Sly & The Family Stone were the first hugely successful rock band to embrace the diversity of their band members. In The Guardian, Barney Hoskyns refers to the band as “the multi-race/gender collective that was the Family Stone.”
Not only was the band made up of different races and genders, they went a step further and celebrated it openly, weaving the theme of openness and acceptance into their music. Songs like “Everyday People” and “Everybody Is a Star” are perfect anthems for integration.
Even the most overtly racially charged Sly & The Family Stone track “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey” is, in its own way, fair in doling out racial slurs. The chorus repeats: “Don’t call me nigger, whitey / Don’t call me whitey, nigger.” Yes, the terms themselves are slanderous. But, they’re even. In the song, everyone involved is both being both insulted and insulting someone else.
But, the band’s multicultural makeup wasn’t only an appealing idea to them. Fans of all races loved Sly & The Family Stone. In a 1976 interview, Sly talks about their mass appeal (for this part of the video, skip to 5:30, but the whole interview is interesting. Plus, it’s always fun to hear Sly talk.)
Sly & The Family Stone were (and still are) easy to love. They were immensely talented, original, and diverse, all of which made them one of the most celebrated bands to come out the 60s and 70s.
In the spirit of the band’s mass appeal, listen to “Hot Fun In the Summertime,” one of the band’s biggest commercial successes, released during the rapid growth of their fanbase after Woodstock in 1969.
And that’s it for Sly & The Family Stone week! Thanks for reading, and happy listening.
In 1969, Sly & The Family Stone released their fourth studio album, Stand! In 1971, they released There’s a Riot Goin’ On. The period of time starting and ending with these two albums reveals not only a shifting dynamic of the band, but of the country as a whole.
When you listen to Stand!, you’re uplifted. The title itself is a positive message, punctuated with an exclamation mark. The album’s overarching theme is one of optimism, communicated through several of the band’s most well-known tracks – “Sing a Simple Song,” “I Want to Take You Higher,” “Everyday People,” and “You Can Make It If You Try.” The band, and the country, was feeling good. The culmination of this attitude happened from August 15 to August 18, 1969 near Woodstock, New York, only three months after Stand! was put out. Not surprisingly, Sly & The Family Stone played Woodstock, and their performance is generally considered one of the most historic of the three days.
After Woodstock, a cultural shift began to occur. The transition from 1969 to 1970 was an ugly one. In 2002, University of Colorado’s Professor Chris H. Lewis wrote:
We can only understand the 1970s as a decade of disillusion, cynicism, bitterness, and anger by examining it in the context of the aftermath of the Vietnam War and Watergate and the Cold War. The American people were increasingly disillusioned with the government and their democratic institutions in the 1970s. The Cold War, the Vietnam War, and Watergate damaged Americans’ faith in their government and their leaders. Burdened with this political disillusionment, American society in the 1970s was also underseige by economic decline and declining standards of living. For many Americans, the 1970s became a decade of transition–marked by confusion, frustration, and an overwhelming feeling that America had lost its direction, as if the very future of the “American experiment” and the “American Dream” might be in question. In the 1970s, Americans were faced with unresolved conflict and problems that challenged the very heart of the post-war liberal consensus; they faced economic stagnation and recession, increasing poverty, decline in their standards of living, fears that the American Dream was becoming harder and harder to achieve, and bitter divisions over America’s fundamental cultural values.
Like many Americans, the members of Sly & The Family Stone started to lose their direction. In particular, Sly Stone’s life became consumed by drugs, and his behavior became more and more erratic. As for the band’s creative output, a collection of greatest hits was put out in 1970.
Though Greatest Hits is an amazing collection of songs and was listed on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, it still indicates an eighteen-month dry spell within which the band didn’t record any new tracks, even though their contract required an album released in 1970. Sly’s drug use caused him to miss recording sessions, Epic Records needed an album, and Greatest Hits was born.
Then, in 1971, Sly & The Family Stone broke the eighteen month dry spell. There’s a Riot Goin’ On reflected the American decline that Lewis wrote about. The album is much different from Stand! Though no less funky, Riot is much more introspective. While Stand! was about celebration, Riot is about tension. In one of my favorite Riot tracks, “Africa Talks to You ‘The Asphalt Jungle,'” this line repeats:
Timber… all fall down!
Timber… who’s around!
Watch out, ’cause the summer gets cold…
When today gets too old!
