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On Wanting Sly Stone to Take Us Higher Yet Again

His only weapon is his pen, and the state of mind he’s in.

There is no earthly reason why I should see Doris Day on a movie screen and think of Sly Stone.

I mean, there is — the two met through her son, Terry Melcher, who was working for Columbia Records in the late ‘60s; Sly turned her hit “Que Sera Sera” into a gospelly lullaby; and everybody who was around back then heard the hilarious (and untrue) rumours about the two of them getting married — but no.

And yet, there she was, emoting away in all her Technicolor whiteness in a clip from some bygone flick, deployed by Raoul Peck to represent pop culture’s Technicolor whiteness in his James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro, and I half-expected to see a clip of Sly in all his Technicolor blackness right behind.

Such is the place Sly Stone holds in my imagination, not as a multi-gifted musician and pop music superstar but an avatar of black moodiness, invention and re-invention. He was one of the first audacious badasses of modern black pop music, a hero and then an anti-hero to millions. He was badass enough to make music that transcended racial boundaries, badass enough to still make timeless music when the results of all that transcendence got to be a bit much, and generally badass enough to transcend music itself.

Sly carried on like that for a historic run that bridged the ‘60s and ‘70s. For the first half of that run, he was the triumphant utopian performing sing-along anthems in front of thousands. For the back half, he was a reclusive, drug-inhaling studio rat who performed only when circumstances struck him favorably.

None of that was apparent 50 years ago, when Sly and the Family Stone announced themselves to the world. But hints were everywhere.

* * *

After the Stewart family relocated to the Bay Area from Texas, Sylvester found his way into the mid-‘60s San Francisco music scene as a disc jockey and producer. In the latter role, he could tell everyone on the session precisely what part to play, and play it himself if need be. As a deejay, he routinely crossed genres to spin hits by black and white artists. He also started a band, as did his brother, Freddie. The two bands eventually merged, becoming Sly and the Family Stone, and got signed to Columbia Records.

Their first album, A Whole New Thing, was released in October 1967 to absolutely no commercial success. Columbia mogul Clive Davis demanded a hit for the next album, and Sly obliged with “Dance to the Music”, a composition he didn’t think much of at the time. It became the quintessential party-starter upon its release in 1968, and the band would never look back.

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But the DNA of everything that was to come is all over A Whole New Thing, starting with the cover art: Sly’s smiling face looking down upon miniaturized pictures of the rest of the band. When the album was reissued a few years later to cash in on their stardom, the same visual motif was used, this time including sister Rose, who wasn’t in the original lineup. It also resurfaced on the cover art of the greatest-hits twofer The Essential Sly and the Family Stone (2003), with an even more blatant message: Sly holding the band in the palm of his hand.

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Whether or not it was planned that way, it was a most apt visual metaphor. For while everyone in the band was talented, Sly was the visionary who propelled it into legend. They could all play, everyone contributed to the vocals, and together they forged a sound that crossed all manner of racial and musical borders. But Sly’s prior industry experience was full of crossing those borders, and learning how to make great songs while doing so, and eventually how to make those songs into hits. No Sly, no Family Stone.

The first notes of the album’s first track, “Underdog”, suggest another elemental quality: the band’s sardonic wit. The horns (time now to acknowledge Cynthia Robinson on trumpet — how many other women of color who played an instrument besides a keyboard in these last 50 years of pop can you name?) sound out an inversion of “Frere Jacques”, the sort of nose-thumbing at convention the band would do a lot of in the years to come. The track then rushes into a stop-and-start of Sly’s breathless verses and the band chanting “yeah yeah” in the breaks. It all rumbles into a celebration of getting over, of the underdog finally catching a break. The up-from-under affirmations would be a lot less intricate and more direct in the near future, but we can already see Sly’s mind at work.

We also hear bassist Larry Graham’s bass vocals, which he’d come to be much better known for down the line, on otherwise pedestrian tracks like “Let Me Hear It from You”. And there are little subtle idiosyncrasies all over the place, like the “ah-ah-ah-ah” chant in the middle of “Trip to Your Heart”, which LL Cool J and others would someday sample. (Indeed, this album has been sampled more than non-cratediggers might imagine).

