Sylvester Stewart is a maddening guy. Both a cock of the walk and abjectly self-destructive, the man better known as Sly Stone, leader of the Family Stone, psychedelicized funk better, or at least more notoriously, than anyone else as the 1960s collapsed into the 1970s. In albums like Dance to the Music
(1968), the 1969 breakout Stand!
, the shadowy 1971 masterpiece There's a Riot Goin' On
and 1973's disturbingly catchy Fresh
, Sly and his musicalincluding some bloodkin crafted unparalleled, unsurpassed grooves of joy, attitude and, often, trouble. His music was standalone, unlike the smooth, increasingly contemporary product of Motown or the equally identifiable product of Memphis' Stax and Volt artists.
Sly and the Family Stone was a hugely influential pop band that fused black power and flower power; its key message was integration. Its music, bridging Top 40 AM and freer- form FM radio still in its infancy, played off the turbulent background of the late '60s and early '70s. It carried messages of empowerment, individuality and tolerance even as society was fragmenting over race, the Vietnam War, President Nixon's politics of paranoia (listen to "Somebody's Watching You" on Disc Three), and early signs of the energy crisis.
, the powers at Epic/Legacy have assembled 77 tracks following Sly and the Family Stone from its mid-'60s germination to its flameout in the mid-'70s. It starts with the San Francisco Bay Area band's pre-Family Stone roots as the heirs of Otis Redding
, Chuck Berry
and Bobby Freeman of "Do You Wanna Dance" fame; one of Stewart's earliest successes as writer and producer was Freeman's "C'mon and Swim," evoked on this set by Stewart's own "I Just Learned How To Swim" and "Scat Swim." The box ends with "High," a gospel-tinged track that sounds both desperate and celebratory; it's a singlea great onethat followed 1975's "High on You," effectively Sly's swan song. He made a few unsuccessful records for Warner Brothers (the last in 1982) but after a 1987 appearance, he largely kept on the down low, surfacing for drug busts and occasional sightings until 2006, when Sly and the Family Stone showed up at the Grammy Awards.
All this information is included in the timeline and liner notes by Edwin and Arno Konings, who are said to be working on a definitive Sly and the Family Stone biography. Also included in those notes is an editing credit for Alec Palao, who has done similar work on box sets for Rhino and Rhino Handmade. The copiously illustrated booklet also features opening text by Jeff Kaliss, author of "I Want To Take You Higher: The Life and Times of Sly & the Family Stone." Putting this box together clearly took a lot of effort and collaboration.
Three of the discs are 20 tracks each; the third is 17. That's also the number of unreleased cuts including mono single mixes, rare instrumentals, novelties like the goofy "Small Fries" (a B side credited to the French Fries, Stewart's nom de plume for "Danse a La Musique," the A side French version of "Dance to the Music") and smoking live cuts like an edge-of- your-seat take on Stand!
's "Sex Machine."
The first two discs are largely archival and for Sly and the Family Stone completists, though some tracks stand out. These include a mono mix of "Underdog," Epic's first stab at a single and a harbinger of Sly's singular blend of the infectious, familiar and unsettling. The arrangement riffs on "Three Blind Mice," the lyrics are challenging, the tone murky; like several other tracks from A Whole New Thing
('deed it was), including the Stax-Volt-inflected "If This Room Could Talk," the slinky, sexy soul-jazz instrumental "Temptation Walk" and "Trip to Your Heart," a work setting psychedelic effects against throbbing, primitive rhythms, these show the restless Sly searching for a style he could call his own.
God knows he assembled the right personnel: drummer Gregg Errico became one of music's most sampled rhythm keepers; bassist Larry Graham
, known for his "thumpin' and pluckin,'" slap-bass style and his own group, Graham Central Station; Sly's brother Freddie Stone
, whose loopy guitar and early exploration of wah-wah became a band signature; Sly and Freddie's sister Rose Stone, a powerhouse vocalist; Cynthia Robinson, whose Pointillist trumpet punctuates such latter-day Sly/Family keepers as "In Time" and "If You Want Me To Stay"; and saxophonist Jerry Martini, a foundational member. This band largely held together until the early '70s, and Robinson went on to work with Sly after the band formally disbanded in 1975.
Enough of the biography; you can catch it, along with track-by-track liner notes containing commentary from many of the band members, in the 104-page book in this set. The book also folds in great period photography, illustrating the global reach of Sly and his peculiar, increasingly dysfunctional family. Although the notes are largely adulatory, they don't whitewash Sly, who became a willing victim of his own excesses.
This writer recalls a wintry day in 1972 in Montreal when Sly and the Family Stone were supposed to show up. They never did. Sly's no-showsfrequently attributed to his use of cocaine and the even more debilitating angel dustseemed eventually to overwhelm his talent, despite such frequently sampled works as "Stand!," "I Want To Take You Higher," the heart-stopping singles "Everyday People" (never has a nonsense refrain been so eloquent), "Hot Fun in the Summertime," and the mordant, brilliantly built single, "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)." Spelling that out conjures the breakdown structure of a tune dedicated to keeping it together.
The music is often fantastic, including the instrumentals; some were issued as addenda to remasters of the original albums Epic/Legacy released in 2007, but some startle here for the first time: "You're the One," a frantic, he-said, she-said tune, recorded live in 1973 on "Don Kirshner's Rock Concert" and incorporating Family Stone spinoff group Little Sister; "Wonderful World of Color," a tense 1968 instrumental from the A Whole New Thing
period illustrating Sly's groundbreaking mesh of soul keyboards, hard-rock guitar and proto-disco timekeeping; and "Fortune and Fame," a soul ballad from 1967 featuring heartfelt, silky Sly baritone in an arrangement presaging the genre that would become known as Quiet Storm.
After its first manager, Dave Kapralik, told it to keep it simple (subtext: don't experiment so much), the band caught fire in 1968 with "Dance to the Music," a unique distillation of elements including community-stimulating lyrics sung in Stewart's smooth baritone, cheerleading from the other band members, Gregg Errico's implacable drums, a few bars of electrifying solos from the other band members, and a commanding style impossible to deny. The message was unmistakable, the beat undeniable, the groove as rich on top as at the bottom. It was as over the top visually as sonically, perfectly symbolizing a period as promising as it was tumultuous.
How versatile and protean Sly was is abundantly clear on this set. How galvanizing he and his group were live is also well presented, especially by the 1970 Isle of Wight performances on Disc Three. How forward he was strikes you from the downbeat of Disc One, when Sly was messing around with rhythmic tropes stemming from sources as disparate as the first British Invasion (Sly produced American acolytes the Beau Brummels and the Mojo Men) and party-soul groups like Archie Bell and the Drells and the Capitols. Sly knew his stuff. More important, Sly was driven to invent his own stuff. So he became a pioneer, the leader of the first fully integrated, gender-agnostic pop band. The energy he brought to the pop scene remains unique and stimulating. And even when the influences are clear, it doesn't date. "Dance to the Music" indeed!