Graded on a Curve:
Sly & The Family Stone,
Original Album Classics

The late-1960s was loaded with musical groundbreakers, and one of the most enduring is Sly & the Family Stone. Formed by brothers Sly and Freddie Stone, the group grew by leaps and bounds through the combination of rock, R&B/soul, psychedelia, and pop, and by ’69 they had effectively conquered the scene. Theirs is a reign dotted with masterworks, and Sony has collected the bulk of the discography into the vinyl box set Original Album Classics. It includes five 180gm LPs remastered from the source tapes by Vic Anesini and pressed at URP; for a limited time it’s available exclusively at Popmarket.

He was born Sylvester Stewart in Denton, TX in 1943. Two decades later the man was wielding the handle Sly Stone, and when his Sly & the Stoners joined forces with his brother’s Freddie & the Stone Souls in ’67 San Francisco, he was already well-ensconced in the music biz both as a performer and producer at Autumn Records. In due time Sly excelled at his leadership role, though the Family Stone, credited as the first major American rock act to incorporate integrated multi-gender personnel, was always something more.

They initially consisted of Sly (vocals, organ, and assorted other instruments), Freddie (guitar, vocals), Larry Graham (bass, vocals), Cynthia Robinson (trumpet, vocal interjections), Jerry Martini (saxophone), and Greg Errico (drums), with assistance from Vet Stone, Mary McCreary, and Elva Mouton, collectively known as Little Sister (backing vocals). Signed to CBS Records’ subsidiary Epic, they worked fast, maybe too fast; the first long-player was in the can before June was done.

Indeed, if they’d broken up after A Whole New Thing’s cashbox failure, Sly & the Family Stone would likely be forgotten. Over the years the debut has taken its share of heat, some of it undeserved. Things begin fairly well; “Underdog” is bookended by horns riffing on the melody to “Frère Jacques,” but the meat of the matter is upbeat soul. The opener establishes one of the album’s distinctive attributes, specifically a heavier drum sound than was then the norm for the R&B genre.

This harder hitting rhythm is especially apparent on “Bad Risk” and “Dog,” A Whole New Thing’s closer. But limiting success is the appearance of the relatively mainstream “If This Room Could Talk” and “I Cannot Make It,” both perfectly acceptable but ultimately unexceptional. However, “Run, Run, Run” coolly combines bedrock R&B with elements seemingly culled from the Brit Invasion (Sly had produced the Beau Brummels during his Autumnal period), and “Trip to Your Heart” is an oddball highlight.

The Stone’s psych flower may have been still to bud, but hints of weirdness are still observable at this point, mostly thorough brief group vocal flourishes; for evidence, please see “Advice.” Elsewhere, “Turn Me Loose” succeeds via the intensity of its breakneck Staxian pace, and “Let Me Hear it From You” and “That Kind of Person” are pleasant but straightforward ballads. The brightness of “Dog” ends a promising yet minor collection.

‘68’s follow-up Dance to the Music details the work in progress. It’s largely known today for its classic opening title track, though reportedly at the behest of either Clive Davis or David Kapralik (or both), the album’s more commercially situated, so much so that it even contains “Dance to the Medley.” And it’s a pretty good one, particularly the side-closing “Music Lover” section.

But if more commercially inclined it’s still uneven as Rose Stone (keyboards, vocals) has arrived to fill out the definitive lineup. “Higher” is likeable but inferior to its eventual revamping, the harmonica solo somewhat at odds with the urban(e) R&B context. “I Ain’t Got Nobody (For Real)” is a solid straight-up soul number lingering a little longer than a Stax or Atlantic 45 would; tidier is the tasteful psychedelia-tinged dance funk of “Ride the Rhythm.”

“Color Me True” flaunts a sturdy beat, tight horns charts, snaky guitar and welcome bits of organ, as “Are You Ready?” offers a robust example of the Stone’s soul-psych fusion, but “Don’t Burn Baby” is too busy structurally and a bit hammy to boot. Some have complained the balladry of “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” backtracks into the straight-ahead nature of A Whole New Thing, but by my lights it lends a fine close, sporting a vocal turn by Graham.

The wicked guitar lick, fuzz bass, and general stomp of “Dynamite!” make immediately clear that Life, which came quickly on Dance to the Music’s heels in September of ‘68, was a notch above. Where the first LP was formative and the second occasionally registered as a band striving to be accessibly different, tracks like the ludicrously funky “Chicken” and “Plastic Jim” with its undisguised “Eleanor Rigby” lift (a harbinger of musical methods post-hip-hop) unfold and flap in the wind like a flag legitimately freaky.

Life didn’t produce any major hits (only the title cut entered the Top 100), but that’s not by faulty design; the entries are all of prime single length, each of the eleven clocking in at three and a half minutes or less, many under three; e.g. the suitably brisk “Fun” and the deeper mid-tempo groove of “Into My Own Thing.”

