The Ghost of Sly Stone

sly2 In celebration of the group's 40th anniversary, Epic/Legacy Records has deemed it the right time to reissue Sly & The Family Stone's seven LPs, with the usual digital re-mastering, revised liner notes, and bonus tracks included. These new CD packages provide a thorough look at the birth and death of Sly Stone's American dream.

 

 

 

 

slyThe ghost of Sly Stone loomed over the 2006 Grammy Awards…only he wasn't quite dead.

A strange menagerie of performers assembled that night  to pay tribute to the mercurial talent that had spawned some of the hippie generation's most uplifting psalms and whose later work soundtracked its self-destruction. The cast included various nu-soul luminaries, an American Idol champion, a former member of ‘90s boy band LFO, lite rock kingpins Maroon 5, will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas, and—most inexplicably—a screeching Steven Tyler with his guitar-wielding lapdog Joe Perry. In its own dysfunctional way, the tribute proved fitting—only Sly's bountiful influence could touch such a strange assortment of musicians.

But the festivities weren't over.

"Hey Sly!" called out Tyler in a fit of staged spontaneity, "let's do it like we used to do it!"

Suddenly, the man himself emerged from backstage, with the demeanor of an irate grandfather awoken by the noisemaking of his youngers. Sly walked with a noticeable stoop, his chin lowered to his chest. Large wraparound shades concealed his eyes. And then there was that mohawk, riding defiant and platinum atop his bald head. Positioning himself behind a keyboard at center stage, the wrinkled performer led a rendition of "I Want To Take You Higher," a staple of his band's Woodstock-era set. Backing him up were several members of the original Family Stone and all of the aforementioned musicians. The result proved bewildering—vocal cues were dropped, Sly only recited the chorus a few times and then left the stage well before the number's conclusion, giving a brief wave to the crowd as he went. So ended Sly's first public appearance in 13 years. But given the arc of his band's career, perhaps an uneven comeback was more appropriate than a triumphant one.

===

 

 

 

A Whole New Thing (1967)

That career officially began in the most unlikely of ways—with the Family Stone's interracial, mixed gender horn section blowing eight bars of "Frere Jacques." Considering that the group's sound was destined to detonate in a colorful mess of soul, funk, rock and pop, a French children's song seems an unusual point of departure. But this move was quintessential Sly. As a San Francisco area DJ, the likes of Bob Dylan and Otis Redding intermingled freely on his play lists, and he had previously worked the production boards for artists ranging from the pop soul of Bobby Freeman to the folk rock of the Beau Brummels. Coming of age in the vibrant, ever-shifting musical landscape of the 1960s, Sly (born as Sylvester Stewart) was drunk off the era's sound, and wanted to form an outfit that could reflect his diverse tastes—in short, a "whole new thing."

So he assembled the Family, which included his brother Freddie on guitar, Larry Graham on bass, Cynthia Robinson on trumpet, with white dudes Jerry Martini on saxophone and Gregg Errico playing drums. Sly's little sister Rose would join shortly after on piano. Though Sly would write, compose and arrange all of the group's material, there was an egalitarian sense of community inherent in the group's construction. Sly, his siblings, Graham, and Robinson would all take turns as the group's mouthpiece, and in the beginning songs and concerts were arranged so as to spotlight each member's abilities. All of the band's initial publicity painted the group as a joyous, utopian ideal sprung vibrantly to life: whites and blacks, men and women, playing inspiring, exciting, politically conscious music together. It was a perfect band for its place and time—San Francisco, epicenter of the Summer of Love. Sly, of course, had very consciously arranged things so. According to his white bandmate Jerry Martini, Sly chose him and drummer Errico purposefully.

"There was a shit-pot full of black drummers that could kick Gregg's ass and there was a lot of black saxophone players that could kick mine. He knew exactly what he was doing," Martini said, as quoted in Miles Marshall Lewis' There's A Riot Goin' On.

The Family bonded as a unit over a relentless schedule of gigging and studio work, which tightened them into one of the most thrilling live acts of their time—culminating in an explosive, late-night performance at the original Woodstock Festival.

