The story of Sly and the Family Stone is that of the 1960s, a decade of dizzying highs followed by a period of just as devastating lows. Their music, and the band itself, shared the similar promise of a new way — only to implode with a shocking finality.
Over four discs and a staggering 77 tracks, Higher! traces this uniquely American narrative — from Sly Stone’s out-of-nowhere beginnings to his explosively creative (thought unfortunately short-lived) period of back-to-back-to-back hitmaking to his strange descent into quiet solitude. The set, due August 27, 2013 from Epic-Legacy, then expands upon that with mono single mixes, studio outtakes, unreleased items, live recordings and rare instrumentals — not to mention a 104-page book that includes expansive liner notes from Stone’s biographer and fascinating track-by-track notes.
Looking back now, Stone’s fizzy personality, that wily sense of expectation-smashing creativity coupled with an unquenchable will for fun, can be heard from the beginning. Higher! kicks off with a series of pre-fame songs, all of them raw, full of energy and utterly predictive of the triumphs to come. Tracks like “Buttermilk,” “Dance All Night” and the previously unreleased “I Remember” (cut with Billy Preston, who’d later play a signature role on the hit “Family Affair”) could, with only the slightest updates, have fit into any classic-era Family Stone project.
Sly’s guitarist brother Freddie and trumpeter Cynthia Robinson had been a part of several of those early singles, and they’d become key figures in the groundbreaking multi-race, multi-gender, multi-genre amalgam Stone would assemble in the final weeks of 1966. Together with ever-thumping bassist Larry Graham, Jerry Martini, Bobby Freeman and Greg Errico, Stone issued the embryonic mash-up and perfectly titled A Whole New Thing — featuring a heady, patently unclassifiable blend of psychedelic soul … but, alas, no hit single. (Higher! shows how unjust that fate was by including a series of shoulda-been classics like “I Cannot Make It” and “Underdog” on Disc 1.) Sly added his sister Rose to the lineup, wrote a mainstream sing-along in 1968’s “Dance to the Music,” and the Family Stone was finally on its way.
So big was the group’s sophomore effort, in fact, that it has forever overshadowed the terrific album that followed. Life, also issued in ’68, finds new life on Disc 2 of Higher! with the inclusion of “M’Lady,” “Fun City” and a never-before-heard version of “Dynamite!” with Johnny Robinson on the mic. Another passel of unforgettably upbeat hits follows from 1969’s Stand! and 1970’s Greatest Hits, including “Everyday People,” “Sing a Simple Song,” “Stand!,” “I Want to Take You Higher,” “Hot Fun in the Summertime” and “Thank You (Falettinme Be Nice Elf Agin).” The group looked, to this point, like an unstoppable juggernaut of flashy clothes-wearing, peace and love-espousing, dance floor-filling funk.
But just as the music-buying public caught up with the layered genius of Sly Stone, just as he found all of the fame that he so richly deserved, he seemed to become disillusioned with the meat-grinder process of hitmaking. A stop at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 — represented by four boisterous performances on Disc 3 — now seems to mark the symbolic end of that period.
Sly sought to address broader concerns on the subsequent There’s a Riot Goin’ On, but ended up in a two-year struggle to complete the project. Buffeted by this own idiosyncratic perfectionism, and no small amount of substance abuse, Stone would produce something in 1971 that must have stunned his new audience of record buyers. Disc 4 begins as if produced by a different band, or at least one working in a different era. Darker than anything Stone had previously done, and fiercely focused on issues that most pop bands wouldn’t touch, the album traced the dying of a decade’s kaleidoscopic light as surely as his party records had embodied its horizon-free promise just a few years before.
Another two years would pass before Fresh followed, and by then Stone seemed to have lost some measure of nerve — or, if the tales of his lifestyle choices were to be believed, perhaps of focus. The hit “If You Want Me To Stay” felt nostalgic, like the first retrenchment from an artist who had never before broached such things. Over the course of the four other included tracks from that 1973 effort, Higher! finally begins leveling off. A concluding Top 40 hit, “Time for Livin,” would follow from 1974’s comfy, almost domesticated Small Talk, and the Family Stone began to split apart. Sly tried for a return to message songs on 1975’s solo effort High On You, and tried for mainstream acceptance once more with a retooled Family Stone on the 1976 follow up Heard Ya Missed Me.
When all of that failed, Stone descended into an increasingly secluded life, one filled with erratic behavior and ever-increasing drug problems. He released largely ignored albums in 1979 and 1982, and a solo single in 1986, and then vanished until returning a few years ago with some remakes of his own music. In keeping, Higher! ends on a decidedly down note, with a previously unissued track from an album that was never completed. Still, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame honors followed — as did Sly and the Family Stone’s appearances on a staggering number of samples from the next iteration of ground-breaking street musicians in rap.
Sly Stone may have gone away but, as this new collection illustrates so clearly, his music — and his brief but powerful message of transcendence over musical boundaries — never did.
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