The slow fade of Sly Stone: whatever happened to the funk innovator?
FULL CIRCLE This spring Epic/Legacy finally started releasing Sly and the Family Stone: The Collection, the band's seven albums complete with previously unreleased music, new liner notes, and great sound, with the final installment, Greatest Hits, to come July 24. The event had been on the horizon for some time, but like everything connected with Sly Stone, a fan was never sure when or if, for that matter the music would be available.
If you aren't familiar with Stone's music, get this collection and enjoy. These days it's popular to credit the Beatles, Brian Wilson, Jimi Hendrix, and a few others as the essential pioneers from that era with no mention of Stone, who was as important as any. If you're wondering why that is, find the title track from his hugely popular 1971 album, There's a Riot Goin' On. It's on the brief side as in zero seconds, which was Stone's idea of a joke or something. As San Francisco Chronicle writer Joel Selvin points out in the notes, the riot was going on in Stone's life.
There was a moment in the late 1970s when music fans were asking, "What happened to Sly Stone?" Time passed, and the question evolved into "Whatever happened to Sly Stone?" The answer "I don't know" didn't change, until one day, sadly and inevitably, the question generated only another question "Who?" an answer all by itself.
In the early 1980s somewhere between "what" and "whatever" the band booked a show at the now-defunct Keystone Berkeley. Stone had gone phantom, which made the performance an event. Accordingly, the place was packed. The band was introduced and began to vamp, and after way too long it was clear the Family didn't know what to expect Stone emerged and took his place behind a keyboard and, without acknowledging anyone, began to play. The band was thrown at first, but after a few halting bars and some nervous glances, they seemed to recognize the groove. Never mind the key or tempo, or where they should jump in. It didn't matter, because suddenly Stone lurched into something else, with the same result. A moment later he did it again. And again. And again.
The set didn't last more than a few minutes. That was the upside. The downside? Everything else.
Yet forgotten or not, Stone was once arguably the most important figure in pop. During the late 1960s and early '70s, the Vallejo native wrote and recorded one hit after another: "Dance to the Music," "Everyday People," "Stand!" "I Want to Take You Higher," "Hot Fun in the Summertime," "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again)," "Family Affair." He brought black music to San Francisco's tumultuous hippie scene and created rich, innovative, rock-flavored R&B, played by a deliberately integrated band. Rock fans most of them white welcomed the bridge to black music and, by inference, black people. If the door didn't swing as wide or as often the other way, a glimpse of the band's appearances on YouTube, which has great Family Stone material, shows a genuinely mixed audience responding to the group's appeal for peace and understanding.
Stone was a founding father of modern funk, a wildly creative force who added innovations to the sound as it flourished. His music reshaped the tastes of black and white listeners, and one miserable Sunday morning in August 1969, his band took the Woodstock stage it was 3:30 a.m. and absolutely stole the show.
You can only hope The Collection will have a similar impact. The band's four pre-Riot albums offer a treasure chest of rich, increasingly funky soul. No matter how cynical Stone became the black superstar playing to a largely white audience, the musical genius forced to pander to the tastes of a pop audience, the master manipulator turning every scene to his own advantage the music was charming and irresistible. As was the man who created it.
Although some of his most important work was still before him, Stone ushered in the 1970s in paranoia and retreat a perfect fit with the moment. He flipped off superstardom with an arrogance only a superstar could muster. Once outgoing and engaging, Stone burned promoters, his band, and fans. The once-steady supply of new material slowed to a trickle, and Stone became a no-show at dozens of concerts. He slid into an increasingly opaque and eventually impenetrable world. Riot and 1973's Fresh forget 1974's Small Talk were as adventurous and self-involved as music could be. Most of the original Family was gone, and the losses of drummer Greg Errico and bassist Larry Graham who reportedly slept with one eye open after falling out with Stone were particularly felt. This music was dreamy and solipsistic. Stone's huge smile and the Family vibe were gone, replaced by a menacing undercurrent. Credits on both albums are, apparently, haphazard, which means that the contributions of Miles Davis, George Clinton, and Bobby Womack, for instance, aren't acknowledged.
That Stone could attract such talent was a testimony to his gifts, and to the legendary partying that went on at his Los Angeles mansion. Still, if James Brown invented funk, Stone got in where he fit in: the ground floor. Riot may clock a man losing his grip on reality, but it also captured a musical innovator exploring the possibilities of a crucial movement. *