"We were at the top of our game then," Greg Errico, drummer of Sly and the Family Stone says of the group's 1968 stand at New York's infamous Fillmore East. "The band was just killing it. There were moments that made my hair stand up, where that stage lifted off like a 747 and flew."
Excerpts from the shows Errico remembers so enthusiastically were recently released on a highlights-only LP, curated by the Roots' Captain Kirk Douglas for Record Store Day last Spring, titled Live at the Fillmore East. Now the entire four concert run – two shows each night in October 1968 – will be released on July 17th as Live at the Fillmore East October 4th & 5th, 1968, showcasing a band both fully formed and on the cusp of greatness. (The box set is available for pre-order via Amazon.) Below, you can listen to the group's intense and grooving rendition of "M'Lady," from the October 5th early show.
"From the moment we got together, Sly knew exactly what he wanted," Errico recalls of the group's enigmatic, groundbreaking leader. "He knew he wanted to mix all of these musical elements and he knew he wanted a mixed race band."
Sly Stone had been a trailblazing DJ in the mid Sixties on San Francisco's soul station KSOL, slipping the Beatles and the Stones, who were edgy at the time, into his playlist. From his earliest notions of starting a band, Errico says, Sly wanted to bring that same penchant for pushing the line to his own group. And did he ever: Even in the ultra-progressive Bay Area of 1967, the multi-racial Sly and the Family Stone made an impression.
"The first time that we got together, we didn't even play a note," Errico says, remembering the day Sly convened the group. "We talked a lot about what we were going to do. And we all quickly realized what Sly was doing when we looked around at each other. There were race riots going on at the time. Putting a musical group together with male and female and black and white, to us, it felt really natural and cool and comfortable, but it made a statement that was definitely threatening to some people."
"At first, Bill Graham thought we were too weird," saxophonist Jerry Martini recalls of the legendary promoter, who also booked the Fillmore. "He auditioned us, but there was just no one like us."
Even a rock & roll pioneer like Bill Graham had never seen a band full of long-haired white and black musicians, Martini says, with the women standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the frontline with their male counterparts.
"Girls traditionally stood in the back, doing the background thing," Martini explains. "We were a line straight across, except for the drums. But after Bill saw our success, first with 'Dance to the Music,' and then because we used to pack the clubs he was competing with every night, he took a chance and put us on. As they say, the rest is history."
Sly and the Family Stone's 1968 hit "Dance to the Music" was certainly a portent of things to come, and slays the audience each time on Live at the Fillmore. But the groups' smash "Everyday People" was a few months off, as were a legendary appearance at Woodstock, nationwide television appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Dick Cavett Show and, of course, a string of hits, including "I Want to Take You Higher," "Sing a Simple Song" and "Family Affair."
"He drove us, really hard," says Errico, recalling driving back on Sly's orders right after shows to the band's shared home/headquarters to rehearse until the early morning hours. "We were political people, and wanted to make statements beyond just dance songs. But Sly knew we had to be better than everyone for people to accept us. So 'Dance to the Music' was a conscious effort to do something that would get us there."
In fact, the song was written to order.
"We had pressure from CBS to write a hit, so Sly said, 'Well, OK, we've got to capture the audience and get them to listen. Then we can get more sophisticated and more political,'" Errico explains. "Sly wrote a song about dancing to the music, but he also injected some of the attributes that the band had – the vocal thing, the black/white/male/female thing, a little vocal breakdown, a drum breakdown, Larry Graham's bass and Freddie Stone's guitar, plus the horns – and to show we're dancing and having fun together. It engaged everybody, but it was designed to get attention so then we would be able to say what we wanted to say."
Groundbreaking albums like A Whole New Thing Life, Stand! and There's a Riot Goin' On followed – each featuring new and unique blends of tough funk, irresistible melodies, psychedelic guitars and deep rhythms that captivated everyone from Hendrix to Tony Bennett – until Sly's gifts began to elude him in the mid Seventies when he fell into a drug-fueled haze. But Live at the Fillmore East October 4th & 5th, 1968 is the sound of a band on the cusp of stardom, hungry and clawing toward the top.
"When Sly was on, there was no touching him," Martini says now. "He had that charisma and power where he could stop or start a riot. He could control half a million people, like at Woodstock, or accidentally start a riot, like at the Newport Jazz Festival, where the kids outside there couldn't get in and they literally crashed through the gates. But at the Fillmore, people were at first pretty shocked to see a band with that kind of energy and with that much diversity, but from the opening bars of a song like 'M'Lady,' which we opened with a lot, there was no doubt that Sly was in total control of the audience."
"You may think Sly's talking about the ladies in the song, but he's actually talking to the men," trumpeter Cynthia Robinson – who still tours with a lineup of the Family Stone that includes Errico and Martini, as well as Sly's daughter Phunne Stone – reveals of "M'Lady." "He's giving the ladies props. He's telling the men that the ladies are cool, that they need to pay more attention to them! The repetitive line is, 'Give her some time.' He's telling the guys to spend more time with their ladies. Give her some attention!"