When Sly Had Stones
Sylvester-or Sly as he is better known, created music that was driven from the heart, not the recording industry suits. It was a music that ushered the transition of rock & roll to just rock; it was a music that would become free of time limits and FCC restrictions; yet, at the same time always using words and euphemisms skillfully, always relevant, never wasting a word.
On Black Music Month
Back when music was music; when boy bands were called singing
groups—and they really knew how to sing—and bands were a group of
people who actually knew how to play an instrument; and songwriters
were people who sat down and thought up their own lyrics and musical
arrangements; there was a young Black man of great talent who was a
disc jockey and then a producer out of San Francisco named Sylvester
Stewart. Now a CD box set recalls the band that ushered in the era of
Sylvester Stewart actually started what would later on become known as
the “San Francisco Sound.” Today young white adults point to Seattle as
the beginning of rock music as they know it and Black young adults
point to the deep south, or dirty south, as the forerunner of rap
music. Few of them knew that the first thing Seattle had going was Jimi
Hendrix. How many Black youth can point to New York as the birthplace
of rap through such luminaries as the Last Poets back in '68, or
hip-hop a few years later in the Bronx?
Young people today would be hard-pressed to know how most of the
popular music of the ‘60’s and 70’s came from cities like Detroit,
Memphis and London and how, if it weren’t for Stewart there wouldn’t
have been a Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane (Starship) or
Funkadelic or a Bar-Kays or an Earth Wind and Fire as we have come to
know them today.
Sylvester-or Sly as he is better known, created music that was driven
from the heart, not the recording industry suits. It was a music that
ushered the transition of rock & roll to just rock; it was a
music that would become free of time limits and FCC restrictions; yet,
at the same time always using words and euphemisms skillfully, always
relevant, never wasting a word.
In time Sly would bring in his family and close friends, change the
family sir-name to Stone (can you imagine Sly and the family Stewart?),
an appropriate name since the word Stones or “stoned” was in. Back when
Rolling Stone was more of an underground newspaper, as opposed to the
slick entertainment magazine it is today, a March 19, 1970 cover-story
stated: “Almost 3 years before the ‘San Francisco Sound’ Sly produced
the very first rock and roll hits out of the city.” After
producing other bands Sly and his Stones would eventually take the
world by storm.
So a few weeks ago I took notice of a trade magazine review of the Sly
and the Family Stone box set, roughly seven years and seven CDs of
their most notable albums. It was well worth the $55 I shelled out. It
was music excitement, music revolution, evolution and sadly—thanks to
Sly’s irresponsible antics—music de-evolution.
The bothersome part is where are these Stones now that we desperately
need them? Where is Sly’s guitar-playing brother Freddie? Where is his
keyboard-playing sister Rose? Where is that incredibly talented bass
singer and bass-player Larry Graham? Where is his cousin; that cute
Cynthia Robinson and her rebel-blaring trumpet sound and her screaming
background voice? Where are the white boys; Saxophonist Jerry Martini
and his cousin drummer Greg Errico? In case you don’t know, we need
I’m calling on all of you, Find Sly, rough him up a little if
needed—just kidding—and drag him back in the studio immediately. The
set is a collection of the Family’s seven best known albums from their
first major release “A Whole New Thing” in ’67 and “Dance to the
Music;” their ’68 breakthrough album, to 1974’s “Small Talk.” Oddly
enough I find myself listening to “A Whole New thing” the most; which
comes as a surprise to me since I loved the CDs of their other LPs such
as “Stand,” “Life” and “Fresh.” “New Thing” has a raw hungry sound
indicative of a lot of artist’s first releases and several lead vocals
by Graham never hurts.
Absent from the collection are three songs that were hits but never
made it on any album except for a couple of their Greatest Hits; “Hot
Fun in the Summertime,” “Everybody is a Star,” and “Thank U Fa Lettinme
Be Miceself Again,” and the Family’s last album, 1980’s “Heard You
Missed Me, Well I’m Back,” which was not released by Epic like the
others. The band’s music is heavily sampled by hip-hop artists but
there is no substitute for the energy and message they brought to the
table. The Roots however profoundly invoke “Star” on the first song of
their “Tipping Point” CD.
The real tragedy of the group is their own self destruction initiated
by Sly’s drug use. The brother seems as lost and burned out as Pink
Floyd’s Syd Barret, only still walking. He probably thinks record
stores are still stocking 8-tracks and vinyl on their shelves.
Even back in the day, he’d become infamous for missing concerts. When
the band showed up for one of Sinbad’s funk festivals Sly was missing
and Larry Graham had to lead the group. Perhaps he was still clinging
to old grudges, or maybe he was just being himself. Talk about troubled
genius; Sly had skills and incredible influence on the music industry
in the beginning. He can make it again, if he tries a little harder and
digs a little deeper.
This is a great buy for Black Music Month.
Black Star Mews contributor Stevenson
is a columnist for the Buffalo Criterion and can be reached at
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