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On Wanting Sly Stone to Take Us Higher Yet Again

From the cover of Sly Stone – I’m Back! Family & Friends (2011)

Sly Stone was one of the first audacious badasses of modern black pop music, a hero and then an anti-hero to millions.

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.

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.

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.

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