Their recorded output, however, has proven an even more enduring legacy—and it all kicks off with that curious horn overture that announces the arrival of "Underdog," the leadoff track on the group's debut album, A Whole New Thing. Gregg Errico's toms rumble ominously underneath the melody, before Sly's shout of "Hey, dig!" kicks the song into high gear.

"I know how it feels to expect to get a fair shake / but they won't let you forget/ that you're the underdog/ and you got to be twice as good," preaches Sly, before his backing choir intones, "yeah yeah!"

Here Sly deploys the first of what would be many sociopolitical-themed salvos in his music, but this one might have been his most fiery. There are no easy slogans being chanted here, just a restless hunger to overcome societal injustice. "I'm the un-der-dog!" the whole band chants, implying that their struggle is a shared one. And yet amidst the vitriol shine specks of Sly's trademark optimism: "I don't mind, ‘cos I can handle it!" and "it's gonna be all right!" he cries during the chorus.

Musically as well as lyrically, this song sets the Family Stone template. The rhythm section locks into a tight, syncopated groove, Freddie's guitar shoots out clipped S.O.S. signals, and the horn section punches its way to the top of the mix. On this debut album, the band is already stretching its wings, looking to see how many genres it can cram beneath its all-inclusive tent. The Family still flocks close to contemporary soul, particularly on ballads like "Let Me Hear It From You" (sung by Graham in a rare lead vocal turn). But they're still eager to tinker with the formula: "Run, Run, Run" rocks loose and fast, and features the group's first use of wordless vocal interludes—an art that they would refine significantly on subsequent efforts. "I Cannot Make It," meanwhile, integrates surprisingly Beatlesque harmonies into its verses, showing that the group was also closely attuned to the pop side of the radio dial.

Besides "Underdog," the other major stylistic triumph on this record is clearly "Trip to Your Heart." Its acid rock ambiance undoubtedly impregnated George Clinton's mind with the potent twins of Parliament and Funkadelic, and its menacing melody later served as the foundation for LL Cool J's (don't call it a) comeback smash "Mama Said Knock You Out." The song stumbles in with a dissonant collection of screams and cymbals, before taking listeners on a haunted house ride to the center of Sly's drug-addled imagination.

Not all of the songs here are nearly as arresting (especially the side two material), but A Whole New Thing stands as an ambitious, entertaining debut. For all of its artistic merit, the record failed miserably at the record store counter. Having defined their sound and message, the Family would next set its sights on conquering the charts. | B

{mospagebreak}Dance to the Music (1968)

The negative connotations of "selling out" as a musician didn't gain much momentum until punk and indie rock imposed DIY dogma upon every band in the nation. When Sly & the Family Stone were doing their thing, it was generally accepted that an artist in the music industry was aiming for a hit single. Motown, for example, was unequivocally constructed on the notion of black artists attaining crossover success. But Sly Stone's decision to partially neuter his band's wild style for their "Dance to the Music" single was a stylistic choice that would dog him for the rest of his career. Saxophonist Jerry Martini later called the record a collection of "glorified Motown beats. [‘Dance to the Music'] was such an unhip thing for us to do."

America begged to differ. "Dance to the Music" shot up to #8 on the pop charts, and even four decades on it's not hard to understand the song's appeal. Despite the fact that it's essentially fluff—an instrumental roll call set to a pounding rhythm—the record is just so immediate. It jumps out of the speakers in media res, horns blaring, Graham's bass popping, Errico's snare and tambourine smacking. "Say! Get up! And dance to the music!" exhorts brassy-voiced trumpeter Cynthia Robinson, who by now had settled in as the group's professional rabble-rouser. The groove repeats four times before the instruments unexpectedly drop out, and in come the voices Sly, Freddie, and Graham, commingling in an a capella scat. Then it's back to that unmistakable stomp, before the group tears the song down again and rebuilds, instrument by instrument.