Indeed, the summer of 1969 got cold, America was trying to mend its wounds, and Sly & The Family Stone put it into song. Rolling Stone (in the link above) wrote, “Stone discovered his utopia had a ghetto, and he brilliantly tore the whole thing down on 1971’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On.”
Though There’s a Riot Goin’ On was met with some hostility upon its release, it has increasingly become a landmark achievement not only for Sly & The Family Stone, but for all music. Both Riot and Stand! are, like most brilliant music, both of their time and ahead of it.
In 1968, Sly Stone wrote “Dance to the Music.” Almost immediately, Sly & The Family Stone recorded it and submitted it to Epic Records where it was an instant hit, reaching #8 the Billboard Top 100.
However, there are some who believe that Sly & The Family Stone’s first hit was not “Dance to the Music,” but rather a different song under a completely different band name.
In 1967, Sly & The Stoners (Sly’s band) and Freddie & The Stone Souls (led by Sly’s brother, Freddie Stone) combined to make the original lineup of Sly & The Family Stone. It was in this same year, a year before he composed “Dance to the Music,” when Sly wrote a song called “Life and Death in G & A” for A & M Records.
Even though “Life in Death in G & A” was written 1n 1967, it didn’t actually chart until 1969, making it all the way to #74. So, if this recording were actually recorded by the newly formed Sly & The Family Stone, it would technically be their first recorded single.
The listed members of Abaco Dream are Paul Douglas, David Williams, Dennis Williams, Frank Malo, and Mike Sassano. So, either they recorded a very Sly & The Family Stone-style song written by Sly himself or, for some reason, the actual Sly & The Family Stone decided to get into the studio soon after deciding to become a band and release a song under the name Abaco Dream.
The most notable musicologist to pose that “Life and Death in G & A” is actually a Sly & The Family Stone recording was Joel Whitburn in his book Top Pop Singles 1955-1999 in which he offers extensive research on all of the Billboard singles between these years. Impressive.
And, at least for me, it’s pretty easy to believe Whitburn’s theory. The song certainly sounds like Sly & The Family Stone – the ever present bass line laying strong foundation, electric guitar fills at opportune moments, and, of course, the inescapable power of the horn section that doesn’t let up.
Still, whether you believe that Abaco Dream’s “Life and Death in G & A” was performed by Sly & The Family Stone or not, it’s an interesting little mystery in funk music. More importantly, it’s a pretty cool song written by then relatively-fresh-on-the-scene Sly Stone.
When I think of funk music, I think of Sly & The Family Stone. The band, which formed in 1967, revolutionized funk, soul, R&B, however you want to categorize them. But really, they revolutionized music in general.
Now, that phrase is thrown around a lot. That band “revolutionized music.” However, in the case of Sly & The Family Stone, it’s true. What’s more, their influence is tangible, we can actually hear a difference in music pre-Sly & The Family Stone versus post-Sly & The Family Stone, and it’s pretty cool to hear.
Brian Eno sums it up nicely:
[i]f you listen to records from the ’50s, you’ll find that all the melodic information is mixed very loud. … and the rhythmic information is mixed rather quietly. … from the time of Sly and the Family Stone’s Fresh album (1973), there’s a flip over, where the rhythm instruments, particularly the bass drum and bass, suddenly become the important instruments.
Before Sly & The Family Stone, the mix was focused on the melody and all of its ornaments. You can hear this in a song like The Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up Little Susie.”
In the mix, Don and Phil’s vocals and guitar are the main highlights, while the only drum we really hear is the higher pitched snare. This was the sound of the time. When Sly & The Family Stone hit the scene in the late 60s, music had already evolved from The Everly Brothers, but the evolution was about to speed up.
Eno cites Fresh as the album that brought about the shift to drum and bass, and I wouldn’t argue with him. I mean…he is Brian Eno. Still, Sly & The Family Stone’s focus on drum and bass can be heard as early as their first album A Whole New Thing (1967). For example, listen to “Bad Risk.”
Still, Fresh really does indicate a sea change in music. Suddenly, the bass players and drummers were the most important people on stage. To hear this change, check out “In Time.” Why this song as opposed to another track off of Fresh? Because apparently Miles Davis was so blown away by this song that he had his band sit and listen to it on repeat for 30 minutes straight. If it was that important to Miles, who are we to decide otherwise?