I confess, I confess. I was one of those dork critics 35 years ago who dogged the soon-to-be-revered There's a Riot Goin' On. And of late, listening to the six-CD collected works of Sly and the Family Stone, I'm revisiting the error of my ways. OK, I made a bunch of mistakes: I wrote the review, which ran in CREEM, in haste rather than living with the disc for more than a couple days. And I made the cardinal sin of being more interested in the record that I wanted and expected than the one Sly put out. But Sly set up some serious expectations.
So let's roll the Sly film from the beginning: As a teenager, he was a hot San Francisco disc jockey before "free form" radio devolved into format. He produced discs for acts as different as Bobby ("C'mon and Swim") Freeman and the Beau Brummels (once billed as America's answer to the Beatles). Then he put together the atypically (then and today) interracial and intergender Family Stone to put all the music in his head on the stage: It was James Brown meets the Beatles, the Meters on steroids, Afro-doo-wop on vocal chants of "boom-lakka-boom," a nonstop groove in the grooves, a house-band for hood folk and hippies alike. It was a sui generis cry to "Get up and dance to the music" which is exactly what they made an audience do. Sly and the Family Stone didn't walk the talk they danced it to make Soul Brother No. 1 proud.
A Whole New Thing introduced the basic ideas in 1967; Dance to the Music honed the notions into anthems and delivered the first big hit with the title track a year later. Life had more great songs, even though the title track barely cracked the Top 100.
Then came the 1969 monster of Stand! to capture the moment. "I am everyday people," Sly sang, and everybody agreed, putting "Everyday People" at the top of the pop and R&B charts. There was the let-it-all-hang-out jam of "Sex Machine," the militance of "Stand!" the paranoia of "Somebody's Watching You." "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey" drew a hard line for mutual respect, and "I Want to Take You Higher" promised ecstasy at the end of one of America's most tumultuous decades.
And then ... Sly's next album didn't take us higher. Sly broke stride, taking two years to put out another LP. The Wizard of Oz pulled back the curtain himself to show the messed-up stoner he'd become. "Feel so good inside myself don't want to move," was the slurred first refrain of the new disc. And if you didn't want to move, there wasn't much hope for the old '60s movements (political or social) that Stand! implied. "Everybody must get home," he did not sing, but he might as well have. "Just Like a Baby" and "Time" were Sly singing the slow-drag blues. The title track was a joke, clocking in at 0:00 minutes. The two tracks making title reference to "Africa" weren't exactly praise songs for Pan-African freedom fighters. (On the other hand, being pressured by the Panthers to be more political, as the story goes, couldn't have been conducive to the creative process. Talk about the prospect of taking heat from critics.)
Sure, the single "Family Affair" was a telling lyric about kinfolk reality the haunting line "blood's thicker than the mud" is classic poetic Sly; ditto for "newlyweds a year ago, but you're still checking each other out" but the Family Stone's vibe was gone. The group instrumental sound was replaced by layers of overdubbed keyboards, played mostly by Sly himself. The multiple group vocals that chimed in around Sly's lead gave way to Sly stretching his vocals, sometimes reaching for an almost surreal bluesiness. And if you felt too attached to his first three albums, you could miss that this one had the musical originality of A Whole New Thing, and surpassed the depth of Stand!
If Sly could pull great art out of his druggy haze, he could only do it for so long. Album No. 5, Fresh, mixed up the innovations of Riot with some of the old Family Stone feel for a last gasp of near-brilliance. The final disc, Small Talk, is an interesting, if modest, homage to domestic joys and perseverance, letting a listener down easy at the end of the group's wild ride, which is what these discs amount to. The non-album hits between Stand! and Riot "Hot Fun in the Summertime," "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" and "Everybody is a Star" are missing, unfortunately and inexplicably. But the magnificently packaged collection includes single versions of album tunes, some alternate versions and unreleased tracks (including a cover of Otis Redding's "I Can't Turn You Loose"). Booklets for each disc reproduce the original covers and liner notes, adding new commentary by the likes of Greg Tate, Ben Edmonds and Family Stone historian Joel Selvin.
True fanatics will need to gather up Sly's more obscure post-Epic work and guest spots with George Clinton and the like. But the central story of Sly and his times is here, for new listeners and old revisionists alike.W. Kim Heron is editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org