Sly and the Family Stone

In the pantheon of rock and soul music, there has never been a band quite like Sly and the Family Stone. Or said better, there was never a band quite like them prior to their existence. In their heyday – roughly 1968 to 1973 – they not only had a number of Top 40 hits but they were also popular on FM radio. It is impossible to overstate their importance to rock especially funk-based rock. Music critic Joel Selvin said of them, “there are two types of black music: black music before Sly Stone, and black music after Sly Stone” (born Sylvester Stewart).

So what was it about them that made them so influential? Well, for starters they were the first band to have not only a racially integrated band but also to have women not just as singers, or as dancers, or for sex appeal but as musicians. In a recent post, I mentioned trumpet player Cynthia Robinson, a firebrand who passed away all too soon.

But it was what they played not how they looked that spoke most loudly. Not spoke – shouted! They created a melange of rock, funk, psychedelia, blues and soul. According to Allmusic, “Wah-wah guitars, distorted fuzz basslines, church-styled organ lines, and horn riffs provided the musical backdrop for the vocals of the band’s four lead singers.”

And that “slapping” style of bass eventually used by everybody? (Parliament/Funkadelic, Flea of Chili Peppers, Stanley Clarke, e.g.) Invented by their bass player Larry Graham who later formed a band called Graham Central Station. Check out “Thank You (Falettinme Be Be Mice Elf Again)”:

During these crucial years, the band’s music evolved. Still very much what they initially were, they did fewer upbeat funk-based songs but a greater number of thoughtful, slow jams. This one, “Family Affair” is about – or seems to be about – not only all families but the Family Stone in particular. (Several of the band members were related). I had a really hard time choosing which songs to pick for this post as there’s so many good ones. But in the end, I went with “Family Affair” because it shows a different side of the band. It was a number one hit and is on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time. (#139)

The band’s influence was not restricted to just the rock, soul and Motown crowd but also to jazzers such as Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis. According to Wikipedia, “Davis was so impressed by the song “In Time” from the album {“Fresh”) that he made his band listen to the track repeatedly for a full 30 minutes.”

The band did what was, for me, one of the most electrifying performances at Woodstock. It’s about 14 minutes long so if you get a chance, check it out on YouTube. In the meantime, I keep listening to this meaty, funky tune over and over again. It’s called “M’lady” and it’s from their 1968 album, “Life.” It just cooks!

Their legacy? In addition to influencing music in just about every genre, they’ve been covered by artists such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Roots, Maroon 5, Black Eyed Peas, just to name a few. John Legend, Joss Stone and Van Hunt covered “Family Affair.” Stevie Wonder, Prince, Chuck D, and have acknowledged the band’s inspiration. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.

One last thing: On October 4th and 5th, 1968, the band played the legendary Fillmore East. The shows were recorded for an album and never released. Till, for some reason, a few months ago. You can find the whole album up on YouTube. It does not suck.

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