Back On The Right Track by Sly and The Family Stone

June 9, 2009

By 1979 Sly Stone had lost his money, his family, and his career. His label, Epic Records, had dropped him from their roster for lack of commercial success. His chronic tardiness and no shows for concert dates made it difficult for him to find work. It was against this background that he signed a contract with the Warner Brothers label.

Back On The Right Track was released by Sly & The Family Stone on November 3, 1979. The title represented Sly trying to reassure his fan base that everything was now OK and that the music would once again be as creative and relevant as it had been in the past. It may also have been Sly trying to convince himself as he had been down this comeback road before and would travel it again in the future. The problem was that Sly was not OK and would never be so again at least down to the present day.

All of Sly’s post Fresh work would always be found wanting as it did not come close to equaling the music from his classic albums. Anytime Sly Stone entered the studio after 1975 he had the legacies of There’s A Riot Goin’ On and Stand hanging around his neck.

Back On The Right Track is solid rather than brilliant. While it has a funk foundation to it, there is a definite lack of energy. There is also a sameness to many of the songs. When you combine all this with its shortness, just under 27 minutes, I can’t help but think that there is a basic laziness to it.

There are no truly great songs yet the album is listenable. Thirty years after its release it is representative of its time. Maybe its because I have probably not listened to it since its release or that it is now far enough removed from its predecessors to stand on its own.

There are a few tracks that stand a little above the rest. “Remembering Who You Are” has a nice groove as Sly pens some more autobiographical lyrics. At the time they were hopeful but today they ring a little hollow. “Shine It On” has some interesting keyboard sounds and may have been a direction Sly should have explored a bit more. “Sheer Energy” with its harmonica sound, also presents a nice funky groove.

This was the first album that Sly did not produce himself which may have hurt. I can’t help but think that while Cynthia Robinson and Freddie Stone make appearances, it is the absence of his original group that hurt him the most as they were able to turn his visions into brilliant reality.

In the final analysis Back On The Right Track will always be an afterthought for Sly & The Family Stone and that’s as it should be. It does prove that there ultimately comes a point when you cannot go back.

Heard You Missed Me, Well I’m Back by Sly and The Family Stone

June 9, 2009

Heard You Missed Me, Well I’m Back was the ninth and last album of original material that Sly Stone recorded for the Epic Label. 1975’s High On You had been credited to only Sly so now he returned to a group concept. The problem was The Family Stone, except for vocalist and trumpet player Cynthia Robinson, was long gone. A bevy of musicians were brought in to give the appearance of a working group, but ultimately it came down to basically another solo effort.

Sly continued to have problems outside the studio. Bankruptcy, divorce, and continual drug use led to him constantly missing concert dates. Musically the title was a statement that he was returning to his old style of music. In reality there were a few funk tracks but many of the songs came perilously close to a pop sound. It all added up to a critically panned album and a commercial disaster. It did not even make the Billboard top 200 and caused his long time label to drop him from their roster of artists. Likely adding insult to injury was that his former bass player, Larry Graham, and his group Graham Central Station, were a top selling funk group at the time.

This is yet another Sly album that I have not listened to in decades. When I place it in context of what was being released in 1976 it does not compare well. There are really only three tracks that have merit. The title song is the best of the lot. It is a classic funk track with a nice brass sound woven around very danceable rhythms. “Blessing In Disguise” has a mellow groove and an excellent lead vocal. “Everything In You,” likewise, has a nice vocal but its intertwining of horns and strings is what makes it interesting.

“Family Again” may be the weakest track and for some inexplicable reason was chosen as the lead — and what would be the sole — single release. In addition to just being boring, it featured Peter Frampton, which has got to be one of the odder pairings of the seventies.

Many of the other tracks just don’t measure up. In some ways they have an incomplete feel as ideas and themes are present but just don’t appear to have been properly finished. “Mother Is A Hippie” has a jam at the end that never settles down. “Nothing Less Than Happiness” has a nice bluesy feel but the vocal is weak. “Let’s Be Together” is Sly trying to fit into the popularity of the disco era.

Heard You Missed Me, Well I’m Back is a title Sly could ultimately not live up too. Except for a few decent songs it deservedly is a forgotten release. Today it is desired only by completists who wish to round out their Sly & The Family Stone collection.

High On You by Sly and The Family Stone

June 9, 2009

Sly Stone returned in late 1975 with what was essentially a solo release as the album does not officially credit Family Stone members yet still boasts the band’s name. It would set the tone for the rest of his career as, upon occasion, he would use former Family members but would mainly hire session musicians to fill in the sound where needed.

1975 found disco on the rise and funk established as a commercially viable musical form. High On You would be a product of its time. It may not have been cutting edge but it contained some pleasurable and accessible funky moments. It was now such groups as The Ohio Players who were breaking new ground as a listen to their Skin Tight, Honey, and Fire albums will quickly verify.

