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Sly & The Family Stone

+ {Sly Stewart} + {Sly Stone}

With funk-meister Sly Stone casting himself HENDRIX-like in the role of Afro-American uber-hippie, he and his family were pioneers of the psychedelic soul movement, re-inspiring old R&B hands like The TEMPTATIONS and The ISLEY BROTHERS. Breaking down the barriers of race and sex, The Family Stone integrated multiracial musicians both men and women; all a melting pot of political and socially aware everyday people – but with all the preaching came the drugs, and Sly’s slow decline into its possession.
Born Sylvester Stewart, March 15, 1944 in Dallas, Texas, SLY STONE’s career had started way back at the turn of the 60s (when based in San Francisco), he spun his talent out in several directions. As a musician and singer while studying at Vallejo Junior College, he and his younger brother, Fred, combined to perform as The Stewart Brothers (also with The Viscaynes), although his real talent was as a disc jockey for KSOL and, in turn KDIA, and as an in-house producer at Autumn Records. Aside from the odd solo or duo outing, Sly worked with a variety of garage-psych combos, including mid-60s bands The BEAU BRUMMELS, BOBBY FREEMAN, The Mojo Men and GRACE SLICK’s earliest group, The GREAT SOCIETY.
The earliest incarnation of S&FS came about in ’66, when Sly and Cynthia Robinson, formed the short-lived The Stoners. Early the following year, SLY & THE FAMILY STONE took to the stage at clubs/pubs in Oakland, combining post-flower-power and funk into their amiable and trippy ethos. Sly (vocals/multi), Fred (guitar/vocals), Cynthia (trumpet), cousin Larry Graham (bass/vocals), Greg Errico (drums) and Jerry Martini (saxophone), were the sextet that inked a deal with Epic Records to release debut album, A WHOLE NEW THING (1967) {*5}. The trad-soul record introduced a fresh sound created by one of the first inter-racial, inter-gender and “inta”-drugs outfits to emerge between the rock/soul divide. But there were no hits as opener `Underdog’ failed to take a chunk out of the charts; OTIS REDDING was a clear inspiration.
Adding sister Rose Stone (complete with platinum-blonde wig) on co-vocals and keyboards, the “family” aspect was beginning to take better shape, marked in no short measure by the septet’s breakthrough Top 10 single, `Dance To The Music’, a skilfully honed melange of doo-wop, soul and acid-funk that shook even the most stoned of hippy asses. The album of the same name, DANCE TO THE MUSIC (1968) {*6}, followed soon afterwards, crystallising the band’s distinctive crossover sound. While one couldn’t dismiss the group’s exuberance and joyous moves and grooves, a 12-minute jam of `Dance To The Medley’, was too much too soon, while `Higher’ was moulded later into `I Want To Take You…’.
Delivered that autumn, LIFE (1968) {*7}, marked a definite shift toward a fuzzier, funkier fusion of psychedelia and contemporary soul, while JAMES BROWN-esque cuts `Dynamite!’, `Chicken’ and `M’Lady’ (a minor hit), proved that the group could groove with the best of them.
Possibly their finest moment, the irresistible swing of subsequent hit, `Everybody People’, was almost gospel-like in its passionate intensity. The single’s B-side, `Sing A Simple Song’, was similarly evangelical and illustrated that musically, at least, in the Family Stone, all the soul brothers and sisters were born equal. Each family member was given a fair deal in the mix, both instrumentally and vocally, and along with the band’s unique hybrid of styles, this musical equanimity defined their sound. The classic STAND! (1969) {*9} album fully captured this collective, celebratory fanfare, and a record that including the aforementioned tracks as well as the 14-minute bass-heavy pulse of `Sex Machine’. It also introduced Sly’s penchant for mordant humour by way of `Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey’ and the opt-copied `Somebody’s Watching You’.
