Today being the Fourth of July, there are few better reasons to give a spin to Sly and The Family Stone's Greatest Hits, arguably one of the best single-artist compilations in pop history. Those danceable grooves will get you moving at any barbecue, family reunion, pool party or whatever you might be celebrating this holiday weekend.
But revisiting Sly has another purpose as of late: to get set up for one of the most unexpected comebacks in contemporary American music. Next month, Stone is slated to release I'm Back! Friends and Family on the Cleopatra Records label. The star-studded album will be his first in nearly three decades. But the track list of the record - mostly covers of Stone's most famous early works, with a handful of new tracks and alternate mixes tacked on at the end - seems a tacit admission that he may never get higher than those great, early, party-starters for Epic Records in the 1960s and 1970s.
So, as our way of saying thank you to Sly Stone for more than 40 years of music to dance to, here's a look back at the many releases and reissues of Sly and The Family Stone, Back Tracks-style.A Whole New Thing (Epic, 1967 - reissued 1970, expanded Epic/Legacy, 1995 and 2007)
This was the first album with the original Family Stone: Sly and brother Freddie Stone on guitar, saxophonist Jerry Martini and trumpeter Cynthia Robinson, bassist Larry Graham and drummer Gregg Errico (with the added background vocals of Little Sister, comprised of sister Vet Stone, Mary McCreary and Elva Mouton). Sly, born Sylvester Stewart in Texas, was recognized as a musical prodigy early on; at age eight, Sly, Freddie, Vet and sister Rose cut a Christian single as "The Stewart Four."
By the '60s, however, Sly Stone had emerged, a semi-successful producer and disc jockey for KSOL-AM in San Francisco, where he hinted at his own musical palette by playing rock and soul music by both black and white artists (it was not uncommon for Stone to play The Beatles or The Rolling Stones). In 1966, Sly and Freddie combined their respective bands, Sly and The Stoners and Freddie and The Stone Souls. Martini suggested the name change, and within a year the band cut their first LP for Epic. It was a very primitive example of what the band would come to sound like; the music was written and recorded raw, all live in the studio. Neither it nor its one single, "Underdog," made the charts, even when it was reissued in 1970, after the band's popularity was at its highest. (It even was given a new sleeve that looked more in line with the band's album covers at the time.)
The first batch of Sly reissues gave A Whole New Thing one unreleased bonus track, an outtake called "What Would I Do"; the 2007 batch of remasters reinstated the original LP art and presented "What Would I Do" alongside mono single mixes of "Underdog" and "Let Me Hear It from You" and two other outtakes (the previously released "Only One Way Out of This Mess" and the unreleased instrumental "You Better Help Yourself").
Dance to the Music (Epic, 1968 - expanded Epic/Legacy, 1995 and 2007)
A slight line-up change - the addition of Rose Stone into the band as a keyboardist - wasn't the only thing different about Dance to the Music. Clive Davis, who was the president of Epic's parent company CBS Records, liked the band, but knew they'd need more commercial potential if they were going to break through to a wider audience. By most accounts, none of the band thought particularly highly of the song they wrote to appease Davis, but they tried to make it their own anyway.
The track in question, "Dance to the Music," begins with an irresistible horn hook and features rhythmic vocal lines traded between Sly, Rose and Larry and extensive instrumental solo work from the members in turns. This pattern, reminiscent of Motown's poppiest records but with a decidedly unique spin, was a runaway smash, the band's first Top 10 single and held an unprecedented influence on pop and soul music for the next two decades and beyond.
The rest of the album did adhere pretty closely to the new formula, but kept the conscious lyrical content that was by now a standard of the multiracial band. Another unreleased cut, "Soul Clappin'," was included on the 1995 remaster; the 2007 version included that track alongside mono single versions of "Dance to the Music" and "Higher" (the latter ultimately unused) and three studio outtakes, including a cover of Otis Redding's "I Can't Turn You Loose."
Life (Epic, 1968 - expanded Epic/Legacy, 1995 and 2007)
The band's third album was, like the first album, a decidedly more raw affair with more social commentary than party-starting exaltations. But there are some keepers here, including the title track and fan favorites "Fun" and "M'Lady," which became staples of the band's live set. Altogether, the album's current critical reputation belies its relative lack of commercial fire.
One outtake, "Only One Way Out of This Mess," was included on the 1995 reissue; the song was later added to the 2007 reissue of A Whole New Thing, and the 2007 edition of Life featured the mono single version of "Dynamite" and three unreleased studio tracks.
Stand! (Epic, 1969 - reissued 199o and expanded Epic/Legacy, 2007)
For two years, Sly and The Family Stone were coping with a problem. They knew how to write songs that were socially conscious, and they knew how to write songs that would make you get up and dance. With Stand!, the band finally found it in themselves to write songs that did both.
From the beginning of the making of the record, it was clear that it was going to be different. Stone had an unusually tight grip on production, reading music theorist Walter Piston's book Orchestration in the studio constantly. But the album is still limber and groovy as they come, from the surprising gospel break at the end of the title track and the sample-ready grooves of "Sing a Simple Song," "You Can Make It If You Try" and "I Want to Take You Higher," to the bundle of joyous hooks that was "Everyday People" (the band's first No. 1 hit). All in all, Stand! is an undeniable classic of '60s rock.