Sly clearly knew he had a hit on his hands, and so proceeded to craft a record around his monster single. Most notoriously, "Dance to the Medley" essentially rehashes the title track for a good 12 minutes. Throughout, the rhythms are generally simplified, the song structures more predictable, and some of the more politicized lyrical fire is lacking. Two exceptions emerge: "Don't Burn Baby," an invective against rioting, and "Color Me True," a survey of pointed questions: "Do you know how to treat your brother? Do y'all know how to get along with one another?" Both songs are aimed directly at the listener, illustrating how Sly's lyrics were becoming more didactic, trying to force his audience to examine their own actions and prejudices.

Despite the general streamlining of the band's sound, Larry Graham's bass playing takes many strides forward here, as if to compensate for the bare-bones rhythms employed. The group's later influence on funk, fusion jazz and hip-hop owe just as much to Graham's musicianship as Sly's songwriting. He employed a novel technique of slapping his bass with his thumb to produce a more sharp, aggressive sound on the instrument. His use of fuzz effects on "Dance to the Music" also proved trendsetting in the years to come. Given how much the Family's arrangements leaned on hot, dynamic rhythms, it's safe to say that Graham and rhythm section partner Gregg Errico were the band's secret weapon.

As a whole, the Dance to the Music album feels rushed, and should generally be considered a step back from the group's debut. The fact that it catapulted them into the mainstream's consciousness, however, makes it a highly notable step along the group's journey. | C-

Life (1968)

So continues the inverse equation: quality Family Stone records flop, while lesser efforts succeed. The group's third LP is a balanced effort, more representative of the group's tastes and abilities than their previous album… but inexplicably it tanked. Indeed, Life's first song, the stirring "Dynamite!" ends with Sly effectively discrediting the song that brought his group fame. "Dance to the music," he repeats laughingly as the track fades.

"Plastic Jim" was the group's entry into the late ‘60s contest to rewrite the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" (see the Zombies' "A Rose for Emily" or the United States of America's "Stranded In Time"). "All the plastic people/ where do they all come from?" wonders the band, before describing the antithesis of their ideals: a two-faced man with a "cellophane smile" who just "can't be cool." Kids, Professor Sly's life lessons class is in session: don't be a corporate square. "Harmony" is another candy-coated lecture, featuring the group's most simplified message of tolerance yet: "You can be you, let me be me, that's harmony!" One can see Sly sharpening the altruistic visions of social equality that would later compose the bulk of Stand!

The album's trio of highlights ranks among the band's finest work. "Fun" is hedonistic heaven, a simple party jam for the ages. The title track's jaunty organ and celebratory sheen lend the impression that "life" really is a carnival. But "Jane Is A Groupie" stands as the forgotten gem in the Family's forgotten album. The brothers Stone and Graham once again trade off vocals as they detail the fancies of the titular character, a vacuous, oversexed teenager who's hungry to take every male member of the Family back to her steamy lair. It's a shocking dose of self-aware satire from a group just beginning to experience the benefits of fame. Whereas other young acts tended to glorify their backstage sexual exploits—Led Zeppelin, anyone?—the Family turns this song into a seedy back alley tale, filled with soiled bed sheets and empty promises.

But if this song suggests that Sly and his bandmates were strictly socially conscious do-gooders who were above self-destructive pleasures, the reality proved far grimmer for the group. Drugs beyond the traditional marijuana were beginning to infiltrate the band—cocaine would especially tighten its grip around the band's operations. Sly, probably feeling the pressures that his fame and gaudy musical aspirations inherently created, proved especially vulnerable to the drug's temptation. Cocaine put him on a new groove, and once he was on it, it proved nearly impossible to break. Soon Sly would develop a nasty habit of showing up late to gigs—or not at all—stalling one of the era's most electrifying live sets.