But black pop was already busily breaking molds that year. James Brown (and the late Clyde Stubblefield) essayed the funk blueprint “Cold Sweat”. Jimi Hendrix returned to America and set the Monterey International Pop Festival on fire (literally). Key departures and growing cultural militancy forced Motown to begin retooling its assembly line (it would soon borrow heavily from Sly’s example in its refashioning of the Temptations). Nina Simone shed the studio orchestra trappings of her mid-decade work to start getting her young-gifted-and-black on for real. Aretha Franklin emerged from six years of recording everything but a defining single to finally do so, and thus became Aretha Franklin, Queen of Soul (her foundational reworking of Otis Redding’s “Respect”, a song he could no longer claim as his own by the time he also got the Monterey festival lit).

Given all that, A Whole New Thing doesn’t evince a real departure from circa-1967 R&B, or at least a big enough of one to matter at the time. “Underdog” was the chosen single, but it doesn’t quite congeal into a song that could stand with the momentous goings-on. The album signaled additional ways black pop could be liberated to catch up with the times, but without a hit single to promote it, no one noticed. It took “Dance to the Music” and its successors for Sly and the Family Stone to be seen as the innovators and game changers they’d actually been since day one.

* * *

Two years later, Sly Stone was not only famous, but also notorious. After the band’s triumphant 1969 performance at Woodstock, in the wake of the massive album Stand! (1969), they could do no wrong, and Columbia clearly wanted to strike while the iron was hotter than the sun. But Sly dawdled on getting a new album together. Drugs began happening, not only with him but the rest of the band. His habit of skipping concerts, for various reasons, began happening, too.

That’s not to say the band wasn’t productive. First, there was the breezy single “Hot Fun in the Summertime”, released just after Woodstock, then there was one of the greatest two-sided hits in all of pop history.

One side was the mournful “Everybody Is a Star”, a classic affirmation that wasn’t as joyous as their previous hits. This was a ballad, with all the classic elements — traded-off lead vocals, simple doo-wop choruses, the horns taking everything higher — in service of a message rendered more intimately than their stadium-size flagwavers:

Everybody is a star

I can feel it when you shine on me

I love you for who you are

Not the one you feel you need to be

Ever catch a falling star

Ain’t no stopping ’til it’s in the ground

Everybody is a star

One big circle going round and round

Is this a sign of Sly already retreating from the summit he’d defiantly climbed? A message that it wasn’t all about him, that he wasn’t trying to claim all the adulation for himself? Was it slowed down and almost somber because he wanted to make sure we got the message? Whatever else it was or wasn’t, it was a new and memorable version of Sly’s classic up-from-under theme.

The other side was anything but slowed down and almost somber. “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” burst through early 1970 with a strut that would someday power an entire Rhythm Nation. Graham’s string plucking defined funk bass for a generation, percussion touches and guitar breaks referenced the vocal effects of the previous hits. The band was never tighter; the unison singing never more inspired. Aside from the chorus (singing a simple song wasn’t just a hit title, it was Sly’s artistic mantra), the most notable lyric was the name-checking of previous hits:

Dance to the music, all nite long

Everyday people, sing a simple song

Mama’s so happy, Mama start to cry

Papa still singin’, you can make it if you try

But really, when you hear that song, all that sticks is the awesome sound and chorus, a feeling of total freedom and release.

Columbia would quickly slap those hits onto a best-of album to hold the masses over until a new album was ready. It would be another year-and-a-half until that album happened. And when it did, the Sly and the Family Stone, who’d changed the face of music, was already all but history. In its place was Sly Stone, well on his way to mastering the art of not giving shits. Various factors, artistic and otherwise, set Sly loose on his path from hero to anti-hero. The afterlife of that two-sided hit shows how thoroughly the transformation stuck.

* * *

One doesn’t understand this new Sly without understanding the Maestro Rhythm King, the mother of all drum machines. It was very rudimentary compared to the gear producers use today, but in 1970 it was almost unheard of for producers to use any such gear at all. Sly got his hands on one and immediately found it useful. With it, he could experiment with his own sense of rhythms, create his own multi-layered beats, and unlock an unparalleled freedom in the studio. Basically, he no longer needed a drummer, which understandably irked Family Stone drummer Gregg Errico. Sly used the Rhythm King extensively on tracks he produced for himself and other groups, as detailed on I’m Just Like You: Sly’s Stone Flower 1969-70, and brought that ethos into work on the next Family Stone album.

