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Sly and the Family Stone: 20 Essential Songs

The best from the generation-defining funk-soul-rock legends

In a famed 1971 Rolling Stone profile by Ben Fong-Torres, Sly Stone (Sylvester Stewart) explained the concept behind he and the Family Stone: “If there was anything to be happy about, then everybody’d be happy about it. If there were a lot of songs to sing, then everybody got to sing. If we have something to suffer or a cross to bear – we bear it together.” Those words – a rare, lucid moment for Stone in that era – encapsulated the group’s arc up until that point: from the rosy optimism of their Summer of Love debut through their hit song era and into the cynicism of that early Seventies moment. The band would bear it together, until they couldn’t anymore.

Sly and the Family Stone became the poster children for a particularly San Francisco sensibility of the late Sixties: integrated, progressive, indomitably idealistic. Their music, a combustible mix of psychedelic rock, funky soul and sunshine pop, placed them at a nexus of convergent cultural movements, and in turn, they collected a string of chart-topping hits. Just as they seemed on the cusp of even greater success, Stone made a social and psychological retreat, only to reemerge in 1971 with the sonic equivalent of a repudiation: dark, brilliant and bracing. The band wouldn’t survive intact much longer, but in that short span, they redefined the possibilities of pop music. Was Sly and the Family Stone one of the great American funk bands? Rock bands? Pop bands? All of the above.

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UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Sly & Family Stone Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

“Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” (1970)

"Thank You" would have been memorable enough thanks to Sly's strange, phonetic title but the song's enduring legacy rests mostly with the thumb of bassist Larry Graham. His "thunkin' and pluckin'" technique revolutionized the role of the bass as a lead instrument in R&B, leading music writer and scholar Ricky Vincent to opine, "perhaps more than any other record, 'Thank You' introduced the Decade of Funk."

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UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Sly & Family Stone Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

“Everybody Is a Star” (1970)

It says much about the Family Stone's power and popularity in 1970 that a compilation ostensibly made to collect their past hits would end up creating three entirely new ones. "Hot Fun" and "Thank You" were huge successes in their own right but perhaps the most timeless was "Everybody Is a Star." Even more than "Everyday People," "Star" was Sly and the Family Stone at their self-affirming best — a happy, hippy-er version of the "black is beautiful" slogan of the era. Of course, if the song was a high point, by extension, what came next meant that Sly and the Family Stone were about to get low.

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UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Sly & Family Stone Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

6ix, “I’m Just Like You” (1970)

Sly and the Family Stone were supposed to follow the Greatest Hits anthology with a new studio album in 1970. Instead, Stone decided to postpone that recording while moving his base of operations to Los Angeles, the first of many decisions that began to fray relationships within the band. For the next year or so, Sly stayed in seclusion, frustrating bandmates, label reps and fans. Drugs and gnawing paranoia didn't help, but this "lost" period was also a fertile creative time for Stone as he tinkered with new toys, especially emergent drum machine technology. Beatboxes were still a novelty item then, nothing a serious musician would consider using as a studio instrument. But through Sly's own Stone Flower imprint, he began to explore its musical potential on the lone single by vocal group 6ix. In a rare contemporary interview for the liner notes of I'm Just Like You, a Stone Flower anthology, Sly told Alec Palao, "All instruments are real. Anything that can express your heart, it's an instrument, man." By 1971, those ideas would come into fuller fruition on the group's epochal There's a Riot Goin' On.

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UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Sly & Family Stone Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

“Family Affair” (1971)

Greil Marcus famously wrote that There's a Riot Goin' On! "was no fun. It was slow, hard to hear, and it isn't celebrating anything." In short, "It was not groovy." These were all meant as compliments since the album's dark tones – literal and figurative – felt like an unflinchingly honest expression of both the Family Stone's internal turmoil and the state of America waking up from its late Sixties high and facing the early Seventies' bleak hangover. The group's last Number One single, "Family Affair," was a sobering retreat from the sunny positivity of "Everybody Is a Star," replacing it with a meditation on human strife and weakness, cleverly masked within the mesmerizing burbling of its drum machine rhythms. In a 1971 Rolling Stone interview, Sly insisted, "I don't feel being torn apart," but many around him wondered otherwise.

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UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Sly & Family Stone Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

“Running Away” (1971)

Even more than "Family Affair," "Running Away" felt like a song at odds with itself. The message was unambiguous – "running away/to get away … you're wearing out your shoes" – and the "ha-ha, hee-hee" laughter feels mocking in every stanza. But in contrast, the music feels light and luminous with a jaunty guitar and bright brass section that would have been at home with Earth, Wind & Fire. Cynicism never sounded so cheerful.

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UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Sly & Family Stone Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

“Luv N’ Haight” (1971)

During the time Sly had disappeared into his L.A. studio, he was experimenting with playing every instrument he could lay his hands on. Riot still featured the Family players, but in many instances it was all Sly, overdubbing himself playing the various parts. With each new layer, the sound quality would gradually deteriorate into the hazy, opioid sound heard on "Time," "Thank You for Talkin' to Me Africa," "Luv N' Haight," and other songs: all slurred and half-dreamed. The affect was as alluring as it was foreboding – a journey into the heart of funk's darkness.

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UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Sly & Family Stone Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

“If You Want Me to Stay” (1973)

The Family Stone came undone in the Riot era, amid a string of near-mythologically disastrous concerts. To work on his next album, Fresh, Sly headed back to the Bay, but began replacing several of the key players who had been with him since at least the "Dance to the Music" days. Despite the change in personnel, Fresh was a compelling sequel to Riot's funk explorations, albeit not nearly as dark or pathos-laden. "If You Want Me to Stay," the album's modest hit, still saw Sly keeping his audience at arm's length. As the singer explained on a radio interview, "That's exactly what I meant, what I wrote. If you want me to stay, let me know. Otherwise, sayonara."

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UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Sly & Family Stone Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

“Can’t Strain My Brain” (1974)

The most damning-with-faint-praise for Small Talk, Sly and the Family Stone's final group album of the 1970s, may have come in Billboard's July 1974 review where an uncredited critic offers "not really much new in the way of presentation… but… there really is no need for a successful star to have to come up with something new on each LP." They weren't wrong: Small Talk mostly retread the same stylings, but the formula still had legs, especially on the tightly wound "Can't Strain My Brain," one of many Sly songs of the era where he hinted at his gradually loosening grip on reality.

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UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Sly & Family Stone Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

“Remember Who You Are” (1979)

Arguably the last great Sly Stone song, "Remember Who You Are" wasn't a full-fledged return to the original Family Stone. Sly had jettisoned the band several years earlier, recording under his own name, including on 1976's Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I'm Back, perhaps one of the worst on-the-nose album titles in history. Back on the Right Track, in 1979, sounds like a concession to the mistakes of the past and, at least for "Remember Who You Are," he reunited siblings Freddie and Rose Stone to share vocals, recapturing some of that old Family Stone magic.

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