Sly Stone appeared in the late 1960s just as he was needed – in a time when the music itself seemed to be a reflection of the emotional divide between blacks and whites. There was Aretha Franklin, the Temptations and Sam and Dave on one side, and Jefferson Airplane, Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead on the other. In the middle? Perhaps Otis Redding or Jimi Hendrix, if they had lived. Otherwise, it was just wide open spaces.
In stepped Stone, a kinetic songwriter and performer with this multi-cultural group the Family Stone and a sound that cribbed the rhythmic ferocity of R&B, but none of its quickly devolving formulaic Motown tics. At the same time, though, there was a distinctly rock ’n’ roll character to this amalgam – an exhilarative focus on hooks, some seriously weird outfits, a tendency toward hedonism.
It was, then as now, something very different, and made the title of Sly and the Family Stone’s debut recording — A Whole New Thing — seem so very apt rather than vaguely arrogant. It really was. A jumble of hits followed, including “Dance to the Music,” “Stand!,” “Everyday People,” “Hot Fun in the Summertime” and “Thank You (falettinme be nice elf agin),” among others.
Then Stone was gone, amid a flurry of missed concert dates (one of which caused a furious riot in Chicago), increasingly erratic behavior, the breakup of the original Family Stone, and a drug bust, among other oddities. Brilliantly unpredictable on record, Stone had become even more unpredictable in real life.
Yet, he had already done so much – both in terms of his groundbreaking sound and vision on the polyglot funk-rock masterpiece Stand!, but also in the tough challenges he threw back at his audience on his frightfully honest follow up There’s a Riot Goin’ On. In a larger sense, the first album celebrated the 1960s’ boundless hopes for change, while the second talked with blunt force about how the decade hadn’t lived up to those promises.
Stone had said quite a bit, more than most, in a brief space in time. That it was over so quickly should matter less now than that it occurred at all. Buried in that outburst of creativity is a lyric that says a lot about what happened next, as Stone eventually disappeared for nearly two decades: “Dyin’ young is hard to take,” Stone sings. “Sellin’ out is harder.”
So, even as the Family Stone’s influence continued to sweep across rock music, he all but vanished from public life – out, it seemed, of meaningful ideas. Stone kept working, however, only in the shadows. Born in Texas as Sylvester Stewart, the California-raised Stone returned to the Lone Star State to record the three new tracks on I’m Back, playing all of the instruments during sessions held in Grand Prairie beginning in the late 1980s. This was just before he and all of the original members of his band were inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
The results, coupled here with a series of newer reworkings of his most famous hits, are the principal selling point for I’m Back: Family and Friends — due on Aug. 16 from California-based Cleopatra Records. The remakes certainly have their moments – among them, Jeff Beck’s distinctive contribution to “(I Want to Take You) Higher,” the Woodstock anthem; Bootsy Collins’ skyscraper-rattling bass contributions to “Hot Fun”; and those gurgling organ fills from the Doors’ Ray Manzarek on “Dance to the Music.” Perhaps a new generation will uncover these nervy anthems all over again. Still, it’s the opportunity to hear something new from Stone – something perhaps approaching the cataclysmic bass riffs, the transformative lyrical genius, the roiling gumbo of soul and meaning of his best work around 1970 – that draws you in the furthest.
“Plain Jane,” a previously unheard Stone composition, is a nasty whoosh of funk. Stone again settles into a raucous chorus of singers, recalling the dangerous allure of a particularly memorable party girl, even as he saws out a grease-popping wah-wah riff. This is what that botched turn-of-the-1980s project with George Clinton should have sounded like.
“His Eye is on the Sparrow,” a traditional hymn with a new rearrangement by Stone, circles back to explore the gospel underpinnings in his work – and, just as interestingly, echoes the upbeat vibe that made “Everybody’s a Star” such a lasting testament to positivity.
Finally, there is the terrific “Get Away,” co-written with designer Ruby Jones, creator of those memorably funked-up old outfits worn by Stone, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix and others. Featuring a quietly conveyed lyric, almost like the echo of “Family Affair,” Stone – who handled all of the instruments himself – quickly ramps up into a harder, more vital groove.
It took him a while to form the words, but it turns out Sly Stone has something left to say. My only quibble is that you wish there was more.