By the time that work began in earnest, things with the band were disintegrating; they completed just a few tracks before falling apart for good. Fortunately, one of those tracks was the hit “Runnin’ Away”, but there’s no way one can call 1971’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On a full-on Family Stone album. Its other major hit, “Family Affair”, and much of the rest of the album features Sly on Rhythm King along with various other folks, including band members and guests Bobby Womack and Billy Preston, playing and singing whatever Sly himself didn’t.

Much has been made of the darkness pervading There’s a Riot Goin’ On, and whether that’s due to drugs, the various hangers-on, Sly being influenced by the Black Panthers (or shaken down, depending on the tell-all you believe, and there’s a couple to choose from), his isolated studio life, its low-fi audio, or some combination thereof is a matter of personal conclusion. I subscribe to the some-combination-thereof theory, although only Sly himself can ascribe the proper ratios to each factor, or any other.

But it certainly feels like an album of its time. The sunshine and hope of the ‘60s was gone, replaced by a moody cynicism that forecast no more simple songs to sing. The title track has a time listing of 0:00. Sly seemed to scoff at his own notoriety, chanting on “Poet” over the rhythm pattern “My only weapon is my pen / and the state of mind I’m in / I’m a songwriter / a poet”. Apart from the woozy sound of the mix (thanks to tracks being recorded on top of each other on reused tape reels), there’s the sparseness of it all. Another thing his use of the Rhythm King enabled was a doubling down on his “less is more” ethos, which was not at all evident in the bursting-at-the-seams mélange of his previous work (and thus an additional point of departure from it).

It all added up to a don’t-give-a-funk swagger unimagined in black pop, even with James Brown’s ensembles at their most furious. This was not the swagger of a dozen musicians relentlessly on beat, or of a nation of millions out to stick it to The Man, but of a mega-star unconcerned with everything he’d done and stood for before, and bent on finding a way to get it all out of his system, whether or not anyone was ready to hear it.

Sly’s Technicolor Blackness

James Brown may have been the first to articulate that funk sound, but Sly Stone was first to imagine what it felt like.

The final nail in the coffin of ‘60s Sly was There’s a Riot Goin’ On’s final track, and one of the final tracks recorded by the original Family Stone lineup. It was a big, black middle finger to the top of the world, one that had been hiding in plain sight all along. It was “Thank You” recast in a lethal tempo, with more than 90 seconds of the slowest and stickiest funk beat ever before Sly starts singing. Disembodied voices, keyboards and guitars dance around and between Graham’s bottom-filling bass. Errico maintains the beat as if to say, “suck on this, technology!”

The lyrics are all but exactly the same as before, but they land differently now, as if the band had turned its sardonic wit loose on itself, especially when they get to the name-checking verse. They don’t rush by amidst the original’s compressed, jam-packed production; they’re a lot clearer now with fewer elements and more space within the music. If the original set a benchmark for funk as a vehicle for feel-good pop universality, the new version set a benchmark for funk as a state of mind, an anthem for the both the newly woke and the disengaged-and-proud-of-it, at the time and for many years to come. Many over the years have sought to make something of the fact that Sly christened the new version ’Thank You for Talking to Me Africa”:

As Greil Marcus pointed out in “Sly Stone: The Myth of Stagerlee” (from his essay collection Mystery Train), There’s a Riot Goin’ On and its hits were part of a dizzying swirl of urgent black music happening in 1971-72. But most of it was outward-facing, taking on the tenor of black life after the Civil Rights era and just before the demise of the Black Power era. There’s a Riot Goin’ On is defiantly inward-facing, the end of Sly’s cross-cultural rallying cries. From this point forward, as “Thank You… Africa” irrevocably declares, the prevailing theme of Sly Stone’s music would be Sly Stone.

* * *

The afterlife of “Everybody Is a Star” began, perhaps, with the soundtrack of a movie few have ever seen.

