Sly and the Family Stone: 20 Essential Songs

Sly and the Family Stone: 20 Essential Songs


Sly and the Family Stone: 20 Essential Songs news

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.

The Beau Brummels, “Laugh, Laugh” (1965)

The Beau Brummels – Laugh Laugh (Shindig)

Sly Stone’s first taste of national notoriety began at the tender age of 19 when he produced the moody pop single, “Laugh, Laugh,” for the San Mateo folk-rock band the Beau Brummels. As a teen guitarist, Stone’s various gigs around San Francisco lead him to cross paths with Autumn Records’ Tom Donahue, who gave the budding talent a shot at producing. “Laugh, Laugh” was one of Sly’s first efforts and by early 1965, it had climbed into the Top 20. As Ben Fong-Torres said of the single in 1970: “Sly had produced the very first rock & roll hits out of… a city then known for little more than Johnny Mathis and Vince Guaraldi.” The “San Francisco Sound” would soon be in full bloom, but here Sly was planting the seeds early on.

“Rock Dirge” (circa 1965)

Rock Dirge by Sly & The Family Stone

During Stone’s brief stint at Autumn Records, he made use of their studios to mess around with his own compositions, including this funky, chattering instrumental, likely concocted in 1965. Stone self-taught himself how to play an array of instruments, including the organ that can be heard wheezing away on this track. “Rock Dirge” and similar experiments from this era eventually surfaced on a 1975 compilation of Stone’s early work and the song was subsequently pressed onto a seven-inch that’s become popular amongst breakbeat-crazed DJs.

“I Ain’t Got Nobody” (1967)

Sly & The Family Stone – I Ain't Got Nobody (For Real)

Using proceeds earned from Autumn, Stone set himself and his family up in Daly City, just outside of San Francisco. This is where the Family Stone band began to cohere in the mid 1960s and their first official release came on this single for the local Loadstone label. With its snappy, uptempo backbeat and layered vocal harmonies, the song now sounds like a prescient first draft for a style that would take full form on the group’s later hits. “I Ain’t Got Nobody” only made noise locally but it helped put the group on the radar of Epic Records who signed Sly and the Family Stone that same year.

“Underdog” (1967)

Sly & The Family Stone – Underdog

As the first single and first song on the group’s first album, A Whole New Thing, “Underdog” introduced Sly and the Family Stone in as raucous a way possible. It opens, oddly enough, with saxophonist Jerry Martini sleepily riffing on the children’s song “Frère Jacques” before giving way to a full acid rock jam of driving horns, dramatic choral yells and a defiant social message about underdogs who have to prove themselves to be “twice as good.” George Clinton told official Family Stone biographer Jeff Kaliss that, in listening to the song, “you felt like they were speaking directly to you personally.” The song and its album were the group’s creative magnum opus… just not a commercial one. They failed to break the Family Stone out nationally, but that moment would come soon enough.

“Dance to the Music” (1968)

Sly & The Family Stone — Dance to the music YouTube

The Sly Stone song most likely to be heard on a 1980s “as advertised on TV” compilation, “Dance to the Music,” netted the group their first Top 10 hit by the spring of 1968. Recorded under the insistent direction of Clive Davis, the single’s ebullient, infectious energy helped cover for the fact that, lyrically, it’s little more than the band narrating what instruments they’re about to fold into the groove: drums, then guitar, bass, etc. Within the group, the song and same-titled album was met with mixed emotions. Saxophonist Jerry Martini, speaking to oral historian Joel Selvin, insisted, “It was so unhip to us. The beats were glorified Motown. We did the formula thing.” However, engineer Don Pulese, quoted by journalist Miles Marshall Lewis, claims that Sly himself once said of the single, “that’s the best bass and drum sounds I’ve ever got.”

“Dynamite” (1968)

Sly & The Family Stone – Dynamite!

