Sylvester Stewart, a.k.a. Sly Stone, thrillingly fused R&B with funk, rock, pop, and jazz as leader of the psychedelic outfit Sly and The Family Stone. But the visionary artist didn’t emerge from nowhere with his most famous band; he’d paid his dues in the early part of the 1960s at the Bay Area’s Autumn Records label as a producer and artist. Many of these recordings have been chronicled on collections from Ace (Precious Stone: In the Studio with Sly Stone 1963-1965, Listen to the Voices: Sly Stone in the Studio 1965-1970) and other labels. But now Ace has added a new chapter to the always-fascinating story of one of music’s most singular artists with Sly and The Viscaynes’ Yellow Moon: The Complete Recordings 1961-1962.
What’s most striking about the cover photograph is the makeup of the group: three white men, two white women, and African-American Sly. Years later, with Sly and The Family Stone, he would form arguably the first significant rock group with a racially integrated, male and female lineup. While Sly was a pioneer in that regard (and so many others), the similarities largely end there. As compiler-annotator Alec Palao notes in his lengthy and definitive essay contained in the 32-page booklet, “No one would suggest that the sounds on this collection are as groundbreaking as Sly Stone’s future work, or even as an early indicator of the dizzy heights he was about to scale in music. But they brought a smile to Sly’s face when he heard them again in recent years, as baby pictures do.” These baby pictures of a youthful doo-wop group, with all of the street-corner sunniness they could muster as teenage culture was on the rise, will likely bring many more smiles in this luxe presentation.
The Viscaynes of Vallejo, California – to the north of San Francisco – were one of many groups to earn a local following playing high school talent shows and dances. There were personnel shifts along the way, all chronicled by Palao (often via interviews with the key figures), but the line-up coalesced with Sly, Frank Arellano, Charlie Gebhardt, Vern Gebhardt (replacing Jim Kozier), Maria Boldway, and Charlene Imhoff. (Charlene amusingly recalls in the liner notes that “We were in the music hall, rehearsing for the talent show, and Sly came walking in. He said, ‘Doesn’t anybody here sing harmony? You’re all singing leads!'” The onetime child prodigy would soon take the reins, with Frank Arellano describing him as the “unspoken musical leader” while affirming that “It was kind of strange that kids that age were so dedicated to what they were doing.”)
In the liner notes, Sly recalls facing the sad reality of prejudice in Vallejo: “Black people could only go skating Monday night and go swimming Saturday. But I went all the time, and somehow, I didn’t get in trouble. I did everything I wanted to do, and I think it was because I didn’t pay any attention to it. I mean, I never understood it in the first place.” He also frankly recalled his black friends’ reaction to his time in The Viscaynes: “All the other groups were black groups, funky as a mother, and I had to figure out how to kick their asses, and I did. [The Viscaynes] believed in me and they did what I said. And some of the black kids got mad at me for showing them. After we did, I got up on stage and explained to them that this is a talent show, this is my group, we’re always gonna win and we always did. I always won anything I was in, if it had to do with music. I’d just figure out how to win, that’s all.” His tenacity and camaraderie earned him the affection and admiration of his fellow members who still harbor that fondness today.
The recordings on Yellow Moon were made for a variety of small, local labels; a trio of previously unreleased cuts make their debuts on this collection. If not for the presence of Sly Stone, it’s unlikely these tracks would be known to anybody but the most dedicated devotees of regional doo-wop. But that doesn’t mean that they’re lacking in charm.
The collection is dominated by The Viscaynes’ romantic doo-wop fare such as “Real, True Love” featuring what’s likely Sly’s earliest lead vocal; the mellow title track (heard in two versions, the second one with a slicker Los Angeles production by ex-Modern Records staffer George Motola); and the swooning “Heavenly Angel.”
The group’s more uptempo offerings include “You’re My Only Love” and “Uncle Sam Needs You,” a gently satirical novelty record co-written by prolific arranger-conductor H.B. Barnum and featuring future Family Stone member Jerry Martini on saxophone. It, too, was re-recorded, but the second version wasn’t released until 1977. Both versions appear here.
