Highs, Lows & Heavenly Blows

More than three decades on, Sly & the Family Stone stand fresh

Sly Stone's reappearance at the 2006 Grammys was one of the most painful spectacles to witness in music history. Surrounded by Maroon 5, Aerosmith, Ciara and Black Eyed Peas, a hunched, shriveled Sly, sporting a bleached Mohawk, shuffled out to an unplugged keyboard for "I Want to Take You Higher." There, he feigned ecstasy for scarcely two minutes before skittering back offstage. This artistic nadir was a long way down from the precipitous highs the man had attained more than three decades ago.

Born Sylvester Stewart in Denton, Texas, in 1944, Sly soon relocated with his family to Vallejo, California. Along with his brother Freddie and sisters Rose and Vaetta, he began performing gospel music and dabbled in a doo-wop group before taking a gig as a disc jockey at San Francisco radio station KDIA. By the mid-'60s, Sly was pioneering freeform FM radio, spinning Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix back-to-back and producing records for local psychedelic groups such as the Beau Brummels and the Grace Slick-fronted Great Society.

As the Haight-Ashbury scene peaked in 1967, the rechristened Sly Stone formed his own band with his siblings; a bassist named Larry Graham who could play his instrument with a slapping motion; and two funky white boys, saxophonist Jerry Martini and drummer Gregg Errico. A Whole New Thing announced the Family Stone's arrival as a multiracial band that not only proclaimed togetherness, but also lived it, melding Sly's past in gospel, soul, doo-wop and rock so that all of it bristled with electric fervor. (Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart testifies in the liners that these early shows "had come out of a ritualistic kind of setting . . . kind of a religious experience.") Sly's DJ tastes foretold hip-hop's eclectic sampladelia, homing in on ceaseless grooves, color-blind digging of music and snatches of recognizable hits reconstituted. Opener "Underdog" cops the nursery rhyme "Frere Jacques" and turns it loose (in much the same way LL Cool J would sample the woozy and crisp "Trip to Your Heart" for his "Mama Said Knock You Out"). And, of course, throughout New Thing, Sly shows deference to James Brown.

As his debut was considered too stylistically complex by record execs, Sly simplified for his first hit, a one-note vamp imploring body-moving. "Dance to the Music" not only tethers the 1968 album of the same name, but also appears in a bewildering 12-minute "Dance to the Medley." The Family's third album, Life (1968), while sharp and concise (dig how "Plastic Jim" quotes "Eleanor Rigby"), was overshadowed by the titanic single "Dance to the Music" and its smash follow-up, "Everyday People."

Outwardly a testament to solidarity, empowerment, racial harmony and the belief that "You Can Make It If You Try," 1969's Stand!—despite four uplifting chart hits and the capturing of a phenomenal live group at its peak—has bile and discontent bubbling below its summery surface. "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey" stews and glowers in its slurs, while "Somebody's Watching You" is schizophrenically catchy and suspicious. The ecstasy of "I Want to Take You Higher" is tempered by the dawning realization that maybe Sly means another, more illicit sort of high.

In the two years between the bright glare of Stand! and its shade, 1971's There's A Riot Goin' On, the utopian dream of the '60s had dissolved in a haze of violence, race riots, assassinations and drug overdoses. Now choruses went: "Look at you fooling you." Sly personified the suppressed strife of the nation at large: Black Panther Party pressure led to Errico's ouster, Sly's family ties began to fray, and much like Ziggy Stardust would do, Sly sucked up into his mind. Holed up in Hollywood, across the street from the BeverlyHillbillies mansion, surrounded by goons, guns and coke buddies, a strung-out Sly somehow managed to weave together the tatters of tape, resulting in benumbed numbers such as "Luv N' Haight" and the contentious "Family Affair." Despite decent remastering (and the reinstatement of Riot's original distorted American flag cover), it still sounds wiry and wraith-like. Zombiefied, fried, fueled not just by coke, but also by a primitive drum machine, Riot gazes out with glassy eyes upon both personal and national decay.

"I switched from coke to pep, and I'm a connoisseur," Sly brags on "In Time," the lead cut on his last effulgent flash, 1973's Fresh. By now, the Family was mostly Sly and studio hands, crafting a tantalizing hybrid of robotic funk that covered not just Doris Day's "Que Sera, Sera," but also foretold the future of the genre, as heard in the subsequent work of Prince, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Outkast. And while Small Talk is the weakest album in the Legacy set, Beastie Boys fans will note Sly's "Time for Livin'" along with "Loose Booty," the blueprint for their own "Shadrach." Sly also attests "Can't Strain My Brain," but the damage is sonically evident, and these reissues showcase not just his brilliance, but also the willful decimation of a once-beautiful mind.

Sony/Legacy reissues A Whole New Thing, Dance to the Music, Life, There's a Riot Goin' On, Fresh, Small Talk and Stand! April 24; the boxed set, The Collection, comes out April 10.

 
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