In the early ‘70s, Jamaican nightclub owner Eddie Knight got Boris Gardiner, the leader of the nightclub’s house band, to make the soundtrack for a movie being produced by and starring actor Calvin Lockhart, who’d gained a measure of fame for his work in black-cast movies like Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970). Gardiner didn’t have, it appears, much more than the film’s title to work with: “Every Nigger Is a Star”.

Gardiner wrote a winsome title tune, as affirming in its way as “Everybody Is a Star”. Lockhart had recruited American R&B star Billy Paul to record the track, but Paul’s label, Philadelphia International, wouldn’t release it, so Gardiner ended up singing lead. One can, in fact, almost imagine Paul’s treatment of it; “Every Nigger Is a Star” is closer to the era’s optimistic American R&B than its foreboding Jamaican roots reggae, with its crooned lyrics, strings and cooing choruses. Its lyrics tell a more specific story than Sly’s, encouraging a downtrodden soul that better days are coming:

I have walked the streets alone

twenty years I’ve been on my own

to be hated and despised (poor nigger)

no one to sympathize (poor nigger)

but there’s one great thing I know

you can say, “I told you so”

they’ve got a right place in the sun

where there’s love for everyone, and

every nigger is a star

every nigger is a star

who will deny that you and I and every nigger is a star?

Erica Moiah James conducted exhaustive research for her scholarly paper on the film, but uncovered no direct evidence linking this tune with Sly’s (Lockhart likely was familiar with “Everybody”, but there’s no indication whether Sly’s song was on his mind as he planned his film). Still, who will deny that “Every Nigger is a Star” and “Everybody Is a Star” share an awful lot of anthemic, up-from-under spirit?

Gardiner’s version became a cult hit, even if the movie didn’t last a week once it opened (it was promoted as a Blaxploitation shoot-’em-up but was actually a cultural documentary, and Jamaican audiences weren’t having such mixed messages in their entertainment; it was never released in America). The song has far outlived its moment — it’s the first sample we hear in the opening track of To Pimp a Butterfly, and it’s the first music we hear in the soundtrack of Moonlight (2016).

My favorite version is the 1974 cover by Big Youth, who was among the Jamaican cultural figures to appear in that ill-fated movie. His endearing cover is a lot sunnier than the original, the backing vocals simultaneously rootsier and campier. He’s surprisingly not the world’s worst crooner, especially for one of the best of the first-wave Jamaican DJs (not taking yourself too seriously always helps). But the overall vibe is of a piece with Sly’s biggest hits in its power to induce mass happiness as well as inspiration:

One more thing: Ebony magazine ran a feature on Richard Pryor (who had worked with Lockhart on the movie Uptown Saturday Night) in 1976. It reported Pryor, who by this point had joined Sly in black pop badassery, wearing a bright yellow warm-up suit to the interview, at a celebrity tennis event. The article took its title from the phrase emblazoned on Pryor’s outfit: “Every Nigger Is a Star“.

* * *

For a more explicit instance of “Everybody” and its continued relevance, consider the Roots’ “Star”, especially when they drop the beat on top on a sampled loop of “Everybody” and Black Thought rips into the state of American life circa 2003:

When that adrenaline get in they system

It get ’em out on a quest for stardom

Could be a motherfuckin’ problem in Philly

Cincinnati, Los Angeles or Harlem

Kids call theyself killers let they hammers do the talkin’

Don’t even know the meaning of life, ain’t seen a thing

And you dream of floodin’ the scenery with, llello and greenery

But for now, you stickin’ her with the heavy machinery

Wonder how, you lift it up, be only 17

And like e’rybody he wanna shine, young brothers on the grind

Holdin’ somethin’ in they spine, “Bowling for Columbine”

Stressin’ to me how it’s all about a dollar sign

Dig the way you out of line, out of sight and out of mind

Up against the clock and damn near out of time

“The Tipping Point” has arrived, and that’s the bottom line

To all my peoples that’s stars, it’s our time to shine

Let’s get ’em up high, c’mon

After a point in “Star”, samples from “Everybody” color the music much as Sly used vocals and riffs in “Thank You for Talking’ to Me, Africa” as ornamentation to the essential beat, floating in and around Black Thought’s lyrics. But those lyrics still link back to Sly’s classic up-from-under attitude, with a level of specificity even he couldn’t have dared record back then:

Yo, ain’t it strange how the newspapers play with the language?

