The difference between R&B and rock ‘n’ roll, according to Charlie Gillett, is that the former was made by black people for black people while the latter was made by black people for everyone. And as the black artist found himself playing for an expanded audience his music grew and evolved, taking in a wide assortment of new influences, so that fundamental musical differences between between R&B and rock ‘n’ roll were soon firmly established.
Something similar happened in the Sixties with soul music and rock. Soul was the music made by and for black people. For most of the Sixties it was thoroughly divorced from white popular music, but by the end of the decade several artists with their roots firmly in both soul and R&B traditions had crossed over. While continuing to hold onto the soul audience they had captured the AM rock audience and in some cases the FM audience as well. In the process they were hinting at a new kind of soul and a new kind of rock. At the moment the three best examples of this new thing are Sly and the Family Stone, the Temptations, and Ike and Tina Turner.
When “Dance to the Music” appeared on AM radio in late 1967, it was unique. The rhythm section played too hard and the arrangement and recording were too clean for it to be soul music, but the vocals sounded too soulful for it to be pop. The more you listened the more you wondered: where did the alternating voices come from? Who else builds a whole record on a single dynamic crescendo? And where did those weird, jazzy horn lines come from?
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The questions never got answered because there weren’t any. “Dance to the Music” was just Sly Stone being his natural crazy self right from the beginning. The man was an original and his first AM hit was nothing if it wasn’t the example per excellence of the Sly Stone music machine.
Sly Stone doesn’t make good albums: only good records. His style is so infinite and revolves around so many crucial aspects that it has only come together perfectly on a handful of his singles. The best of it is all present and accounted for on his Greatest Hits album.
“Hot Fun” was the summer record of 1969. Its verse is something akin to a hard version of the Lettermen. But the break that follows the verse is taut and perfectly arranged. Bassist Larry Graham and drummer John Errico play well together, while the mixed down horns lend excellent support. While the alternating voices give the record its flavor, the key to it is the dynamics. The mellow, cooled-out verses serve only to heighten the suspense and increase the tension surrounding the breaks. And the more I heard the record during the summer, the more interesting those verses gradually became in their own right.
In “Everyday People” the emphasis was more on the song because Sly obviously had something he wanted to say, lyrically. But the trademarks are still there; the vocal arranging, the clean, bright recording sound, and, in this instance, a particularly good horn arrangement. “Everyday People,” more than any other song, established Sly as the rock performer with a mass following among both young blacks and young whites. Pop stations and R&B stations seemed to be at war over who could program it the most.
“Thank You” is the confident Sly who doesn’t have to try so hard anymore. By now, everything just falls into place. The dynamics are not as central as they were on “Dance to the Music.” Instead he can relax and let his magical little lick — the syncopation of guitar, bass, and drums — take care of all three minutes and 55 seconds.
“Higher” in its original form, on Greatest Hits, is possibly the great one-chord song of the Sixties. The studio version sounds almost classic when compared with the Woodstock version, but I prefer the latter because it is the only live Sly there is so far. Because the live recording of Sly’s set wasn’t that good, some people have overlooked it, but if you sit down and listen to it now, it is easily the best music on that entire three record set. Sly’s performance encompasses everything that he is: that touch of jive (“Let me see you throw the peace sign in the air: It’ll do you no harm”) as well as the towering power of his music machine. The dynamics are unparalleled and his energy seems to be limitless, and when I think of Sly today, it is always with him towering over his regal family, wearing his long white robes from the closing shot of his sequence in the movie, and of the whole group singing out in turn, “Hey, music lover.” Don’t you know they are singing our song.
There is some less than interesting music on Greatest Hits and it is fair to say that if Sly’s musicianship is always impeccable his taste is not: He is the author of some very trite lyrics and tunes. However, no man who was responsible for “Dance to the Muisc,” “Higher,” “Hot Fun In the Summertime,” “Everyday People,” and “Thank You (Falettinme Be mice Elf Agin)” can be denied his glory. Those records alone stand as a tribute’ to one of the most original and creative rock musicians.
