A Funky Family Affair (Soul February 13th 1971)

The fastest rising record, up 16 places to #18 (with a bullet, a Super Soul Sure Shot indeed) on the Cash Box Top 60 in R&B Locations for February 13th 1971 was on it’s way to a month long stay at the top position. “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” headed both the R&B & the US Pop charts in March the third time that the Temptations enjoyed such a double header success. It’s such a great, even significant track that I’m not waiting until the 50th anniversary of this achievement so let’s get to it.

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Despite the defection of David Ruffin in 1968 The Temptations had maintained their position as the US’ premier vocal group. Three one-hour TV specials, two with the Supremes (R.I.P. the wonderful Mary Wilson), one their very own &, beginning with “Cloud Nine” (1968), a move to Psychedelic Soul kept them at the front of the pack. However the group was unhappy this new style was less dependant on their own superlative vocal performance than on the innovative but dominant productions of Norman Whitfield. In 1970 “Ungena Za Ulimwengu (Unite The World)” became the first Tempts 45 to miss the US Pop Top 30 since 1964. With “Just My Imagination” Whitfield & his lyricist Barrett Strong returned to the emotional love ballad in the style of the “Classic Five”, they, arranger Jerry Long & the whole group delivered a beautiful perfect single. Eddie Kendricks had not provided the lead vocal on a Temptations A-side since 1968’s “Please Return Your Love To Me”. His performance of of this reverie about Love is perfectly pitched, the slower, clear reveal that “in reality, she doesn’t even know me” still resonates 50 years later. the Temptations were back.

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However things were not right with the group. Eddie Kendricks was, like David Ruffin before him, looking for a way out & already recording a solo album. The personal & health problems of Paul Williams were affecting his performances in the studio & on stage. In April 1971 doctors advised Paul to retire from the group. Their appearance on the Ed Sullivan TV show highlights the rift within the the Temptations, Eddie putting some distance between himself & his fellow members. Whitfield had lined up “Smiling Faces Sometimes” as the follow-up to “Imagination” but Eddie was gone by then & promotion without his featured vocals was impossible. Of course there were still great Temptations moments, more big hits to come but “Just My Imagination” serves as a poignant watershed in the long career of a great group.

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With roots in Gospel & Folk the four Chambers Brothers, with the addition of electricity & a drummer, had by the mid-1960s a spirited, still sanctified live set incorporating Blues & Soul. Still, the full 11 minute glory of “Time Has Come Today” was a surprise, An epic, ambitious, assured mix of sock-it-to-me & the Summer of Love incorporating Sly Stone, James Brown & the new Psychedelia this was the shock of the new, Afro-Rock, an instant classic, now an obligatory inclusion on any film or documentary concerning the turmoil of late 1960s America. The edited single version made the US Top 20 & while their subsequent releases didn’t make the same impression or have the same commercial success the Chambers Brothers continued to make interesting, inventive records.

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Well alright! “Come in Mr. DJ, Phife by the microphone. Down with the Tribe Called Quest, yes man”. The rather fantastic “Funky” was at #30 on this week’s R&B chart & this is where TCQ found their introduction to”I Left My Wallet In El Segundo”. 1971’s “New Generation” is the fifth album by the Chambers Brothers since the success of “Time…” & it’s a varied, robust, dramatic collection, a collision of so many ideas that compares to Funkadelic. “Are You Ready?” sure sounds like a hit to me & it’s not the only one. If this had been the soundtrack to a blaxploitation movie we would still be finger-popping along to these tunes today. As it was this was not the group’s time & this line up went their separate ways the following year.

1970 had been a winning year for Sly Stone. A “Greatest Hits” collection would go on to sell five million copies, it included the single “Thank You (Falettin Me Be Mice Elf Agin)” which hit #1 in the US Pop chart in February. The film of the Woodstock Festival, released in June, captured the excitement & immediacy of our music in a new way & Sly & the Family Stone’s electrifying performance of “I Want To Take You Higher” was a highlight of the fifth highest grossing movie of the year. Atlantic Records offered Sly his own Stone Flower imprint for any productions he wanted to give them. it was, of course, a family affair.

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Slipping down the chart at #33, Vaetta “Ven” Stewart was Sly’s little sister. Along with Mary McCreary & Elva Mouton she had provided backing vocals for his “Stand” album &, as Little Sister they recorded two singles for his new label. “Somebody’s Watching You” is a re-working of a track from “Stand”, a sparse, atmospheric cover it is too, a Sly & the Family Stone record in all but name so it matters. Alone in the studio with a new-fangled drum machine, a violin case full of drugs & the problems that such fame brought, Sly continued to innovate & redefine urban music. There were only to be four single releases on Stone Flower, Little Sister had returned to the background when later in 1971 Sly & the Family Stone were back at #1 on the chart with “Family Affair” & a ground-breaking, brooding album. The major Soul stars were ready with their state of the nation social commentaries at this time & “There’s A Riot Goin’ On” would sit among the very best of them.

For this week’s live highlight we jump forward three weeks to March 6th 1971, to Black Star Square in Accra, Ghana when great American Soul stars including Wilson Pickett, Ike & Tina Turner, the Staple Singers & Santana honoured that country’s Independence Day. The all-singing, all-dancing, 100% energy of Voices of East Harlem get the funky party started in the best possible way. They are young, gifted & Black, there’s a whole wild bunch of them & it’s irresistible. My friend Mani attended this concert, proud & excited that his American idols should come to his city. I loved to share my lunchtime & his vivid memories of a great day.

It’s The Truth That The Truth Makes Them So Uptight (Sly and the Family Stone)

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.