Album review

Sly & The Family Stone - Higher

Sly & The Family Stone - Higher

Lovingly presented 4CD box honouring a brightly-burning, revolutionary talent...

Show business is never short of tragic tales, but few come as poignant as the fall of Sylvester Stewart, aka Sly Stone. A flamboyant musical revolutionary, the very embodiment of 1960s optimism, the man who took everyone ‘higher’ at Woodstock in 1969, Sly tumbled into the 1970s a drug-addled shadow of his former self, beginning a long decline into addiction and creative sterility. The 21st century found him living in a camper van.

This 77 track box set lends a fresh perspective to the tale, gathering most things of worth that Sly produced between 1966 and 1974, salting the well-played greatest hits with rarities, unheard demos and live cuts, and providing a detailed commentary via liner notes in a richly illustrated 104 page book. It’s the complete package, though, of course, Sly’s four later, flat albums for Warners are excluded.

Foregrounded are half a dozen singles cut for San Francisco’s Autumn Records in 1964-65, when ‘Sly Stewart’ held down a job as A&R and producer with the label, handling rock acts like the Beau Brummels, while ‘Sly Stone’ was a DJ for the city’s KSOL station, where he perfected his patter and mixed up soul sides with Beatles and Stones tracks. Both gigs were a prequel for what came when Sly formed the Family Stone in early 1967 – transgressed boundaries, blurred distinctions between black and white pop, social message songs with sneaky humour.

The Autumn singles like “Buttermilk” remain derivative curios (check the Beach Boys vocals on “I Just learned How To Swim”). By contrast The Family Stone – the line-up included brother Freddie, cousin Larry Graham and, later, sister Rosie – arrived almost fully formed. At their debut A Brand New Thing and first hit “Higher”, (reworked into their signature tune a couple of years later), their trademark sound is already in place; a crisp horn section, Graham’s pulsing ‘slap’ bass, male and female voices in elaborate interplay and harmony, led by Sly’s keyboards and quicksilver vocals that turned from croon to cackle in an instant.

The musical fusion was mirrored by an equal opportunities line-up of black and white, male and female – a radical statement in itself. They were garbed in the finest excesses of the hippie era and fronted by Sly, sporting the world’s largest Afro. Sly’s ethos came into full focus a couple of albums down the line, with “Everyday People”, a wondrous piece of gospel pop with a Beatlesque ring to its lyrics (“there is a blue one who doesn’t like a green one”) and a catchphrase, “different strokes for different folks”, that passed into the vernacular, but early songs like “Don’t Burn Baby” and “Color Me True” also address race issues.

At a time when the USA was convulsed by the slaying of Martin Luther King and by riots in Watts, Detroit and elsewhere, the Family Stone represented nothing less than a new incarnation of the nation. Nor was Sly’s vision pie-eyed utopia; “Don’t Call me Nigger, Whitey (Don’t Call me Whitey, Nigger)” is an aware, confrontational song, written as Sly came under pressure from black militants to drop white band members.

In the two years it took for the Family Stone to become that important in the culturesphere, Sly worked at a furious rate, delivering four albums inside 24 months. As discs two and three of Higher shows, there was endless experimentation; one minute Sly was crooning deep soul on the unissued “I Know What You Came To Say”, the next pushing the band into psych-outs like “Danse A la Musique”, a hilarious, fuzzy heavy remake of their hit, “Dance To The Music”, replete with stylophone. Higher! Is also littered with unissued funk instrumentals like “Undercat” and “Feathers” that most bands would have died for.

With 1968’s “Stand” Sly hit the motherlode. “Higher”, “Everybody Is A Star” and “Stand” caught a mood of delirious liberation – “You are free, at least in your mind if you want to be” – while onstage the Family Stone were a force. Four tracks from 1970’s Isle of Wight festival show the band’sWoodstock performance a year previously was no fluke.

But the group could only deliver if they showed up. That of 80 scheduled gigs in 1970, 25 were no-shows was a symptom of the havoc wreaked by a pharmaceutical intake that included PCP. Increasingly, Sly retreated to the loft of his rented Bel Air mansion to record on his own, with visitations by kindred spirits like Bobby Womack and Billy Preston. The resultant There’s A Riot Going On (1971) crowned the charts, helped by its single, “Family Affair”, the best of a record sunk in torpor and pessimism. Its murky production and gloom crystallised the come-down from the 1960s, just as Plastic Ono Band and What’s Going On had done, but the album, while self-contained, remains a brilliant mess. Time has done it few favours; the drum machines of “Spaced Cowboy” now sound as novel as a clockwork toy. Glaringly, there are no out-takes from Riot, just a barely listenable live cut, “You’re The One”.

