The stories about Sly Stone, tales of drug related paranoia & craziness, have become legendary. The will he/won’t he show up for the show, trouble when his bass player, Larry Graham, hired a hit man to sort out some differences. Luckily Sly was adhering to a pretty strict, uh, drug regimen of cocaine & PCP to keep his mind limber. None of this business should deflect from the fact that Sly, with his group the Family Stone, created trailblazing, innovative music which fused musical & social trends into something unique & then sold by the shed load. Sly & the Family Stone did not break the barriers they just ignored them.
How beautiful is this clip ? The band are on prime-time US TV to promote the 1968 #1 single “Everyday People”. After some sound advice from Sly,”don’t hate the black, don’t hate the white. If you get bitten – just hate the bite”, they rock into a medley to which even Ed Sullivan’s audience know, resistance is futile. This band could play. Yes they were multi-racial, yes the women were not just backing singers, the band took current trends in soul, funk & rock & cooked up their own irresistible groove. Whether you were sitting in the Sullivan audience, listening to the radio or tripping your tits off at Woodstock, Sly & the Family Stone were gonna take you higher.
The early hits were strictly positive vibrations, simple songs about everyday people having hot fun. The sunshine of a brave new world was clouded by money, fame, drugs & a move from their San Francisco base to Los Angeles. Sly’s increasingly erratic behaviour led to conflict with the band & with promoters. Between 1969 & 1971 there was only one new single released. It was a #1 hit while the “Greatest Hits” release was the 60th best LP ever made according to Rolling Stone. Sly Stone was alone in either his home studio or a specially built room in the Record Plant working out his personal demons. The result was “There’s A Riot Goin’ On” a remarkable blend of the social & personal implications of the death of the 60s. It is, wrote Robert Christgau, “darker than the Velvet Underground & Nico & funkier than shit”. The first single from this stygian funk classic was at #1 in the USA for 3 weeks…of course it was.
♫It’s A Family Of Bears♫ as my friend Mo would chirrup in the greatest example of a misheard lyric I know. “Family Affair” , a spare reflection on luv & Haight , is as perfect a pop song as you can find. The Family Stone were barely functional at the time. Sister Rose duets with Sly who programmed this new drum machine toy he had (this is the first #1 to use such a thing). Friends Billy Preston & Bobby Womack made contributions too. Because the band were elsewhere, bass player Larry Graham (inventor of the slap-bass) left to form Central Station, drummer Gregg Errico played with Weather Report & Bowie, there are no clips of “Riot” being given the proper treatment. There is a charming & restrained duet between Sly & Rose here.
“There’s a Riot Goin’ On” is a murky masterpiece. Sly, singing while lying on his bed, can no longer summon the optimism of 1968. Lyrically there is cynicism, even pessimism, but musically he still hits the spot. The closing 7 minute long “Thank You For Talkin’ To Me Africa” is funkier than a junkyard dog & is a delight. This was the commercial peak for Sly. The following records were still good, especially “Fresh”. However, an addict’s world gets smaller & he never caught the moment again like he did in 1971.
He did though get the band back together in 1974 & this clip from “Soul Train” is another thing of wonder. “Thank You(Falettin Me Be Mice Elf Agin)” was that one record released in 1970 & this jam captures the magic of Sly’s loose groove. Brother Freddie is still around, as are the beautiful Cynthia Robinson & sister Rose. There’s a new rhythm section, Rusty Allen & Bill Lordan, while that’s gotta be Sid Page off of Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks on funk violin proving that Sly Stone was still listening & still moving his sound forward.
Sly Stone has been so very influential on so many musicians. Miles Davis got funked up on “On The Corner”, Parliament/Funkadelic & the Isley Brothers brought new guitarists forward. Prince just fell in love with the whole deal. Hip Hop samples ? Just the few thousand. In fact LL Cool J’s “Mama Gonna Knock You Out”, based on “Trip To Your Heart” still sounds good. When any art is said to be ahead of its time there is an implication that the rest of the world took some time to catch up. The music of Sly & the Family Stone was ahead of anyone else but it was creating the future for an audience which accepted & were carried along by it. For a time there the most innovative music was also the most popular. Different world now ? Maybe.
Sly Stone is recognised for his artistry but has been down on his luck for some time. He only makes news when there are money or drug problems. Man, you wouldn’t wish that on anyone. I wish him luck in the future.