With its stinging fuzz leads, vocal interplay, in the pocket drumming and brief bass thunder, everything is in place and nothing feels forced as “Into My Own Thing” unfolds, not even the sprinkling of ragtime/ barrelhouse piano. And “Harmony” displays the positivity the group was soon to momentarily master before things took a darker turn. No matter if it fizzled on the charts; landing betwixt circus/ parade ambiance and a rallying cheer, adroitly mixing ambition and accessibility, “Life” is superior in both songwriting and delivery to “Dance to the Music.”

The LP it names impressively avoids filler. “Love City” has a killer drum line and a succession of strong voices, “I’m an Animal” alternates springy grit and smoldering sax passages, the retroactively popular “M’Lady” (the b-side to “Life”) cranks on full cylinders, and the gutsy, expertly layered closer “Jane is a Groupee” calls out suspect behavior rather than irresponsibly celebrating it and in so doing stands up well to the test of time.

’69’s Stand! opens with the title composition, a snare roll anticipating a major breakthrough in conception and execution. Arguably their greatest single, it’s without a doubt this writer’s favorite. The emphatic shout and accompanying horn fanfare, the seamless blend of instrumentation, the lyrics, including the exquisite and still relevant slow burn of “Don’t you know that you are free/Well at least in your mind if want to be,” the spectacular shift at 2:15; it’s simply a pop masterpiece.

The same applies to the record as a whole. “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey” is an examination of racial hostility that’s again notable for its intelligence in a world lousy (now as then) with platitudes. It deserves every second of its 5:58, and it leads into the equally expansive and long-celebrated gyration generator “I Want to Take You Higher.” Sandwiched between it and the massiveness of the oft-sampled side-ender “Sing a Simple Song” is the deceptively buoyant “Somebody’s Watching You,” perhaps an undersung ditty as it’s one of only three Stand! tunes not appearing on ‘70’s Greatest Hits.

Of course, “Everyday People” did make the compilation’s cut. An unabashed pop gesture lacking even a hint of foul aftertaste, it essentially finds them perfecting a crossover wave set in motion by their very own “Dance to the Music,” a track that got Motown and others all in a tizzy. As cool as psychedelic soul could be, “Everyday People” eclipses it by casting aside the stabs at faux-druggy atmosphere to deftly combine social commentary and a tidy hunk of pop-R&B.

It’s followed by the slow-cooking mostly instrumental “Sex Machine” (not to be confused with the nugget to come from James Brown) and the loopy carnival funk midsection of the LP’s finish “You Can Make it if You Try.” Altogether it’s an amazing, optimistic record that sets the stage for their Woodstock gig later in the year.

Stand! is one of the finer exponents of the hippie era’s basic thesis in musical form, but it’s hard to deny great art more often stems from a sense of disillusionment. This circumstance informs ‘71’s darkly fascinating There’s a Riot Goin’ On; of the five platters assembled here it’s simultaneously Sly’s artistic highpoint and an early component in his personal downturn.

Once he bottomed-out his career never recovered, but There’s a Riot Goin’ On is no journal of a celebrity flameout and isn’t heavily shaped by autobiographical concerns; in fact, it’s sometimes mentioned that Sly’s words are difficult to decipher (though this probably depends on how hard one tries to decipher them). As its title makes plain the album is more about the cultural fallout of the previous decade than the airing of grievances.

The humid environs of “Luv N’ Haight” commence a musical change in direction and the eerie “Just Like a Baby” intensifies it by examining a truly dirty groove. By the emergence of “Poet”’s slinky keyboard and nasty rhythmic grind, the LP’s rep as a funk cornerstone is chiseled into permanence. It’s also gloriously lacking in slickness; even when the sequence runs into hit single “Family Affair” there’s Sly’s lowdown rasp to consider.

The production haziness adds to an undercurrent of a pressure cooker preparing to blow its valve; so it is with “Africa Talks to You ‘The Asphalt Jungle’,” which alongside “Brave & Strong” and the more laidback “(You Caught Me) Smilin’” (well, the entire slab, really) serve as the template (with Funkadelic, natch) for much subsequent (and spurious) funk-rock activity.

Another interesting aspect is the use of drum machines across the disc; it enhances the sleepy feel of “Time,” and the technological ingredient unfurls as miraculously non-dated on “Spaced Cowboy,” the textures mingling with mouth-organ and Sly’s leftfield yodel to cohere into one of the stranger (and aptly titled) tunes in the guy’s book. Next is Rose’s lead vocal on the sunshiny, horn-infused “Runnin’ Away.” Closing doozy “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me Africa” is fueled by the incessant simplicity of bass line and drums.

The finale of There’s a Riot Goin’ On also reveals Sly toying around with their ’69 hit “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” the source absent here as it was a non-LP 45, the same for its flipside “Everybody is a Star” and “Hot Fun in the Summertime.” The three were compiled onto Greatest Hits, a disc due to sheer redundancy sensibly not included here.

Album reissue boxes are an idea ranging from innocuous to pretty dang nifty, but important songs can’t help but slip through the cracks. This set does cover most of Sly & the Family Stone’s goods, though a sensible argument could be made for overlooking A Whole New Thing and rounding up ‘73’s Fresh instead. That’s a different box; what’s offered on Original Album Classics is the upward trajectory of a highly influential and sui generis band. Listening remains a treat.







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