A little more than a week ago, on March 15, Sly Stone turned 72. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and multi-hyphenate artist has survived more than his share of ups and downs. But for a staggering period of nearly 50 years, Sly’s work as composer, singer, producer and musician has continued to take listeners higher with his groundbreaking blend of funk, rhythm and blues, soul, rock, psychedelia, jazz and pop. Epic Records and Legacy Recordings have recently reissued the first five albums from Sly and the Family Stone, originally released in a prolific period of blazing creativity between 1967 and 1971, in a new 5-LP vinyl Original Album Classics box set available exclusively through PopMarket.com.
Sundazed Music previously released these original stereo albums – the cornerstones of Sly’s career – in 2008 on vinyl. The new Legacy editions have been superbly remastered by Vic Anesini from the original master tapes and pressed on 180-gram vinyl at URP (United Record Pressing).
Sly and the Family Stone’s first album was hyperbolically entitled A Whole New Thing. It wasn’t exactly that, as the bandleader (already a veteran artist and producer from his early days at San Francisco’s Autumn Records label) was still finding his footing and his own sound. The album didn’t catch on, but the seeds of eventual success had been planted for Sly, Freddie Stone, Larry Graham, Cynthia Robinson, Jerry Martini, and Greg Errico. (Rose Stone would join with the next LP.) Sly’s music was already strongly informed by his interest in the goings-on of the day both in the personal and the political sense. The dark “Underdog” – an odd choice for the band’s first Epic single – sympathized with the plight of anyone who might identify himself as such. An undercurrent of menace marked its arrangement as it turned “Frere Jacques” on its head. On “Trip to Your Heart” – with its woozy vocals and cacophonous opening – Stone tapped into the psychedelic zeitgeist that the band would soon perfect. Those were just two sides of Sly Stone, songwriter, however. He was also unafraid to be unabashedly goofy, and more often than not, composed feel-good anthems that compelled listeners to empowerment – think not just “Underdog,” but “Everybody is a Star” and “You Can Make It If You Try” later – as well as to the dance floor.
Though Stone was the sonic auteur, he wrote and arranged to the strengths of the entire Family Stone on A Whole New Thing, giving each member plenty of room to show off his or her versatility and impeccable musicianship. Future Graham Central Station star Larry Graham was just one member to benefit from Stone’s canny musical “casting.” He brought his resonant vocals to the band’s sound as well as his bass guitar on tracks like “Bad Risk” and the torrid “Let Me Hear It from You.” With vocals shared by Sly, Freddie and Larry, A Whole New Thing boasted an aggressive, strong sound, if not an overtly pop-oriented one. So, armed with the directive to try something a bit more commercial, Sly and the Family Stone delivered – and how! – with the sophomore outing named Dance to the Music.
The opening title track, “Dance to the Music,” explodes from the grooves of this warm, vibrant pressing. The Dance album distilled the elements of A Whole New Thing into a more accessible sound. But “Dance” was still original and unorthodox. It eschewed standard song form, with Sly addressing his bandmates to assemble the song as it went along. The musicianship was so impeccable, the beat so infectious and the call to the dancefloor so stirring that the “simple” song proved impossible to ignore to radio programmers and record buyers. Once again, Sly used his big success as a springboard for more musical invention. “Ride the Rhythm” boasts some inventive wah-wah from Freddie and has many of the same elements as “Dance.” The band’s 1968 follow-up LP Life emphasized themes of unity and harmony even as it closely references the sound and style of “Dance” on both “Love City” and especially “M’Lady.” But when Life failed to build on the success of its predecessor and didn’t chart a hit single, the Family Stone and its iconoclastic producer upped the ante.
1969’s Stand! , the group’s first Top 20 LP, introduced the Pop and R&B chart-topper “Everyday People” as well as “Sing a Simple Song” and “I Want to Take You Higher.” (That song’s lyrical conceit was not a rare one for Sly; Dance to the Music included “Higher,” his San Francisco spin on Stax soul.) This was a period not only of hit records for Stone, but of extreme creativity and inspiration. “Sing a Simple Song” was, of course, anything but, demonstrating just how hot and funky his band could be. “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey” tapped into the unrest of the day, while “You Can Make It if You Try” was another positive anthem. “Somebody’s Watching You” was considerably darker, pointing the way towards the group’s next album. The title track urged listeners to “stand for the things you know are right” – a powerful, bold and exhilarating statement in song.
The final album in the new box set, 1971’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, de-emphasized the party grooves that populated past records. The band had begun to fracture, with Stone living in LA and the rest of the band remaining in the Bay Area, but the sound of the LP was that of a band in perfect harmony. It’s impossible not to be jolted out of whatever torpor you might be experiencing when you hear “Family Affair.” Deep and dark, it employed electric piano and the then-rare device of a rhythm box, or drum machine, for its singular sound, while guests Billy Preston and Bobby Womack contributed organ and guitar, respectively. This frighteningly resigned rumination anchored There’s a Riot Goin’ On, a moody, unflinching, dark and at-times disillusioned look at America circa 1971 written, produced, sung and played by the increasingly tortured Stone. Stone’s slurred vocals and stoned (no pun intended) grooves – like “Spaced Cowboy,” with its yodeling, sterile drum machine rhythm and murky atmosphere – proved that the sixties was, indeed, over. But the No. 1 Pop and R&B album wasn’t one-note; “Brave and Strong” is an upbeat and poppy respite. But Riot signaled the end of the first phase of Sly and the Family Stone; Greg Errico departed in 1971, followed by Graham in 1972.
Two more albums followed for Epic before Sly recorded his first solo effort, 1975’s High on You. Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I’m Back, from 1976, returned to the Family Stone name, as did future recordings on the Warner Bros. label. But the five albums contained on Legacy’s Original Album Classics box represent the band at its apex during a time when the group was routinely creating music that reflected – and transcended – its era. The albums as originally sequenced (with no bonus tracks) are housed in a basic slipcase, and graphics and cover artwork for the five titles are all lovingly recreated although gatefolds have been, unfortunately, dropped. (There are no barcodes or other modern concessions on the back covers, we’re happy to report.) In the fashion of the Original Album Classics CD releases, there is no additional booklet with liner notes or credits.
These 180-gram releases, beautifully and crisply remastered, allow vinyl connoisseurs to hear these landmark albums as they were originally presented on LP. As such, the box set is not only an ideal introduction to the Family Stone oeuvre, but will have you dancing to the music!