Sly & The Family Stone: There’s a Riot Goin’ On
With the anniversaries of both the band’s formation and their most celebrated work, Shaun Ponsonby tells the story of Sly & The Family Stone.
In the pantheon of funk, you could probably lay claim to a Holy Trinity; the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.
The Father is easy; James Brown. Mr Dynamite. The Funky President. The man who gave us The Funk and brought us the power of The One. Without James Brown, The Funk as we know it may not even exist.
The Son? Well, that would be George Clinton. He took The Funk to its greatest extreme, straight into the Stadiums populated by rock dinosaurs, created his own Empire and stayed at the forefront of Funk’s development for his entire career.
The Holy Ghost? We’d put it all on Sly Stone. A mythical being, a man so reclusive that most people assume he is dead. A man who laid the groundwork for the decade before him, then vanished in a mist of crack cocaine and financial ruin.
In Clinton’s autobiography – the brilliantly titled Brothas Be Yo Like George Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard On You?: A Memoir – he places Sly next to Miles Davis in the temple of musical genius, and not without reason.
Unquestionably, the decline of Sly Stone is one of the greatest wastes in the history of popular music.
It was fifty years ago, in mid-1966, when Sly put together his band, Sly & The Stoners, who by the end of the year would be re-christened Sly & The Family Stone. The former Sylvester Stewart had been making records for over a decade, since the age of four and the release of gospel tune On The Battlefield with his siblings Rose, Freddie and Vaetta, but he didn’t get his real big break until 1963 when he was employed as an in-house producer for Autumn Records, and supplied the label with a national Top 5 hit in the guise of Bobby Freeman’s C’Mon and Swim.
Following this, Sly had a stint as a DJ on the AM radio station KSOL, where his between-song banter became legendary, with sermonising and witticisms such as “The whole world is a stage, and you only have a part to play, and if you don’t play it right, you get kicked out of the party.” One night, at the suggestion of future Family Stone Jerry Martini, Sly sat at a piano and sang his entire show.
He also became notorious for his music choices. Despite being on an R&B station, Sly thought nothing of slipping in The Beatles, Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan amongst the Stax and Motown hits, which easily shows the musical fibre that would eventually be woven into Sly & The Family Stone; a genuine kaleidoscope of musical and cultural styles that stand unparalleled to this day.
When the band started gigging, there was no precedent. It is far too limiting to refer to Sly & The Family Stone as a funk or an R&B group. The title of their debut record says it all; A Whole New Thing. Take a listen to first single Underdog. This is September 1967, and the fine-tuned pop of Motown still reigned supreme. James Brown had only just dropped Cold Sweat. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was only three months old.
In the middle of it all came Underdog, a slice of psychedelic rock & soul unlike anything before. As a songwriter and producer, Sly was undoubtedly on par with The Beatles and Brian Wilson, except he had the added funk. And then there was the political statement.
Underdog’s lyrical message is clear from its title, particularly in its context at the height of the civil rights movement;
I know how it feels to expect to get a fair shake
But they won’t let you forget
That you’re the underdog and you’ve got to be twice as good (yeah yeah)
Even if you’re never right
They get uptight when you get too bright
Or you might start thinking too much, yeah (yeah yeah)
I know how it feels when you know you’re real
But every other time
You get up and get a raw deal, yeah (yeah yeah)
And yet the empowerment didn’t necessarily have to be race related. Although this was no doubt on his mind when he wrote the lyrics (and we absolutely do not want to take away from the importance and significance of this), Sly in his infinite wisdom made his lyrical approach open to interpretation. You didn’t have to be black to fully relate to Sly’s words in the way that perhaps James Brown’s boldly brilliant Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud) was squarely aimed at empowering his black audience a year later.
This was, of course, reflected in the make-up of The Family Stone themselves, which was almost as bold as Brown’s hit and a political statement in itself. The group’s line-up was multi-racial (black, white, Latino), featured both men and women, representing a utopia where you could be proud of your heritage, but live in peace, joy and harmony. The ensemble were decked out in a variety of bright colours to match the punch of their music, which would feature the myriad of band members on lead vocals at various points. This was unheard of at the time, and provided a powerful, unified aesthetic at a time when it was needed most.
