30 years ago, Sly Stone's music led the national dialogue on race

by Terry Lawson

Detroit Free Press (MCT)

17 April 2007


In 1969, I was summoned to the office of the jewelry store attached to the record store that I managed. The idea was you would come into the record store for a $5 LP and be enticed next door for a $500 necklace.

The manager was upset because the music we played constantly could be heard in his store, and that week, about all we were playing was the new Sly & the Family Stone album “Stand!.” One of the songs on the album was “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey,” whose lyrics were composed almost entirely of that line, followed by “Don’t call me whitey, nigger.” It was a kind of dialogue.

He had asked the clerk not to play that record, on the grounds that it would offend customers to the point where they would not buy overpriced jewelry on installment plans, and he said the clerk has been less than helpful.

I told him that we played the new music everyone wanted to hear, and that “Stand!” certainly qualified. I also pointed out that the song in question was a plea for blacks and whites (and Asians and Arabs, for that matter) to come to a better understanding and learn to love each other.

I also pointed out that the clerk, like much of our clientele, was black.

This did not appease him, so I assured him we would no longer play the song in question. We still did, but that’s not the point.

The point is that the very week that Don Imus inadvertently opened a national dialogue about what can be said in public and who can say it, the powers that be have finally, finally released Sly and the Family Stone’s seven core albums, remastered, with bonus tracks.

The word that matters here is remastered, because Sly—born Sylvester Stewart—was a visionary producer, using sound and the studio in a way that few artists except the Beatles did in that era.

Even the first album from the band (which was integrated, as were many R&B groups of the time), optimistically titled “A Whole New Thing,” was beautifully produced.

By the time Sly got to 1968’s underrated “Life” and the following year’s “Stand!,” propelled by the group’s mind-altering performance at the Woodstock festival, he was making records that sounded like no others. They were funky and soulful, yes, but also sonically wired in a way that linked your brain and your butt.

You could—had to—dance to the music, but not without understanding what you were dancing about: white and black people locked into one groove, by the power of music.

Like Miles Davis and Duke Ellington, Sly didn’t pander to the white audience; he simply made music that compelled it to pay attention and respect. Unlike Miles and Duke, Sly talked about that in the music itself.

They played “Don’t Call Me ...” on FM radio stations, along with the other tracks on the album, and if people complained, I never heard about it.

Saying the ugly words out loud, in music no less, was not about liberating them, as the rappers and the comics would come to claim. It was about confronting them and their uselessness.

Sly, and Jim Hendrix too, understood that the white man had appropriated black music, and thought it only right that they appropriate some of the white man’s music, too: That’s why they rocked, as does Sly’s most obvious progeny, Prince.

He’s talked openly about America’s obsession with race in his music, and used the n-word too, usually to parody a lifestyle he clearly believes to be cartoonish—the gangsta-thug culture as the Beverly Hillbillies, living large, thinking little.

Anyway, it’s great to have these records back, sounding better than ever, especially “There’s a Riot Goin’ On,” released in 1971, which is rightfully on everyone’s list of the top 100 albums of any category.

Allegedly made under the influence of a mountain of cocaine and paranoia, it still found time to address the issue of race in songs like “Luv N’ Haight” and the languid, brilliant “A Family Affair” where “one child grows up to be/somebody that just loves to learn. And another child grows up to be/somebody you’d just love to burn,” then acknowledges that. “Mom loves the both of them.”

If you can play these records and go back to life, as Sly puts it, with hate in your heart, you’re not listening. He used words for their power to connect us, not separate us further than we are.

Before Imus was a nationally known shock jock, he also did stand-up, and even released an album. Its title? “That Honky’s Nuts.” Forget reformed race-baiter Reverend Al; that honky needs to have a heart-to-heart with Sly.

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