Though the CD release of Stand! in 1990 (one of the band's first) had no bonus tracks, the 2007 reissue made up for it, including mono single mixes of "Stand!," "I Want to Take You Higher" and "You Can Make It If You Try" and two unreleased outtakes.
Greatest Hits (Epic, 1970 - reissued Epic/Legacy, 1995 and 2007)
Including the tracks on this disc from Dance to the Music, Life and Stand! were impressive enough. But Sly and band included not one, not two, but three extra tracks, taken from singles in the summer of '69, that were every bit as good as every single they'd released before. "Hot Fun in the Summertime" was a No. 2 pop hit and one of the season's best feel-good grooves. But the highlight of the new material was easily the chart-topping double A-side "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" and "Everybody is a Star," the former of which included a sound that had rarely been heard in pop music: the slap bass. Pioneered by both Graham and bassist Louis Johnson, this percussive style of playing the bass guitar - with the middle of the thumb striking the strings and the other fingers plucking them hard - became a cornerstone of the burgeoning funk style of music that Sly and The Family Stone were pioneering.
Though there were no bonus cuts on any CD reissues of the compilation, there was likely meant to; Legacy: Music for the Next Generation, a 1990 promotional CD heralding the start of the Legacy label, featured a version of "Thank You" that was a good minute-and-a-half longer than the original version. It's also worth pointing out that CD versions of Greatest Hits mark the first time any of the three new tracks were heard in true stereo; LP copies used fake stereo versions rechanneled from the original mono single versions. There was, however, two quadraphonic mixes of the album (a commercially released one and an earlier test mix) that remain unreleased on CD...
There's a Riot Goin' On (Epic, 1971 - reissued 1990 and expanded Epic/Legacy, 2007)
Consider the stunningly short time in which Sly and The Family Stone ascended to the top of the pop and soul scene. The material on Greatest Hits was released in two years. That's pretty impressive. Less impressive, of course, would be the turmoil that would run the band ragged in the next few years.
Sly and his bandmates worried Epic and music fans everywhere by taking a relatively lengthy time - a good year-and-a-half - without releasing any new material. Privately, the band was falling apart, with all of the members abusing drugs, Sly feuding with Larry Graham and succumbing to increased paranoia (he hired known gangsters and mafiosos to serve as his entourage). Sly was particularly becoming disillusioned with the peaceful dreams of the '60s that gave way to the harsher realities of the '70s.
All of these things fueled the making of There's a Riot Goin' On, one of the best socially-conscious funk records, albeit one darker than anything the band had put out at the time. Although lead single "Family Affair," featuring instrumental work from Billy Preston and Bobby Womack, was another No. 1 hit, it was overall something entirely different from what the band had been putting out over the years, closer to What's Going On than Dance to the Music. The mix, constantly overdubbed and tampered with by Stone, had an Exile on Main St.-esque murkiness to it, and the cynical lyrics were a tonic to the peppy single material the band was known for at the time. (Even the closing track, "Thank You for Talking to Me, Africa," is a somber, funhouse version of "Thank You (Falettin Me Be Mice Elf Agin)".) Despite all of this, it was the band's first chart-topping album, and remains a critically-acclaimed funk classic today.
As was the case with most of the records in the 2007 reissue program, the expanded Riot was augmented with a mono single version ("Runnin' Away") and three unreleased instrumentals.
Fresh (Epic, 1973 - reissued 1991 and expanded Epic/Legacy, 2007)
Fresh was destined to be the band's last classic album, owing to the departure of band members Gregg Errico and Larry Graham (the latter of whom is present on two tracks on the album). But it's certainly a great way to end an era, full of upbeat tracks (a cover of "Que Sera Sera," "Skin I'm In," "Babies Makin' Babies") and the band's last great single, "If You Want Me to Stay."
Fresh is also a very interesting album from a catalogue perspective; Stone's consistent tampering with the mix led the first CD issue to feature alternate mixes of every track except album opener "In Time." Five of those mixes were included as bonus tracks on the Legacy edition in 2007; Japanese imports are a good source to find the remaining mixes for your collection.
Small Talk (Epic, 1974 - expanded Epic/Legacy, 2007)
The last of the Family Stone albums worthy of the moniker, Small Talk was a pretty rote funk affair with an increasingly eroded backup band. Nonetheless, some gems were dug up when the album was reissued, including alternates of two of the better tracks, "Time for Livin'" (a Top 40 hit) and "Loose Booty" and an early version of "Crossword Puzzle" from Stone's next album.
High on You (Epic, 1975 - reissued 1995 (JP))
Following a disastrous tour that culminated in a gig at New York's Radio City Music Hall that was only one-eighth full, The Family Stone was essentially dust. While most of the then-members (including Freddie Stone, Jerry Martini and Cynthia Robinson) were present, the album was merely credited to Sly Stone, who recorded most of it himself (as had been the case, increasingly, for most of his output in the '70s). Being another relatively by-the-numbers album, it only peaked at 45 on the Billboard 200, with none of its singles becoming pop crossovers. And, naturally, Japan is the only place you're going to find a CD copy.
Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I'm Back (Epic, 1976 - reissued 1995 (JP))
In theory, perhaps we did miss Sly Stone. But his return (with only one original member of his band, Cynthia Robinson - session musicians, including Peter Frampton and a pre-Huey Lewis and The News Johnny Colla, filled out the tracks) was another too-simple set of songs, which underperformed enough for Epic to kick Stone off the label's roster. But in Japan, it got a CD release.
Back on the Right Track (Warner Bros., 1979 - reissued Friday Music, 2009)
Back on the Right Track was where Sly Stone attempted to go in 1979, even employing some more members of The Family Stone to do so. But it just didn't gel: Stone was worn-out from the drug abuse that kept him fueled through the '70s, and nothing came together like they did on the old records. However, the two Warner Bros. albums have been remastered by Friday Music, for the curious.
Ten Years Too Soon (Epic, 1979 - reissued 1995 (JP))
With Sly having jumped ship from Epic and signed up with Warner Bros., what was the label to do with the catalogue? If you answered "have John Luongo remix the band's biggest hits for the disco crowd," you're insane enough to have been a record company executive at the time. Ten Years Too Soon (perhaps meant to imply that the band's pop-funk was far ahead of its time?) was one of those insane, this-can't-be-real-can-it bits of catalogue filler that outside of Japan, either graciously or tragically, has yet to see even a partial release on CD. (We couldn't even find a YouTube stream for the morbidly curious.)
Anthology (Epic, 1981 - reissued 1989)
A simple Epic-era compilation notable for being one of the band's first offerings on CD, some eight years after its LP release.
Ain't But the One Way (Warner Bros., 1982 - reissued Friday Music, 2010)
Another missed opportunity from Stone, although one that could have been something more. Stone was making inroads toward a comeback with the help of George Clinton, right before he split from Warner Bros.; none of their material together ended up on the record, and it was up to producer Stewart Levine (who assembled another great soul near-monstrosity in the Zaire '74 festival chronicled in Soul Power) to assemble something resembling an album while Stone disappeared into the ether. He would stay there, with occasional reappearances, for much of the time since then.
Precious Stone: Sly Stone in the Studio 1963-1965 (Ace, 1994)/Listen to the Voices: Sly Stone in the Studio 1965-1970 (Ace, 2010)
While Sly was DJing for KSOL-AM and beginning to formulate a band of his own, he was a sometimes successful producer for the Autumn Records label (his biggest hit being "C'mon and Swim," a Top 5 single for Bobby Freeman in 1964. These two sets, released 16 years apart, chronicled some of those productions, including early solo works, cuts by Freddie and The Stone Souls (which featured several future members of The Family Stone), studio sessions with Gloria Scott and Billy Preston and some of the first tunes by the official Sly and The Family Stone line-up. (The second volume includes four of the rarest Sly tracks: a novelty French single, including a foreign version of "Dance to the Music," credited to The Small Fries, and both sides of a single released in 1972 by Loadstone Records, which featured alternates of "I Ain't Got Nobody" and "I Can't Turn You Loose," recorded in the Dance to the Music era.)
Who in the Funk Do You Think You Are: The Warner Bros. Recordings (Rhino Handmade, 2001)
This set presents Back on the Right Track and Ain't But the One Way in one set, remastered and packaged in the usual Rhino style. Even better? Four demos and a backing track session are included as bonus tracks, making this one incredibly stuffed set for the hardcore Sly fan.
The Essential Sly and The Family Stone (Epic/Legacy, 2002 - reissued 2008)
A two-disc set of the best material from the Epic years; unfortunately, that means almost nothing for fans of the last two Epic albums beyond "I Get High on You." It's a nice, thick first step in a new Sly collection, but not as appealing as Greatest Hits by a long shot. A three-disc version was released in 2008, again ignoring those last two Epic albums.
Different Strokes by Different Folks (Hear Music, 2005 - expanded Epic/Legacy, 2006)
An intriguing part-covers project, part-remix album featuring the original masters overdubbed, sampled, and co-performed with a bevy of contemporary artists (Buddy Guy, John Mayer, Moby, Maroon 5, Joss Stone, Steven Tyler, The Roots, Chuck D, Isaac Hayes and others). The Legacy issue includes two more tracks than the original CD.
The Collection (Epic/Legacy, 2007)
Those who'd like to collect all of the 2007 remasters in one fell swoop, from A Whole New Thing to Small Talk, would do well to seek out this set, which combined them all into one box. A version apparently exists with a DVD of some sort, too.
The Woodstock Experience (Epic/Legacy, 2009)
With Woodstock nostalgia in full swing for the 40th anniversary, Legacy released Woodstock Experience sets for some of their most revered artists (including Big Brother and The Holding Company, Johnny Winter and others), doubling a band's prominent LP with their live performance at the iconic festival. (In this case, the LP was Stand!, sans the bonus tracks of the 2007 edition.) Whether the performance falls into "you had to be there" territory or not - let's face it, only a handful of performances transcended the festival itself - it is notably the band's first and only official live recording.