Despite these encroaching problems, and Life's commercial disappointment (the album barely grazed the Billboard's Top 200 list), the group stood poised to make its greatest artistic leap and most resounding commercial success with their watershed follow up, Stand! | B+

Stand! (1969)

This album is how Sly & the Family Stone will be remembered—ebullient idealists offering songs of hope for tomorrow. Coming on the heels of a turbulent year that saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy along with hellish riots at the Chicago Democratic National Convention and elsewhere, Stand! came across as a necessary salve for a nation that seemed on the brink of anarchy. From the opening drum roll of the title track, this release features Sly and Company operating at the peak of their abilities as a hit-making outfit. The album struck #13 on the pop charts, while its centerpiece single "Everyday People" went to #1, becoming an instant pop standard—from a San Francisco funk outfit, no less. Five of its eight tracks wound up on the group's Greatest Hits compilation in 1970, proving just how essential this record became to the group's reputation and commercial fortunes.

"Everyday People," of course, has long since become ubiquitous thanks to numerous commercials looking to capitalize on baby boomer nostalgia. But there's no denying the craft at work here – take a simple but infectious piano line, throw in sing-song group vocals, and then nail that refrain. The equally direct and memorable "Sing A Simple Song" and "You Can Make It If You Try" wear their messages on their shirtsleeves, jubilantly espousing ideals that would in only a few years seem hopelessly naïve: music can help you cope with life's struggles, and a bit of elbow grease can pull you out of the muck. The title track, meanwhile, mixes the straight pop formula of the rest of the album with a hard funk coda that Sly famously tacked on with a studio band.

But amidst the celebration come little reminders of the chaos and paranoia that were hovering over the group and society at large. "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey" portrays whites and blacks locked in an endless exchange of racial epithets—"and not a word would change a thing." "Sex Machine" roils for a good 13 minutes—nothing but sweaty groove and distorted scatting, wordlessly suggesting that something menacing was beginning to stir beneath the group's sugarcoated sloganeering. "Somebody's Watching You," which often gets overlooked amidst the pop pyrotechnics on the rest of the album, proves highly indicative of where Sly and the band were headed musically. The vocals are not shouted from the mountaintop, as per usual, but delivered in the form of a wry understatement, slowly constructing a dark tale of fear and loathing—"the nicer the nice/ the higher the price/ jealous people like to see you bleed."

Utopia had its costs. Though they had weathered the social maelstrom of 1968 without losing their trademark sunshine delivery, Sly and the Family Stone were entering a period of disintegration, fueled by cocaine, personal jealousies, and the pressures of Stand's unprecedented success. As the Vietnam conflict dragged on, the San Francisco rock scene's leading lights dropped one by one from drug overdoses, and Sly & the Family Stone would soon become another symbol of the demise ‘60s dream. | A

{mospagebreak}There's a Riot Goin' On (1971)

In writing about Sly & fhe Family Stone for the "33 1/3" series, Miles Marshall Lewis could come up with only one apt comparison for the disillusionment and horror that Sly was feeling circa 1971: picture an idealistic young Brooklyner post-9/11. There's a Riot Goin' On marked the death of something in Sly, and many critics have construed the album as being another note in the 1960s' death knell. As Lewis put it, "there's almost no other ‘in' to begin explaining the downward spiral of Sly Stone" except for the oft-used "death of the sixties" concept. An era was ending, and the Family's whole social platform was collapsing with it.

Just as one cannot separate this album from its time, Riot proves equally inextricable from its particular recording location: a swank, $12,000 a month mansion in Beverly Hills. Certainly this site didn't seem proper for Sly, the great egalitarian songwriter who made his name with Stand! But the mansion, with its rotating cast of celebrity and low-life guests, proved symbolic of the excesses that were beginning to poison the group's working relationship. Drugs, by now, were a constant presence. Recording sessions stalled. Sly constantly re-recorded instrumental tracks, much to the detriment of his bassist Larry Graham, whose work always seemed to end up on the cutting room floor. In public, the frontman's behavior became more erratic. Drummer Gregg Errico would soon depart the group. Sly replaced him with a rudimentary drum machine called the "Rhythm King" and session player Gerry Gibson.

From this murky environment springs album opener "Luv ‘n' Haight," a track similar to "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey" in its constant push and pull, with each word sung seeming to negate the other. "Feel so good inside myself/ don't wanna move," croaks Sly, his voice now raw and jagged. The backup vocals, provided by longtime Family collaborators Little Sister, seem to chide Sly in the opposite direction: "wanna move, wanna move," they intone. The song's inherent tension lends it an intense, soulful power, but ultimately no progress gets made. It's the sound of Sly's spiritual paralysis put to record. He wasn't going to answer to the world's ills this time—he was too thoroughly trapped inside himself.