I’m deprogrammin’ y’all with uncut slang shit

I know some peoples in the party armed and dangerous

Twist some cool champagne, I’m goin’ through changes

A grown-ass man, I done paid my dues

Learn the rules lil’ homey, you could be one too

Niggaz know, ain’t no tellin’ what he gon’ do

But recognize young bruh, I’ma do it for you

“Star” is less a track featuring a sample than an amplification of the sample’s source, a recasting of its message for a new and starkly different time and place: America, the new millennium, three decades into hip-hop. Yet it also drips with the same don’t-give-a-funk swagger Sly dropped on There’s a Riot Goin’ On, even as Black Thought implores his listener to not give in to rampant urban nihilism. Tell me Questlove and crew didn’t have “Thank You for Talking’ to Me, Africa”, both its sound and its sense, baked into their consciousness when they conceived this track.

That don’t-give-a-funk swagger: James Brown may have been the first to articulate its sound, but Sly was first to imagine what it felt like. Hip-hop draws upon both sides of that swagger, of course, but we miss something elemental to its spirit if we foreground the former and don’t fully consider the latter. Sly’s catalog may be one of the most sampled bodies of work, but with tracks like “Star”, his attitude — remember, he said his only weapon is his pen, and the state of mind he’s in — resonates through hip-hop far more profoundly than any number of well-looped beats.

* * *

It shouldn’t be surprising that Sly’s post-There’s a Riot Goin’ On work isn’t generally memorable. What was left for him to do after he’d owned the world, then told the world exactly what he now thought about that? Fresh (1973), a Family Stone album with a new rhythm section, is a fine step back from the abyss he gazed upon on There’s a Riot Goin’ On, but his subsequent work had neither snap nor much emotional depth. By then, a golden age of black pop was underway (led by Stevie Wonder, another musician who was freed by advancements in music technology), and Sly was not part of it except as an influence. He put out an album in 1976 entitled Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I’m Back; if sales figures are reliable indicators, nobody missed him all that much by then.

But while the music of funk’s golden age was many funky and glorious things, it was not as moody and complicated as There’s a Riot Goin’ On or even Fresh. By mid-decade, the rush of socially charged Blaxploitation movies and soundtracks had slowed, and only Gil Scott-Heron’s unabashedly political messages and the proto-Afrofuturist symbolism within George Clinton’s P-Funk output bore any musical hints of subversion. Celebration, not introspection, was the order of the day, a point made clear when disco went mainstream.

There’s a Riot Goin’ On lives on because there has been no other album like it. Who could or would possibly go there, to change how music gets made and question the bother of it all at the same time? Cultural anti-heroes were expected to do that sort of thing at the turn of the decade, but such work takes a toll, and no one was volunteering for much of it by the end of the ‘70s.

Yet there’s at least a Rhythm Nation’s worth of people who would pounce upon any music Sly Stone might let loose today. Such releases have been speculated about for years, but not a note has sounded (save for a lame effort of recording some old hits with current guest stars). In fact, we’ve barely heard from the man himself at all for the better part of the last 40 years, and just like back with Doris Day, rumours tend to surround any current discussion of Sly. David Kamp’s 2007 profile for Vanity Fair remains one of the best attempts to answer all the outstanding Sly questions, but that’s ten years old now, and we still keep asking those questions.

One can’t be faulted for wanting Sly to take us higher, higher still, higher again. Those urges will come back every time one of those massive hits crops up, or there’s another glimpse somewhere of whatever’s left of his Technicolor blackness. That’s largely because he was the first black pop star to do two separate things: create a body of feel-good, cross-cultural anthems, and pivot to brooding about the resulting stardom it brought him. In both cases, he was also the first to realize we were hanging on his every word. We were so star-struck, and he knew that better than we did.

But if he never gives us another simple pop song or dark funk opus, Sly’s already told us the most important thing we need to know: everybody, we’re a star.

* * *

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