As the 60s dream turned sour, this penchant would become ever more pronounced; the No.2 smash, `Hot Fun In The Summertime’, a wry observation on America’s summer of discontent. The chart-topping follow-up, `Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin)’, was an edgy piece of taut funk that indicated the way Sly was headed, two of the stand-outs on stopgap compilation LP, GREATEST HITS {*9}. Much is forgotten in the group’s alter-ego outfit, Abaco Dream, who’d released a couple of rare and forgotten platters, `Life And Death In G & A’ and `Another Night Of Love’, in 1969.
Come 1970, Sly had moved to L.A., where he immersed himself in cocaine and the vacuum of the back-slapping Hollywood elite. Partly composed in Sly’s infamous drug den of a motorhome, where he lived gypsy-style around L.A., THERE’S A RIOT GOIN’ ON {*10}, finally appeared in 1971. Reflecting the narcotic-induced paranoia and detachment of the recording sessions, most of the tracks were blurred snatches of dirty, slow burning funk, topped off by Sly’s raspy vocal chords. The deceptively laid-back groove of `Family Affair’ belied a grim lyrical content which extended to the whole album. From his embalming cocoon of grade-A narcotics, Sly gave a hazily cynical commentary on the decline of American civilization; once heard, the grooves are seductively loose on `Runnin’ Away’, `(You Caught Me) Smilin’’, `Just Like A Baby’ and `Luv N’ Haight’. The album remains a darkly brooding classic.
With drug busts, financial pressures and hassles from militant black nationalists who didn’t care for Sly Stewart’s racially mixed philosophy, it was two years before FRESH (1973) {*7} was released. Major personnel shuffles had taken place in the interim, bassist Rusty Allen had replaced Larry (who formed GRAHAM CENTRAL STATION), and both Andy Newmark (drums) and Pat Rizzo (sax), had superseded Errico. While the sound recalled the band’s effervescent charisma of old, a distinct edginess remained in the watertight grooves. The cool pop-funk of `If You Want Me To Stay’ was the Family Stone’s last Top 20 single, while a junked-up cover of `Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)’, signalled a bit of resignation.
1974’s SMALL TALK (1974) {*5} was almost overwhelmingly bland save for the title track and from there on in, Sly (pictured with wife and new baby on the LP sleeve) lost it big time.
On June 5, 1974, he’d married the lady in question (Kathy Silva) on stage at Madison Square Garden; fast forward a year they were divorced, while he duly filed for bankruptcy early ‘76. A drug casualty of the saddest order, Sly’s latter 70s output was unremarkable at best. The solo HIGH ON YOU (1975) {*6} was underrated at the time – but was PRINCE listening?
SLY & THE FAMILY STONE were pushing out the boat again with a trio of sub-par albums, HEARD YA MISSED ME, WELL I’M BACK (1976) {*4}, BACK ON THE RIGHT TRACK (1979) {*4} and AIN’T BUT THE ONE WAY (1983) {*3}, although the main man’s best times were with GEORGE CLINTON and FUNKADELIC on his “The Electric Spanking Of War Babies” set in ’81. Drug busts, rehab admissions and periods of inactivity, led to the man going down the hill slowly. The brightest parts were duets with Jesse Johnson on the R&B hit, `Crazay’, and another with Martha Davis (ex-MOTELS) on `Love & Affection’, the latter a track from the 1986 movie, Soul Man.
Constant battles with his addiction and lack of support from the major labels, Sly was left in isolation from the music world. Yet, there were signs he was getting back on his feet, when after his induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in ’93, Avenue Records fed him a contract. Sadly, nothing became of it. Then, out of the blue, it was rumoured during a Grammy tribute appearance in 2006, that a solo SLY STONE would return in the near future. Sadly, when the record – I’M BACK! FAMILY & FRIENDS (2011) {*4} – finally emerged on Cleopatra Records, it was merely a re-tread of golden nuggets featuring the likes of stabilizers, RAY MANZAREK, JOHNNY WINTER, JEFF BECK, BOOTSY COLLINS and Ann Wilson.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/BG // rev-up MCS May2013

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