Sadly, though, neither Underdog nor A Whole New Thing did much commercially. Sly felt that the group had “bugged straight people”. It was obvious that they were still a little too out there for what the public could take. In the sleevenotes to 2013’s beautiful career-spanning anthology Higher, Sly says; “I had tried to make real music, because I didn’t want any feeling to get away…I was disappointed that it wasn’t accepted, but I understood why. Then [Sly’s manager] Dave Kapralik told me, just do something simple. Because I had to sell records. OK, something simple – what is simple? And a thought came to me: dance to the music…just dance…to the music. I mean, you don’t have to think about it. It was the simplest thing in the world.”
We don’t need to tell you that Dance To The Music paid off commercially, with the single going Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic. It also made an impact in the industry. Upon hearing Dance To The Music, Motown producer Normal Whitfield began re-moulding the previously suited and booted Temptations into a psychedelic soul outfit, starting with the Grammy-winning Cloud Nine.
In Jeff Kaliss’ book I Want To Take You Higher: The Life and Times of Sly & The Family Stone, drummer Greg Errico says of the Dance To The Music album; “It touched people more than I ever thought it would. It was a process of the whole group. And we were able to do it in a way that you got respect from your peers, other musicians, and you could talk to the average cat on the street.”
The record also began what would become The Family Stone’s most common themes of racial harmony and sexual equality. Kaliss claims that this would become more explicit on subsequent albums, but truth be told you can’t really get more explicit than on the opening lines of Are You Ready? – “Don’t hate the black/Don’t hate the white”.
The band weren’t quite as impressed as the rest of the world, though. “To this day, I don’t think it was funky at all,” Sly has admitted. “But I know what it was”. Indeed, the critical standpoint of the album now is that it is one of the lesser of the Family Stone’s albums of the period, despite the breakout single.
Ironically, follow-up Life has had the opposite effect. Released later in the same year, its critical standing has remained strong, but at the time the record was not a commercial success. But this hasn’t stopped the record being mined for samples, most notably Into My Own Thing, which was borrowed by Fatboy Slim for Weapon of Choice (forever remembered as “the one that had Christopher Walken in the video“).
This naturally put Sly on shaky ground, and by now tensions in America had reached fever pitch. Detroit had burned, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated, Vietnam raged and Richard Nixon was the new President-elect. Instinctively, Sly must have known that he had to unleash The Family Stone at their most political, but it had to be presented to the public with a positive message attached to it.
The result was Stand!, an album that did all that and more. To this day, whenever a Sly & The Family Stone Best of… hits the shelves, around three quarters of Stand! appears on the track list, and it was preceded by the group’s first number 1 single; Everyday People.
Perhaps Sly’s most perfect pop song, Everyday People also encapsulates his message more successfully than any record he made before or since. The lyrics are positive, uplifting and empowering; “I am no better, and neither are you/We are the same whatever we do”.
In the aforementioned Higher sleevenotes, trumpeter and vocalist Cynthia Robinson says the song “was so hip, because Sly had Larry play one note throughout the whole song. And I thought that was genius, because it sounds like [the music]is moving, that it should be changing chords, but it isn’t. Larry was just playing one note”.
The “Larry” in question is of course bass player (and, weirdly, Drake’s uncle) Larry Graham – a man whose importance cannot be overstated.
Graham mastered the bass when playing in a group with his mother. They had no drummer, so Graham made up for this by developing a technique in which he would strike a string with the thumb of the right hand so that the string collides with the frets, producing a metallic “clunk” at the beginning of the note, creating the impression of some form of percussion. It became known as “slap bass”, a funk mainstay for fifty years, utilised by everybody from Bootsy Collins to Flea, Mark King to Tony Levin and Les Claypool. Larry Graham may well be the most important innovator of the bass guitar.
Graham has claimed that Everyday People was the first Sly & The Family Stone track in which he utilised the technique (possibly to relieve the monotony of playing the one note throughout), but it would be further developed in a landmark single the following year.