Much of the rest of the album plays like one prolonged, slow simmer. This must have been a hard reality for a newly converted Sly fan to face: no more shouted group vocals, no more bounce, no more sunshine. From the forlorn coos of "Just Like A Baby" to the demented torch song "Time," it's one anthem of resignation after another. Even the poppier moments—#1 hit "Family Affair," "Runnin' Away," "(You Caught Me) Smilin'"—waft in with a strong hint of melancholy. The sound quality is uniformly ragged—a result of Sly's obsessive overdubbing, and this facet only adds to the insulated, haunting atmosphere of the record.

"Thank You For Talkin' to Me Africa" stands as the record's final showdown, a drastically reworked version of the group's galloping non-album single "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)." In its previous incarnation, the song was a funk barnstormer, but here the group slows the tempo down to a sickly crawl. The lyrics, some of Sly's most darkly evocative to date, begin with him facing down "the devil," and end with what amounts to a list of the group's previous hits, each title tossed off coolly and almost disdainfully. The final refrain hits heavily: "Dyin' young is hard to take/ sellin' out is harder."

Did Sly think his own group had sold out with its string of Motown-inspired hits? Was he declaring that he'd rather see his band die early than continue to water down its sound? It's a vexing couplet to parse, but ultimately, things did collapse for the band – spectacularly. Sparks flew between Sly and Graham, leading to the bassist's ejection from the group. Riot had marked a watershed for the Family, and the rest of the group's career could easily be described as "the aftermath." With a new rhythm section in tow, Sly would try to recreate his past successes on his band's two subsequent releases. | A

Fresh (1973)/Small Talk (1975)

Forever lost in the twin shadows of Stand! and There's A Riot Goin' On, the 2007 reissue campaign offers a chance to revisit these two latter-era Family records and search for hidden discoveries. Unfortunately, both albums inherently suffer from comparison – they lack in equal measure the pop brilliance of Sly's ‘60s work and the boundless pathos of Riot. They are not without their pleasures—Fresh is clearly the stronger of the two, featuring the group's last hit ("If You Want Me To Stay") and an aching rendition of "Que Sera, Sera." Small Talk's biggest asset is its "Loose Booty," a surprisingly frisky funk jam. Otherwise, however, it only serves to showcase a thoroughly burnt-out Sly, cobbling together songs from what little creative sparks remained in him. It's a record best left to completists. | C+ (Fresh)/D+ (Small Talk)

===

One could list pages of groups and entire genres deeply indebted to Sly & The Family Stone's stylistic innovations. During their lifetime, they were the rare band that could have it both ways – enjoying enormous crossover success with white fans but still retaining credibility with black audiences. Their funk DNA found its way into countless ‘70s acts – the Ohio Players, the Commodores, and the Jackson 5, just to name a few. Herbie Hancock named one of the tracks on his seminal Head Hunters album after Sly, and in the record's liner notes mentioned Sly's brand of funk as a chief influence on his music at the time. After James Brown, the Family Stone is one of hip-hop's most widely sampled acts.

But it's difficult to reduce a group like the Family to a series of academic evaluations. To really understand the power of this band in its prime, one would do well to contrast that head-scratching Grammy night in 2006 to a 1970 performance on the Kraft Music Hour. Situated in tight formation on a small, thrust-out stage, the group plows through its collection of hits with righteous aplomb, working up its mixed-race studio audience from the first note. During "Dance to the Music," Sly pulls up what must be half the audience onto the already cramped stage to groove with his band. And there they all are—a throng of various hues and backgrounds, crammed so close together as to become indistinguishable, jamming together on the same rhythm. It's a beautiful portrait of not just one band's prowess, but of a vivid societal dream, one that for a faint glimmer of time seemed on the verge of being realized. | Jeremy Goldmeier

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply