put the album out—Epic didn’t release it until 1995.

It’s worth wondering how music history might’ve changed if they’d tried it as a single. After all, “Like a Rolling Stone’ had busted AM radio open two-plus years earlier. Then came smart, successful, but uneven albums like ‘Life and ‘Stand! ‘ that finessed their modern funk, influencing giants like James Brown, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, George Clinton, and Prince. Of course, by then hard drugs, changing racial politics, and his own boundless drive to do and have it all had turned Sly into a withdrawn, toxic version of his former self. In fact, ‘A Whole New Thing’ has successfully refracted the wildly disparate elements of Sylvester Stewart’s musical experience into a psychedelic blend of soul, rock, jazz, and funk that’s seriously adventurous fun full of vibrant playfulness and open-eared inventions. And at least it could be Sylvester Stewart’s best and most underrated album. Here’s the incredible story of how that undersung album came to be.

Looking back now, after all these years, it seems to me that ‘A Whole New Thing’, an entire album stuffed with brazenly cutting-edge music, was arguably Sly and the Family Stone’s most seminal, soulful, and sustained achievement.

“Dance to the Music’ (1968)

“Dance to the Music’ made Sly and the Family Stone stars. And it created the rush toward psychedelic soul by Motown acts from the Temptations to the Jackson 5. But it’s worth remembering that, compared to ‘A Whole New Thing’, the band saw the hit and most of the second album as a necessary compromise, using formulas that Sly worked out to showcase individual band members and make them more audience-friendly.

What makes Sly different is the consistency of his growth, and his ability to consolidate that growth into a sort of power which few rock stars have ever approached. Hendrix, however great his genius, was erratic in a way that Sly’s self-consciousness would never allow, a primitive savage to Sly’s urban sophisticate. Nor was Jimi ever quite so arrogant as Sly. At least, he didn’t flaunt the fact of his arrogance so broadly,

Sly was able to get away not only with the arrogance of the no-show performer but also with the knife-twisting viciousness of parts of ‘Riot’ . Hendrix couldn’t have gotten away with it, because he was playing music which, in form, was white rock. Sly and the Family Stone are a soul band. When Hendrix put together an all black band, and put together an album the live Band of Gypsys set he was attacked not much for putting out a bad record — he made worse — as for the audacity of the conception.

An introduction to Sly and the Family Stone in 10 records - The ...

“Life”  (1968)

Unlike its predecessor, Dance to the Music, Life was not a commercial success, although it has received mostly positive reviews from music critics over the years. Many of its songs, including “M’Lady”, “Fun”, “Love City”, as well as the title track, became popular staples in The Family Stone’s live show. A middle ground between the fiery A Whole New Thing and the more commercial Dance to the Music, “Life” features very little use of studio effects, and is instead more driven by frontman Sly Stone’s compositions. Topics for the album’s songs include the dating scene “Dynamite!”, “Chicken”, “M’Lady”, groupies “Jane is a Groupee”, and “plastic” or “fake” people on the Beatlesque “Plastic Jim”. Of particular note is that the Family Stone’s main themes of unity and integration are explored here in several songs “Fun”, “Harmony”, “Life”, and “Love City”. The next Family Stone LP, Stand!, would focus almost exclusively on these topics.

Much of Life has been heavily sampled for hip hop and electronica recordings, particularly Gregg Errico’s drum solo on “Love City”. The opening riff on “Into My Own Thing” was sampled for Fatboy Slim’s 2001 hit “Weapon of Choice”.

Image may contain: 2 people, possible text that says 'STAND! SLY AND THE FA FAMILY STONE ST'

“Stand” (1969)

The 50th anniversary reissue of ‘Stand!’ by Sly & The Family Stone. The group’s fourth album is undeniably one of their best, with unforgettable jams.

In late 1968, Sly and the Family Stone released the single “Everyday People”, which became their first No. 1 hit.“Everyday People” was a protest against prejudice of all kinds Sly and the Family Stone and popularized the catchphrase “different strokes for different folks”. With its B-side “Sing a Simple Song”, it served as the lead single for the band’s fourth album, “Stand!”, which was released on May 3rd, 1969. “The Stand!” album eventually sold more than three million copies; its title track peaked at No. 22 in the U.S.

“Stand!” is considered one of the artistic high points of the band’s career. It contained the above three tracks as well as the songs “I Want to Take You Higher” (which was the B-side of the “Stand!” single), “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey”, “Sex Machine”, and “You Can Make It If You Try”.

The success of Stand! secured Sly and the Family Stone a performance slot at the landmark Woodstock Music and Art Festival. They performed their set during the early-morning hours of August 17th, 1969; their performance was said to be one of the highlights show of the festival.

Tattoo You – Snakes in the Grass

There’s a Riot Goin’ On (1971)

In 1971, Sly and the Family Stone returned with a new single, “Family Affair”, which became a number-one single on the Billboard Hot 100. “Family Affair” was the lead single from the band’s long-awaited There’s a Riot Goin’ On.

Instead of the optimistic, rock-laced soul that had characterized the Family Stone’s 1960s output, There’s a Riot Goin’ On was pure urban blues, filled with dark instrumentation, filtered drum machine tracks, and plaintive vocals representing the hopelessness Sly and many other people were feeling in the early 1970s.  The album is characterized by a significant amount of tape hiss – the result of Sly’s extensive re-recording and overdubbing during production. Allegedly, most of the album’s instrumentation is performed by Sly alone, who enlisted the Family Stone for some of the additional instrumental parts and friends such as Billy Preston, Ike Turner, and Bobby Womack for others. “(You Caught Me) Smilin'” and “Runnin’ Away” were also released as singles, and performed well on the charts.

Image may contain: 3 people

After the release of Riot, additional lineup changes took place. In early 1972, reacting to Jerry Martini’s probing about his share of the band’s earnings, Sly hired saxophonist Pat Rizzo as a potential replacement though both ended up remaining in the band. Later that year, the tension between Sly Stone and Larry Graham reached its peak. A post-concert brawl broke out between the Graham and Sly entourages; Bubba Banks and Eddie Chin, having heard that Larry had hired a hit man to kill Sly, Sly assaulted Graham’s associates. Graham and his wife climbed out of a hotel window to escape, and Pat Rizzo gave them a ride to safety. Unable to continue working with Sly, Graham immediately quit The Family Stone and went on to start Graham Central Station, a successful band in the same vein as Sly and the Family Stone. Graham was replaced in the interim by Bobby Womack, and then by nineteen-year-old Rusty Allen.

I think it is fairly self-evident that ‘There’s A Riot Goin’ On’ was a semi-deliberate attempt to alienate Sly’s white audience. That isn’t all it was, nor did Sly really want to alienate his audience, but the idea of such a record could not help but be interpreted as a threat to the white audience. Sly must have known this but ‘Riot’ went gold, anyway, pushed along by a great single, “Family Affair” .

Pop Matters called “There’s a Riot Goin’ On” a challenging listen, at times rambling, incoherent, dissonant, and just plain uncomfortable” with “some episodic moments of pop greatness to be found” and viewed it as a radical departure from the band’s previous work:

“Fresh” (1973)

Sly doesn’t really want to lose that audience. He had to justify, to himself and perhaps to others, the ease with which he had been accepted in the white marketplace, and ‘Riot’ did that. In one sense, then, Fresh is an attempt to regain portions of the audience which have been lost, and in another, it is an explanation of the weirdness which produced ‘Riot’.

Had Sly not done ‘Riot’, he might seem to us now to be little more than a younger, hipper version of the Staple Singers. There is a certain point at which songs like Everyday People, as great as they are, begin to seem frivolous and frustratingly naive. With the Higher! craze which the Woodstock movie inspired, There have been few albums as rich as this one released in 1973, if there have been any, but that doesn’t mean that ‘Fresh’ will automatically make it. At any rate, when Sly Stone, as opposed to almost any other rock star, assures me that he will try, I want to believe him. If he’s earned our trust, and I think that he has, the weight of his stardom may begin to lessen, at least a little. Let’s hope so, for his sake, and ultimately, our own.

‘Fresh’ is Sly coming to terms with himself as a rock star. It asks the same question Sly has always asked—”who cares?”—but the tone with which the question is asked turns the problem around. Initially, this group’s answer to “who cares” was, “We care.” On ‘Riot’, the reply was “I don’t know if anyone does.”

‘Fresh’ stands between. Sly is confident enough to say “I do,” quite straightforwardly in If It Were Left Up to Me. But in other places, he doesn’t seem so certain. The inclusion of Que Sera Sera, which is at one level a joke, is also a trap for the unwary listener. “Que sera sera/Whatever will be will be/The future’s not ours, to see/Que sera sera,” is one way of stating the Woodstock philosophy. Because the song has such a fey history, it is hard to see how anyone could get to that, but Sly has done it.