In the meantime, the band were reaching their commercial and critical peak. If there is a dip in the quality of Stand!, it is on the lengthy, meandering jam Sex Machine (no relation to the James Brown song). Everything else is as spot on as you can expect; Sing a Simple Song is one of the funkiest tracks the band ever cut, the title track, with its heavy gospel coda, stands as of one their most uplifting and the wry Don’t Call Me N****r, Whitey satirises race relations with cutting humour and accuracy.
Later that summer, Sly & The Family Stone found themselves at Woodstock, sandwiched between Janis Joplin and The Who at 3.30am, they shook the farm to its core. The Who’s Pete Townshend admits in his autobiography Who I Am that Sly stole the show that night, and was almost impossible to follow.
The Woodstock movie shows the band blazing through Stand! cut I Want To Take You Higher. The festival was by this point at its peak attendance, and the gospel call and response between Sly and 300,000 of his closest friends still gives you goosebumps. Nobody had ever seen anything quite like this before. Its use in the film led to it becoming another hit single. As Greg Errico states in Higher; “It represented the spirit of the band and what we wanted our audience to experience. The song gave our perspective and our intent”.
The following year, a handful of singles hits the top two positions on the US chart, including the seminal number one smash Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin). Although Larry Graham had dabbled in his slap bass technique on Everyday People, here was where it was put front and centre. This was one of those game changing records. Every bass player who heard Thank You was fully aware that this style was going to be the cornerstone of funk for evermore, and so it came to pass.
Sadly, what should have been the crowning moment for Sly and his band, as they ushered in a new Funk for a new decade, in actuality began their dark descent, and yet through it would come his most celebrated work.
To begin with, like so many rock Gods before and after, many of the band were succumbing to the classic excesses. Sly in particular was almost always completely whacked out, and he missed a third of all the bands gigs in 1970. He became erratic and drove a wedge between himself and the band, not helped by hiring violent gangsters as bodyguards. Meanwhile, The Black Panther Party – in an alarming case of missing the point entirely – were calling for Sly to fire the white members of the band. In the midst of all this, Errico was the first to go in early 1971.
Sly worked on the follow-up to Stand! more or less on his own, playing most of the instruments himself. Much to the chagrin of Larry Graham in particular, who told Mojo; “I didn’t play anything with the rest of the band”.
The result was There’s a Riot Goin’ On. Titled as a response to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On, the record was finally released in 1971, and is celebrating its 45th anniversary this year. It signalled that the Family Stone of the past were no more. Gone were the optimistic psychedelic soul songs of the 60s. This was dark, brooding, totally urban and perhaps even a little cold.
The album’s lead-off hit single – their third and final number one, and the biggest hit of Sly’s career – was Family Affair.
The title is somewhat ironic given the nature of the recording. Sly and sister Rose are the only band members to appear on the song, with the latter only contributing vocals. Although Sly isn’t quite playing the music alone as Billy Preston adds some all-important flourishes on the piano, along with Ike Turner and Bobby Womack on guitar.
Looking at the song’s lyrics, it actually maintains the Family Stone’s positive thoughts at times, but now there’s some added insecurity, unsurprising given Sly’s heavy drug use at the time. Label boss Clive Davis reportedly didn’t want to release it due to the fact that Sly sounds completely stoned off his ever-loving tits throughout the track.
Its major innovation is probably that it was one of the very earliest hit songs to make use of a drum machine. Musically it is melancholy, and not quite what the public expected from the people who brought you Dance To The Music and Everyday People.
Cynthia Robinson, though, seemed a little weary of the general preconception; “A lot of people consider Riot a dark album, but it wasn’t. It just reflected what was going on at the time. Sly always tried to write something positive.”
Probably the best example of this actually comes from silence. The album’s title track is listed, but doesn’t exist. A second of complete silence. Asked to explain this in 1997, Sly simply stated, “I did it because I felt there should be no riots”. There’s also (You Caught Me) Smilin’, which is actually an ode to getting high. It feels exactly like that, the sweetness of Rose’s voice countering Sly’s heavy distortion.
The rest of Riot was no less genius than Family Affair. Opener Luv N’ Haight has a foreboding feel. It retains some of the uplifting vocals of The Family Stone’s past hits, but there’s something unsettling about it this time around. It’s almost as if it is easing us in to the new Sly. No wonder it was his choice for lead single (it ended up as Family Affair’s b-side).