A number of Sly solo tracks have been compiled, as well. His cover of The Dells’ classic “Oh What a Night” shows the young singer at his most tender. The Drifters-esque “Help Me with My Broken Heart” was written and sung by Sly, and enhanced with uptown soul strings. George Motola gave Sly his own compositions to record, too. The lovelorn “I’m Just a Fool” and “A Long Time Alone” were credited on a 1961 single to Danny (Sly) Stewart. While Motola sped up Sly’s original vocals to make him sound even younger than his 18 years, the discs have been speed-corrected for inclusion here.
Yellow Moon also features a lost track from would-be teen idol Gary Stites whose path crossed with The Viscaynes for a time. Stites provide The Viscaynes with songs, among them the sweet “Don’t Cry, Soldier” led by the girls, and Sly’s solo “While I’m Gone” (a skeletal ballad demo). The Stites-written, lightly Latin “I Guess I’ll Be” made it to the Troppo label. Also included are two tracks from Jasper Woods with The Viscaynes on backgrounds.
As usual, Palao’s detective work uncovering these regional recordings is impeccable. Even before Sly had his first taste of fame as co-writer of Bobby Freeman’s “C’mon and Swim” on Autumn in 1964, George Motola began exploiting these early recordings. His maneuvers only increased once the former Viscayne hit it big with the Family Stone. Palao confirms in the liner notes that a number of releases from the era credited to The Stewart Brothers, Lacy Stewart, and Prince Love and The Royal Knights are all the work of another Sylvester Stewart who also happened to be recording in the Bay Area. In addition to photos of the group and key associates, the liner notes reprint numerous images of memorabilia such as newspaper clippings, 45s, business cards, and advertisements.
While many of these tracks have appeared before on compilations greatly ranging in quality, this collection (mastered by Nick Robbins) marks the first time that the original mono master sources have been used. Yellow Moon: The Complete Recordings 1961-1962 is a valuable addition to any Sly Stone shelf, and a fun nostalgic listen in its own right: the sound of kids singing together, reveling in their friendship and in music. There may not be a riot goin’ on, but there’s certainly a sock hop.
- Real, True Love – The Viscaynes (second pressing of Tropo 101, 1961)
- Yellow Moon (Second Version) – The Viscaynes (second pressing of VPM 1006, 1961)
- Stop What You Are Doing – The Viscaynes (Tropo 101, 1961)
- You’re My Only Love – The Viscaynes (Sutton LP SU 321, 1963)
- Heavenly Angel – The Viscaynes (second pressing of VPM 1006, 1961)
- Uncle Sam Needs You (Second Version) – The Viscaynes (Manufacturers’ Record Company LP AW 14056, 1977)
- Oh What a Night – Danny (Sly) Stewart (Sutton LP SU 316, 1963)
- Help Me with My Broken Heart – Sylvester Stewart (G&P 901, 1962)
- I’m Just a Fool – Danny (Sly) Stewart (Luke 1008, 1961)
- A Long Time Alone – Danny (Sly) Stewart (Luke 1008/G&P 901, 1961/2)
- Goodnight Brown Eyes – Gary Stites (previously unreleased)
- While I’m Gone – Sylvester Stewart (previously unreleased)
- Don’t Cry, Soldier – The Viscaynes (previously unreleased)
- I Guess I’ll Be – The Viscaynes (Tropo 101, 1961)
- Yellow Moon (First Version) – The Viscaynes (VPM 1006, 1961)
- Uncle Sam Needs You (First Version) – The Viscaynes (VPM 1006, 1961)
- Do You Remember (I’m Just a Fool – Alternate Version) – Danny (Sly) Stewart (Sutton LP SU 320, 1963)
- Hully Gully Papa – Jasper Woods (VPM 1009, 1961)
- I’m Coming Home – Jasper Woods (VPM 1009, 1961)