A gifted songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who created at least two classic albums in the form of Stand! and There’s A Riot Goin’ On, Sly Stone is now almost as famous for his subsequent 30-year retreat from the public eye. As rumours of a potential comeback circulate, David Davies examines the career of a man who developed a still-unsurpassed fusion of soul, funk and rock.
Music, it is clear, was there in Sly Stone’s life from the very beginning. Born Sylvester Stewart 64 years ago this May and adopting his famous soubriquet in his early ‘20s, Stone was brought up in a family steeped in gospel music. With his brother Freddie and sisters Rose and Vaetta – all of whom would one day play in Sly’s group, the Family Stone – he began performing regularly in churches around his parents’ home in the northern San Francisco Bay Area, to what was clearly some renown: the quartet cut a single in 1952 when Sly was a mere nine years old.
More significantly in terms of his later career, Stone quickly evinced an ability for all kinds of instruments, particularly guitar and keyboards. Spells in a number of high school bands ensued, with one act (The Viscaynes) releasing several singles, after which Stone spent several years working as a DJ and record producer. Finally, in the mid ‘60s, he set about establishing his own band – initially dubbed The Stoners, later renamed Sly & the Family Stone – to hone a musical vision that blended soul, funk and rock influences. The group also registered another laudable achievement – it was one of the first major acts to feature a fully integrated line-up of black, white, male and female performers.
With a formation that featured bass supremo Larry Graham and hornman Jerry Martini, the fledgling group was soon signed to Epic to record a somewhat patchy debut album, A Whole New Thing. In fact, despite a number of striking singles in the early years – notably ‘Dance to the Music’, contained on the 1968 album of the same name – it was not until fourth album Stand! (1969) that the group’s ambitious musical objectives were finally realised. A still-staggering assembly of styles and social comment, Stand! captured perfectly the instability of life in America in the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination the previous year. From the window-rattling title track, through the six intense minutes of ‘Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey’ to the inspirational closer, ‘You Can Make It If You Try’, the album marked the maturation of Sly’s formidable skills as singer, player, writer and producer
In the long tradition of the seeds of destruction being planted at the moment of greatest triumph, however, there was a downside to Sly’s growing fame and wealth – his newfound taste for cocaine and PCP. Within a year of Stand!’s release, occasional indulgence in the wretched stuff had become something like dependence, inevitably affecting both Stone’s reliability – he failed to turn up to a number of shows in the early ‘70s – and his creative output. Fortunately for us, there was to be one more unblemished triumph before the fog really descended – 1971’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On. With a diminished contribution from the Family Stone, Sly played the majority of the instruments on an album that, like Stand!, was brilliantly evocative of its times. Heavy on slow, fractured grooves and murky of mix, There’s A Riot Goin’ On acknowledged the growing sense of hopelessness felt by many in America about the situation at home and abroad (notably the escalating nightmare of the Vietnam War).
There certainly wasn’t much reason for optimism in Sly’s camp as the ‘70s dragged on, with Larry Graham leaving the band in 1972 and its leader remaining unpredictable. Despite this, 1973’s Fresh was more upbeat than its predecessor and, in ‘If You Want Me to Stay’ and an unlikely cover of ‘Que Sera, Sera’, did contain some great moments. The same couldn’t really be said of the following year’s Small Talk, and the story beyond that album is sadly one of ever-diminishing returns. Unable to secure regular concert bookings, the band fell apart in the middle of the decade and, notwithstanding occasional comeback bids like 1979’s Back On the Right Track (he wasn’t) and collaborations with Funkadelic, Sly gradually retreated from the scene. After a conviction for possession and use of cocaine in 1987, it really did seem to be all over for a man once alive with talent and ambition.
But is it? The last few years have brought a steady flow of rumours about a possible revival, although a mohican-sporting appearance at the 2006 Grammy Awards – where Sly was reportedly on stage for just three minutes – remains his only indication of a return to live performance. But with remastered, bonus-track-enhanced versions of Sly’s first seven albums reaching shops this month, perhaps the time is finally right. At the very least, it’s certainly an ideal moment to revisit a body of work that, at its best, offered an unequalled evocation of America in changing times and set it all to infectious and utterly original music.
A Whole New Thing, Dance to the Music, Life, Stand!, There’s A Riot Goin’ On, Fresh and Small Talk are reissued by Epic/Legacy on April 9. There will also be a limited edition box set containing all seven CDs.