The album’s longest track, the nine-minute jam Africa Talks To You “The Asphalt Jungle” plays fast and loose with the mixing. Throughout the entire album, the muddy sound is apparent, partially due to Sly’s constant overdubbing and erasing of the tape. On Africa Talks To You, it almost feels like he’s taunting the listener.
Time is probably the closest the record comes to solid soul. But the stripped down arrangement, drum machine and muddy sound gives it an almost demo-like feel. This in turn adds a rawness. Sly almost sounds like he is making the melody up as he goes, quickly jumping from his lower to higher registers. Spaced Cowboy, meanwhile, is probably the most bizarre track on the album – Sly yodels much of it.
Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin) is reworked on the album’s closing track Thank You For Talkin’ To Me Africa in a slowed-down style more befitting of the album’s feel. In a way, it feels like turning the anthemic Thank You on its head in this way is a sign of the changing times in itself. The optimism of the 60s is gone, and the darkness of the uplifting pop hit from a year previously is now dark, tense and unattractive.
It is also perhaps the best metaphor to describe the relationship between Sly and Larry Graham at this point. The hit that was entirely based around Graham’s signature style had been bastardised (though not necessarily in a bad way), just as tensions between the two hit its peak.
At some point on the road following the album’s release, Graham’s entourage clashed with Sly’s after the latter’s heard a bizarre rumour that Graham had hired a hitman to assassinate Sly. Graham and his wife escaped from a hotel window and Larry was gone from Sly & The Family Stone for good. A dar cry from the message of peace and love spread in records like Everyday People and Stand!
At the time, Riot wasn’t exactly warmly received. To say this was a departure is putting it mildly. Rolling Stones’ review read; “The album is a testament to two years of deterioration rather than two years of growth,” where Creem simply said “We’re confused by it.” Like Brian Wilson before him, Sly Stone was too far ahead for people to really understand what he was doing. Perhaps, like Wilson, this contributed to his decline.
And yet, much in the way that Dance To The Music inspired The Temptations to go psychedelic and Thank You ushered in a new phase of funk, Riot changed the landscape once again.
Without There’s a Riot Goin’ On, would Stevie Wonder have made albums such as Innervisions or Songs In the Key of Life? Would Gil Scott-Heronhave found his audience with tracks like The Revolution Will Not Be Televised or The Bottle? Would Prince have given us Sign “O” The Times? The sparse, haunting title track of that album is based around a drum machine and talks explicitly about society’s ills, with a funky backbeat and a bluesy feel. That is direct out of the Riot rule book.
Even further in the future, the neo soul giants of the 90s and 00s, such as D’Angelo or Erykah Badu would have been very different artists. You could place a song or two from Riot on D’Angelo’s Black Messiah and be none the wiser.
Sly would release one more classic album; 1973’s Fresh, featuring the wonderful If You Want Me To Stay, but following this he would truly hit the rails.
His output in for the next decade ranged from the average (1974’s okay Small Talk) to the downright dreadful (1979’s ironically titled Back On The Right Track). The band also became an unreliable live act. Sly would often miss the gig, show up late or bail halfway through the show. Riots were therefore not uncommon at their gigs. This would be sad for any act, but for the band who took Woodstock Higher, it was a travesty. Things got so bad in 1975 that a gig at the 6,000 capacity Radio City Music Hall was only one-eighth full and the band couldn’t even afford to get home. After this, the original Family Stone were disbanded. Any future releases under that name were for commercial reasons only.
Larry Graham, on the other hand, sorted himself out and was doing pretty well with his own group, Graham Central Station. Perhaps sensing the gap left by Sly, GCS’ material was much closer to The Family Stone’s 60s work and almost as enjoyable, though admittedly sans the innovations brought by his old bandmate. The group released a series of consistent records throughout the rest of the decade, the best of which were probably Release Yourself and Ain’t No ‘Bout-A-Doubt It. He even scored a Top 10 crossover hit in 1980 with the ballad One In a Million You.
