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OPINION: Sly, Family Stone set highly recommended

June 27, 2013
By MARK J. MILLER - Weekender co-editor , The Herald-Star

This week I review a Sony Legacy upcoming box set highlighting the artistically towering work of Sly and the Family Stone.

Sly and the Family Stone, "Higher!"

This upcoming four CD box set from Sony Legacy - set to be released Aug. 27 - is a fascinating look inside the mind of a true musical futurist while at the same time giving fans tons of unreleased material and a fabulous booklet describing the multi-racial band's journey, ultimate success and disintegration.

It's hard to look back on the work of a true visionary and not feel regret and sympathy for what might have become. What happened to Sly Stone? Very few artists reach the peaks artistically and commercially and then disappear almost completely as Sly did.

I saw him on an awards show some years back where he sort of "performed," said some very odd things and was sporting a yellow mohawk - not exactly becoming on a 60-something-year-old man. The network hyped his "comeback," but it was clear Sly was still stuck somewhere no one else wanted to be.

An influence from everyone from Miles Davis to Prince to Public Enemy, Sly Stone started out as the real thing - a driven young man who also was a disc jockey who was positively convinced of his own talents.

During the early 1960s, Sly tried to make it as a solo artist, putting out a slew of odd singles with titles like "I Just Learned How to Swim" and "Scat Swim" on the fly-by-night Autumn record label. None of this really sounds like what we would hear a few years later, but it did show a propensity for the odd, something that would become more pronounced as Sly and the band progressed later in the decade.

The first disc is full of these misses and demos by Sly, none of them really memorable but interesting, nevertheless.

The second disc, which covers the years 1967-68 shows Sly still struggling to find a consistent voice, although he now has an affiliation with Epic records. By the middle of the disc we get our first "hit" record, which also happens to be the best of the lot with "Dance to the Music." He also had formed the basics of the band that would be with him for the next several years, including attracting innovative bassist Larry Graham, who was a big part of the band's sound.

Disc three opens with the monster hit - still heard on TV commercials today - "Everyday People," a glorious blast of rock, R&B and even gospel that is still thrilling to hear today. This is followed by several excellent songs that also happened to dominate AM radio for the next several months, including "I Get High on You," the sublime "I Want to Take You Higher," "Hot Fun in the Summertime," "Stand!," "Everybody is a Star," "You Can Make it if You Try" and the unforgettable "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)."

This was, and still sounds, like joyous music, with Sly's multi-racial band reflecting the times that be. Everyone was settling into a groove, and everyone was getting along with peaceful vibes, or at least that's what Sly's music was telling us.

As the time changed and turned darker toward the end of the 1960s, so did Sly's music. Whether it was the temper of the times; the dark news of the day, including the Vietnam War; a turn toward hard drugs; the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy -all of a sudden the nation's mood turned darker and uglier. What's fascinating is Sly's music followed that course.

Disc four begins with "Luv N' Haight," where Sly dismantles the hippie dream and begins to turn paranoid as personal troubles hit Sly, the band and the nation. "Family Affair" is basically autobiographical, with Sly's vocals at times almost inpenetrable, as if he's, well ... stoned. A brilliant piece of dark music aside, "Family Affair" in one of my favorite Sly Stone songs because of its sheer funkiness that stood out in contrast to the sunny hits of AM radio of the day.

The last really great song by the band further hints not all was well inside Sly's mind, as "You Caught Me Smiling" sounds positive on the surface, but much darker lyrically and musically. The original band would fall apart soon after that, and Sly and the family Stone's albums "Fresh" and "Small Talk," both of which had their moments, both released in the mid-1970s, began to sound tired and somewhat dated.

But to me, "There's a Riot Going On" would stand as one of the capstones of the end of the 1960s, a brilliant album that also told of real damage in the band and the nation. It also was the most "real" album the band ever produced, a masterpiece of funk, R&B, rock and gospel-inspired vocals that hit the nail on the head.

The box set is filled with unreleased gems, live TV appearances as well as four cuts live at the Isle of Wight festival, often referred to as the British Woodstock.

The story and box set end at 1977, about the time Sly disappeared. But what he left behind is music that endures and inspires to this day. It's highly recommended.

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