The man from Epic tells me that Sly hasn’t recorded much lately. His last album of new material was released well over a year ago and even “Thank You,” his last single, is old by now. Greatest Hits was released only as a last resort in order to get something salable into the record stores. It was a necessary release and stands as the final record of the first chapter in Sly & the Family Stone’s career. Whatever the reasons for his recording abstinence, I hope it ends soon so that he can get back to making new music and we can get back to listening to it.
The Temptations began as one of Motown’s funkiest and straightest R&B groups and have wound up the children of Sly Stone. Their first Greatest Hits album, on which David Ruffin was lead singer stayed on Billboard’s album chart for over two years and may well be the single finest album ever released by the company. Chronlogically that album took them through “Beauty’s Only Skin Deep,” while Greatest Hits II takes them from “I’m Losin’ You” and the last days of Ruffin’s lead singing, through their thoroughly Sly influenced style of the last two years.
Ruffin is a superb soul singer. “I Wish It Would Rain” is as intense and personal as anything ever cut at Stax or Muscle Shoals. “I Could Never Love Another” and “It’s You That I Need” were almost as good as examples of Motown’s mid-Sixties soul style. But of Ruffin’s four numbers on the album, “I’m Losing You” is the masterpiece. Written by the Temptations band leader, Cornelius Grant, and Eddie Holland and Norman Whitfield, its lyrics shine:
Your touch, your touch has grown cold
As if someone else controls your very soul
I’ve fooled myself for as long as I can
I can feel the presence of another man.
It’s there when you speak my name
It’s just not the same
Ooh baby, I’m losin’ you,
It’s in the air,
Ooh baby, I’m losin’ you.
Ruffin’s desperation, drive and closeness to the lyrics stand as some sort of zenith in his work. One can only hope that Motown will give him a chance to express himself like that once again.
With the replacement of Ruffin by the excellent Dennis Edwards, producer Norman Whitfield sought a new, more contemporary style for the group. He came up with Motown’s version of Sly Stone, combined with a new style of socially aware lyrics. The results have been mixed, but not certainly without their moments.
“Cloud Nine” is a beautiful record. The rhythm section of bass, drums, and conga drums burn from beginning to end. The guitars fit over their patterns like gloves. And there are no horns or strings to detract from the singing of one of the tighest vocal groups ever recorded. The vocalists are so sharp and so on, it is impossible to argue with them. And the lyrics, while simple, are forceful and intense:
They tell you give yourself a chance, don’t let life pass you by,
But the world of reality is a rat race, where only the strong survive
It’s a dog eat dog world and it ain’t no lie
It ain’t even safe no more, to walk the streets at night.
Listening to Dennis Edwards singing the last line is to know the meaning of fear and anger. It all leads perfectly to a plainly imitative of Sly ending, with everyone “boom-booming” for all they are worth.
Of the other songs in the Sly mold that have had socially aware lyrics. “Run Away Child, Running Wild” and especially “Psychedelic Shack” add nothing to the power of “Cloud Nine” and are easily forgotten. Not so of the “Ball of Confusion.” Despite producer-composer Whitfield’s capacity to spew forth without blinking an eye phrases like “Eye of destruction, tax deduction,” this is a record of power that should fittingly close the phase that was begun with “Cloud Nine.” Each set of verses builds to a majestic climax which pits a harmonica (again taken from Sly, as on “Higher”) against a brassy horn section. The best of it is at the end:
Suicide, too many bills, Hippies moving to the hills, And people all over the world shouting
“End the war,”
And the band played on.
–and then the break and “That’s what the world is today, a ball of confusion.”
The one that got away in the middle of all the political-rap productions is perhaps the best of all the Temptations’ rhythm numbers: “I Can’t Get Next To You.” Here the conga drummer comes into his own while Edwards fights it out with the high pitched voice of Eddie Kendricks for the spotlight. The fade-out ending, like the one on “Cloud Nine” is original and brilliant.