Sly almost nods in agreement when he sings “Whatever will be, will be” but the growl in his voice, and the rumble in the music raises a larger question. If the future’s not ours, then whose is it? .

Sly doesn’t, probably because he can’t. It is not surprising that the only song on ‘Fresh’ which reflects an attitude of acceptance is called Skin I’m In. Still, even though he has accepted the terms of his blackness, Sly has not accepted his role as a star. Not completely, anyway.

“Now I know what to do,” he sings, “No more selling me to you. Buyin’—that’s a no no no.”

Sly’s dilemma is as old as rock, the problem of the artist in the marketplace. How much of yourself can you sell, even on record, and retain your sanity, your sensibility, and, finally, your ability to produce? Every rock artist has had to deal with this problem, and there are a maze of methodologies within which one can work. Elvis chose to ignore the problem altogether, though when the pinch came, in the late ’60s, he threw his hand in once more, if only for an hour on television and a couple of live shows. Dylan retired, then, when people started to forget about him, decided he was really just a session-man like everyone else. Paul Simon stretches himself thin, trying to become bland enough to satisfy all eight million purchasers of Bridge Over Troubled Water once more.

Sly’s answer could only come from Sly. My terms, he says, or forget it.  only to be dragged back down by ‘Riot’. It’s Sly’s personal Catch-22.

The transition isn’t accomplished awkwardly, however. The catch is in the voice, often as not, or perhaps the rhythm section remembers, and sometimes it is just a realization on the part of the listener that what he is hearing sung is not altogether what it sounds like.

No photo description available.

“Live At The Fillmore East” 

“Live At The Fillmore East”, October 4th and 5th, 1968′ is the first official live album from Sly & The Family Stone, and a reminder of how they still make us dance to the music. “These sets are the epitome of what Sly & The Family Stone was about,” says drummer Greg Errico. “When we lift off, we’re like a 747 and you ain’t pulling us down. That’s what I remember. “Live At The Fillmore East 1968’ features four never-before-released live concerts. This four-disc set captures several shows by Sly and the Family Stone at New York’s Fillmore East. It is the document we’ve been missing of the onstage Family Stone of legend: the tightly knit extended family that sang and played together, the group that magically united black and white audiences.

“St. James Infirmary,” heard on ‘Live At The Fillmore East, October 4th and 5th, 1968,’ is an English folk-based blues song, covered by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and The White Stripes. This relaxed rendition of (Louis Armstrong’s version of) “St. James Infirmary”, a show-ending flourish called “The Riffs”, a version of “M’Lady” that detours into a long, spectacular vocal breakdown. It’s fun to hear how different the band’s performances could be from show to show

When Sly and the Family Stone recorded these gigs at the Fillmore East in New York City, they were one of America’s best live bands, but they were also a one-hit wonder. They’d had a Top 10 single in 1967 with “Dance to the Music”, but their follow-up, “Life”, and the album of the same title, had both stiffed. The plan, apparently, was to release an album of the Fillmore gigs to show off what the Family Stone could do on stage—and, perhaps, get some traction with the free-form FM radio stations that were popping up all over.

A few months after the shows, “Everyday People” became the massive hit the band needed—a song that echoed their own racial and sexual integration—and the live album was set aside. Stand!, released in May, 1969, didn’t include any of the new songs played at the Fillmore East gigs.) Somehow, the Fillmore tapes were never edited down to an album until a vinyl-only double-LP, sequenced by the Roots’ “Captain” Kirk Douglas, appeared .

This wider-scale release, though, isn’t that selection: it’s a four-disc set of all four Fillmore sets in their entirety. That means we get multiple renditions of the long, jammy pieces that would have been the spine of a late-’60s Fillmore East album: “Are You Ready” and “Music Lover” (both, in their way, prototypes of “I Want to Take You Higher”), a cover of “Won’t Be Long” (from Aretha Franklin’s second album) sung by keyboardist Rose Stone, an extended version of the Dance to the Music album’s “Color Me True”, and a frenetic medley of A Whole New Thing’s “Turn Me Loose” with Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose”.

Sly and the Family Stone Albums Ranked Worst to Best

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.