Sly made his final full length album in 1982; Ain’t But The One Way was supposed to be a full-length collaboration between Sly and George Clinton, following Sly’s appearance on Funkadelic’s The Electric Spanking of War Babies album. Clinton, though, was having disputes with the label, following which Sly literally went missing, leading producer Stewart Levine to piece together and shove it out. Unsurprisingly, it was a critical and commercial failure.
After that, Sly just…disappeared.
He would show up occasionally in the 80s and 90s, most notably with former member of Prince protégés The Time, Jesse Johnson, on his 1986 single Crazay, and he would make a guest appearance on the odd George Clinton track. Ultimately though, if his name was spoken in public, it was in a gossip column; he had been arrested, he was in rehab, he was fighting for his royalties, he was living in a camper van.
He was far too consumed by addiction to make anything really work. In contrast to crack buddy Geroge Clinton, who had enough people around him to help him continue making music, Sly was a one man band. Even at the band’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction in 1993, nobody knew Sly was in attendance until he popped out from behind the curtain at the last minute and mumbled into the microphone, and was gone as quickly as he arrived.
The legacy of this incredible band, and most remarkable talent, is clear in a 2006 Grammy tribute. In a segment we like to call How Many Ways Can You Butcher One of Pop’s Greatest Legacies?, an eclectic mix of terrible artists including William (we refuse to call him will.i.am), to Maroon 5 and someone from American Idol all embarrassingly trying to outsing each other joined the likes of Aerosmith, Robert Randolph and Nile Rodgers for an all-star tribute to Sly & The Family Stone.
Halfway through I Want To Take You Higher, out in the distance, a mysterious figure bounced on stage. He hadn’t been seen for decades, but there was Sly, rockin’ a Mohawk and playing on one of his biggest hits. Like at the Hall of Fame, he disappeared as quickly as he arrived, telling Vanity Fair “Really, that wasn’t my gig“, Truth be told, the performance was a fumbling mess, but it was a much talked about moment, with the Associated Press saying “ years after his last live performance, Sly Stone proved he’s still able to steal the show”.
The appearance appeared to give Sly a bug for performing (or, rather, offers flew in and he thought it would be a way to alleviate his debts), but alas, old habits returned. Clearly in no fit state to perform, he would show up late, only play 3 songs with the band, cancel shows at the last minute. A notorious performance at the 2010 Coachella Festival appears to have destroyed any chance of a live career.
According to Rickey Vincent’s excellent guide Funk – the Music, the People and the Rhythm of the One, writer John Gabre said of Sly Stone; “If Sly is as good as he is described, and he is, why is his name so seldom bracketed with the other heavies – Lennon and McCartney, Richards and Jagger, Dylan, Townshend – when people start running down lists of the current rock giants? The reason, I fear, is simple: Sly Stone is a black man, and we have been slow to acknowledge the contributions of black performers to our music even when they are massive.”
We don’t quite know when this was written, as we can’t find the credit in Vincent’s book (though we could just be lazy on that front!), but we can’t help but wonder if that is the case.
For example, Brian Wilson also experienced issues regarding mental health and chemicals, and released a masterpiece that was so ahead of its time that people didn’t know what to make of it. Yet his years in the wilderness only made his legend stronger.
Sly Stone’s greatest achievements are probably more relevant to today’s artists than Brian Wilson’s, and yet his legend looms nowhere near as large. Why is this? Race is undoubtedly the major contributing factor, but there will likely be a tonne of others.
We do wonder if the happy ending of Brian Wilson’s saga as he returned as a successful live performer is a small part of it. Had Sly’s return been less of a car crash, would he today been revisited more earnestly? Consider that even in the age of the rockumentary, where we see two-and-a-half hour long documentaries on Twisted Sister‘s pre-fame years and Alice Cooper‘s manager (yes, these are things), there has been no wide release of a major film on Sly Stone. Type in “Sly Stone documentary” on YouTube and you get nothing produced after 1980. Why? His story is fascinating.
But one thing is for certain, the fact that Sly has been missing in the last 30 years of musical development is one of the great artistic tragedies. You can’t help but wonder what he might have done with electronica, or hip hop. And yet still, in those few years when he was on top of his game, he has left us with one of the greatest and most profound musical and sociological bodies of work in history.