By comparison, 1973’s Fresh and 1974’s Small Talk have been under-rated. Higher! fillets them nicely – the stalking bass (played by Sly) for “If You Want Me To Stay” a with its oblique relationship narrative (“for me to stay here I got to be me”) is seductive, still modern. “If It Were Left Up To Me” and “Time For Livin’” show a similar determination to blend recent experience and former optimism.

That both albums promised more than they delivered was on their covers. Fresh’s lithe, leaping Sly was captured by him lying on a glass table. The idyllic young couple of Small Talk was followed by the bride suing for divorce six months later. The closing track here – an unissured 1975 “High”– is a desperate attempt to capture a long-gone mojo. Still, by then Sly had helped invent funk – Clinton, Isleys, Kravitz, Prince and more all owe him – and, with the most gracious and fun-loving of smiles, transformed American pop. Salute!
Neil Spencer

Q&A
CYNTHIA ROBINSON
When did you first meet Sly and what was the impression he made?

I was at high school and at a junior choir in Sacramento. He came up to Sacramento for a boys’ car club. He liked my girlfriend. He drew up at the kerb and there was a guitar in the back of the car, so we ended up playing a little, I was playing mellophone at the time. I was entranced, because he was so confident, kind and intelligent.

You knew him as a DJ first?
I had been listening to KSOL but only for Sly Stone – “Hey all you cats and kitties and hippies and squares” – I thought he was so cool, but I didn’t know that was Sylvester Stewart. When I found out I got my boyfriend to take me up there, we were in a group, The Chromatics. We went up there and took our record up there. Sly had a sock hop for the teenagers, which I thought was great, and he did dedications. He played things you never heard elsewhere, he did his own commercials. One time the equipment failed and so he played piano and sang until it was fixed. His show was free form, spontaneous. I loved it.

How come you were a lady trumpeter, because there weren’t any. Still aren’t!.
You’re right. I have seen a female hold a trumpet in her hand in a Beyonce video but she didn’t actually play it!

The Family Stone were different, racial and gender mix-up. That was a first!
Yes, but I didn’t think that was anything special at the time. It was right up my alley because we rehearsed so much. That helped me to grasp things. I didn’t have a good ear, all I could do was read music. The fact that we reheasersed until my lips ere raw was good for me, I was able to build chops and get down the songs.

Sly was a taskmaster?
People might say that today but not me. When you’re doing what you love it’s not work. Even today if I get an invite to a show without rehearsal it bothers me if we don’t rehearse. I like to know what I’m doing. We would play gigs and right after we would stay and rehearse new stuff for three hours,ready for the next show. I would get home and fall acrosss the bed fully clothed with my shoes on.I was happy to do that because we were getting better. We just enjoyed playing together. We weren’t thinking of becoming stars.

Four albums in two years is quite a pace…
What you have to understand is that Sly had a plan, a vision. Every time we convened he had worked out everybody’s part and he always ready willing and able. He was driving us towards something that we couldn’t see. Then everyone started doing what families do, develop their own clique of friends.

He was the father figure?
Sly looked after us and we were acting like a bunch of kids, and after a while that drained him because he was dealing with the powers-that-be and us. He looked out for us, made sure we got a shake because they only wanted to deal with him.

How were your dealings with the record company?
The label signed us up and gave us crappy advances, 3-400 bucks apiece – but then they realised that Sly was the one writing all the music, the lyrics, the arrangements, so they only wanted to sign Sly. He had to fight to get us a decent paycheck, then he had to fight to get us to show up on time. Epic Records at that time was something of a throwaway label, we were a tax loss, they gave people tiny advances and didn’t expect them to sell. They didn’t promote us until Dance To The Music when they started wondering, Who are these people?

It started going wrong in 1970…
Sly is just flesh, blood and bones so he started kicking back and enjoying the things that came to him monetarily. He’s just a human being doing extraordinary things in music. All of us are guilty of things going downhill, not just him. He always too responsibility as the leader, even when it wasn’t his fault, he never told on us. I don’t think he was disappointed in the music. He was disappointed in the admin, the upper echelons. Things happened that have to stay off the record.

What are your enduring thoughts about Sly?
I will say that Sly told everyone to respect women, he looked after the girls in the group, and I don’t see that happening today. If you are a girl you are on your own. Sly doesn’t take credit for everything he did. If you want to know who Hemingway is, read his books, that’ll tell you who the man is. If you want to know who Sly is, listen to his songs.
INTERVIEW: NEIL SPENCER

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Rating: 9 / 10

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