The reissue of these long-out-of-print late-’60s albums documents the birth of funk — the bastard offspring of gutbucket soul and psychedelic rock. The collected early works of Sylvester Stewart, a.k.a. Sly Stone, provide a musical bridge between James Brown’s bedrock grooves and George Clinton’s cosmic slop. A former DJ and veteran music-biz hustler, Sly is a supernaturally gifted band leader, arranger, player, producer, songwriter and onstage instigator. The lyrics of his catchy choruses tempered uplifting messages with urban reality; his flashy persona and streetwise cool set the style standard for the superbad, superslick early ’70s.
The Family Stone were a comfortable rainbow coalition: Sly’s brother Freddie Stone on guitar, sister Rosie on electric piano, cousin Larry Graham on bass and Greg Errico on drums, plus saxophonist Jerry Martini and trumpeter Cynthia Robinson. Their sound was democratic, too: Each instrumental voice was carefully articulated, always in step with the others. Everybody in the group sang, as one crucial Life track puts it, in perfect “Harmony.”
A Whole New Thing, the group’s 1967 debut, isn’t quite the genre-busting exercise its title promises. To contemporary ears, it more closely resembles a slightly. different thing: straight-up, pumping R&B flavored with some freaky trimmings — a fuzz-tone guitar blurt here (“Run, Run, Run,” “Trip to Your Heart”) some pointed protest lyrics there (“Underdog,” “Dog”). Even when these trappings feel a bit dated, the Family Stone’s boundless high energy, tight musicianship and soulful convictions get the motivating message across loud and clear.
Twenty-seven years later, the title track of Dance to the Music provides a sure-fire jolt of pure adrenalin. Overall the album is uneven, but its highs are intense, prolonged, ecstatic. Earthy bass and drums put a spring in your step while seductive melodies and horn lines tickle your mind. Song titles like “Ride the Rhythm” and “Higher” are more than hooks — they’re statements of purpose. And Sly’s half-spoken and half-sung band introductions on “Dance to the Music” neatly prefigure the rise of rap. “All we need is a drummer,” he declares, “for people who only need a beat.”
Life is where Sly’s dazzling all-things-to-all-people vision snaps into full focus. “Dynamite!” explodes in a hailstorm of volatile, feedback-laced rock. “Plastic Jim,” “Into My Own Thing” and “Love City” connect hippie idealism to wickedly syncopated rhythms. And the joyously hedonistic party numbers — “Fun,” “M’Lady” — just won’t quit. When Sly testifies on “Life,” insisting that “you don’t have to come down” and “you don’t have to die before you live,” the ebullient music supports his spiritual tightrope walk.
The rest, as they say, is history: Sly and the Family Stone’s remaining career paralleled the rise and fall of the baby-boom counterculture. They peaked at Woodstock in ’69, bottomed out after There’s a Riot Goin’ On in ’71 and eventually broke up. Sly Stone remains a spectral presence on the contemporary scene, a troubling rumor at best, though his profound influence can be felt every time you turn on a radio. While the man may not have survived the ’60s intact, surely his music has endured beyond all expectations.