Life was a middle child album, shortchanged between the breakout success of “Dance to the Music” and the transcendent accomplishment of Stand! Yet, for all its commercial shortcomings, the album made an impact with critics, especially Rolling Stone‘s Barret Hansen (a.k.a. the future Dr. Demento) who declared it “the most radical soul album ever issued.” Hansen was particularly taken by the group’s “element of surprise”: Songs like the psych-fringed “Dynamite” or the carnival-esque title track make quixotic shifts in arrangement, with sudden sonic pockets opening up and closing while the Family’s singers play tag on lead vocals. As trumpeter Cynthia Robinson told Ebony last summer (before she passed in November), “We were free to adlib things. Sly would cut things off in a different way than the real recordings; he’d just stop it and go into something else.”

“Everyday People” (1969)

Sly & The Family Stone – Everyday People

“The things that were happening across the country changed us as people,” said Freddy Stone in a 2013 interview with Wax Poetics. “We would begin having conversations amongst ourselves, and Sly being the genius that he is, he was putting these thoughts into songs.” The album that came out of that moment, Stand!, absorbed the furious energies of the era’s political and musical revolutions and spit back an LP so potent that more than half of its songs would end up being reissued just a year later on the group’s Greatest Hits. “Everyday People” remains the group’s pinnacle of that era, a flamboyantly utopian anthem about forging unity through difference. All that and Scooby Dooby Doo, ya’ll.

“Sing a Simple Song” (1969)

Sly and the Family Stone – Sing a Simple Song

“Everyday People,” was an undeniably feel-good pop hit, but for the best-selling single’s B-side, the Family Stone unleashed this blistering blast of funk. As rollicking and aggressive as anything James Brown and his crew were pumping out, the song also found Sly playing with studio techniques, including stereo panning to split instruments into separate channels. Greg Errico – whose crackling drum work on the song would be liberally sampled decades later – told interviewer Eric Sandler in 2013: “The track was laid so down to the bone and we all knew it was. You could feel it.”

“Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey” (1969)

Sly & The Family Stone – Don't Call Me Nigger / Higher

Elsewhere on Stand!, the Family Stone may have painted their social commentary in varying metaphoric shades but with “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey,” they left little room for reinterpretation. Clocking in at nearly six minutes, the song is almost all hook (save for a short Rose Stone verse) and its stark, defiant tone stands in sharp contrast to the album’s more optimistic vibes. The song is also striking for its spaced-out vocoder effects and distorted instrumentation, predating and predicting the launch of the P-Funk Mothership half a decade early.

“I Want to Take You Higher” (1969)

Sly & The Family Stone – I Want to Take You Higher (Live 1973)

It’s only fitting that this song – now considered one of Woodstock’s most legendary performances – took form at another seminal Family Stone concert: the 1968 Fillmore East show. The original “Higher,” a jerky album cut off Dance to the Music, was part of their set and during the performance, the group began to improvise with it, adding the crucial line, “I wanna take you higher.” By Stand!, the song had evolved into a lumbering, aggressive tune that promised to drag you to a higher plane whether you were ready to tag along or not.

“Hot Fun in the Summertime” (1969)

Sly & the Family Stone – Hot Fun in the Summertime

Epic rushed to capitalize on the group’s incandescent Woodstock performance by releasing “Hot Fun in the Summertime” as a standalone single in August of 1969. Compared to the social messaging on Stand!, “Hot Fun” delivered what its title promised: a fun summer anthem awash in some gentle streams of nostalgia and a rare instance of Stone using a string section. Critics generally treated it as a pleasant trifle – Rolling Stone’s Jon Landau compared it to “a hard version of the Lettermen” – but years later, George Clinton would laud it as “proof that funk could be a pop standard.”

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

Sly & The Family Stone – Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin) (Audio)

“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.”

“Everybody Is a Star” (1970)

Sly & The Family Stone – Everybody Is A Star (1973)

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.

6ix, “I’m Just Like You” (1970)

6IX – I'm Just Like You (a Sly Stone production)

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.

“Family Affair” (1971)

Family Affair – Sly & Family Stone (UK#15 USA#01) 1972

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.

“Running Away” (1971)

Sly & The Family Stone – Runnin Away

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.

“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.

“If You Want Me to Stay” (1973)

Sly & The Family Stone – If You Want Me To Stay (Audio)

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.”

“Can’t Strain My Brain” (1974)

"Can't Strain My Brain" – Sly & The Family Stone

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.

“Remember Who You Are” (1979)

Remember Who You Are

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.