In some ways it is amazing that Sly was able to produce an album at all. Drugs and the disintegration of family and group had taken their toll. While not of the caliber of such classics as Stand, There’s A Riot Goin’ On, or Dance To The Music, it proved that he could still produce credible and listenable music.

The first three tracks are excellent. “I Get High On You,” which is sort of an autobiographical connector between drugs and women contains pop/funk rhythms and is as energetic as anything Sly would produce during the seventies. “Crossword Puzzle,” with its often humorous lyrics, is another party song which Sly was so expert at crafting. Here it is the use of brass that drives the song along. “That’s Lovin’ You” is the only true ballad on the album and Sly manages a clear voiced and emotional performance. If the other seven tracks had been as good we may have had something here.

“So Good To Me” does contain a nice bass line and “Green Eyed Monster Girl” has some interesting keyboard work that meanders in and out of the mix throughout the song. However, such songs as “Le Lo Li,” “Greed,” “My World,” “Organize,” and “Who Do You Love?” are basically Sly trying to reinvent himself and only ending up as a shallow imitation of his best work.

When thinking of the music of Sly & The Family Stone, High On You is usually a forgotten afterthought. In fact, my vinyl copy does not leave the shelf. It is, however, interesting in places and a good example of seventies music. In the final analysis, though, it remains an inoffensive but ultimately non-essential release.

Small Talk by Sly & The Family Stone

June 8, 2009

Sly & The Family Stone had climbed the mountain but by July 1974 they were beginning their descent. Drugs, not appearing for concerts, and tensions within the group formed the background for the recording of Small Talk. While the album would include some credible material and be a commercial success, the creativity of Stand and There’s A Riot Goin’ On had departed.

Sly & The Family Stone were now not alone in the funk field. Hundreds of groups had taken Sly’s legacy and run with it. Artists such as Earth, Wind & Fire, George Clinton, Graham Central Station, Mandrill, and even the godfather of soul, James Brown, had superseded Sly’s sound. Groups such as The Ohio Players had taken the rhythms and controversial messages and modernized them, which essentially made Sly obsolete.

Small Talk found Sly Stone putting everything on cruise control. There was not much innovation; yet nor was there anything terrible, either. Bassist Larry Graham and drummer Greg Errico had both departed the group and Sly compensated by moving a number of tracks in a soul direction.

“Small Talk,” while not a ballad, would be a gentle and idealistic song of family. The album cover would show a happy and domesticated Sly holding his child. While a nice track, it would ultimately ring hollow as a quick divorce followed. Likewise, “Mother Beautiful” was a heartfelt ode to his mom.

The best track was “Loose Booty” as it was one of the few true funk songs on the album. Sly cranked up the brass and the song just gets into a hand clapping party groove.

On the other hand, “Say You Will,” “Holdin’ On.” and “Wishful Thinkin’” are OK but more was expected from Sly. “Can’t Strain My Brain,” with its use of strings, and the almost silly Doo-Wop type song, “This Is Love,” are less than average.

In the final analysis, Small Talk has a few classic moments but not enough to raise it above the average. If you would like to invest some time with Sly & The Family Stone, this is not a place to start.

Fresh by Sly & The Family Stone

June 8, 2009

Sly & The Family Stone returned in 1973 with the third in the trilogy of what would become their most celebrated, influential, and commercial releases. Stand was joyous and funky while There’s A Riot Goin’ On would be a mature solidification of their funk rhythms but contain dark and brutally realistic lyrics, making it a difficult listen. Fresh would be a compromise between the two, remaining solidly in the funk tradition but with a more commercial sound. In addition, the lyrics, while cynical in places, would not be as biting or harsh as their last album.

While the group would produce several more good albums, Fresh would be the last excellent one. After its release Sly and the group would begin a downward trend both artistically and personally.

Tensions among the group members had finally forced Larry Graham to depart and form his own group, Graham Central Station. His voice and particularly his bass playing, which had been so instrumental to the group’s sound and identity, would be missed. Drugs would continue to be prevalent for Sly and some others, causing them to continually miss or be hours late for concerts.

Despite all of the above, it seems as if Sly was having some fun. It may not have been as joyous as his early releases but at least it brought a smile or two.

“If You Want Me To Stay” would be their final top twenty hit. The track was almost a solo creation by Sly and was a rebuttal to his critics and detractors. Musically it moved his funky sound in a pop direction, which made it very accessible for radio play. “Let Me Have It All” is one of the most soulful tunes that the group would produce. “Keep On Dancing” was an update of their earlier hit “Dance To The Music.”

Not all the social commentary was left behind. “Babies Makin’ Babies” deals with the then and still-current issue of very young people having children. “Skin I’m In” was another foray into the area of race relations.

One of the most puzzling tracks that Sly & The Family Stone would ever produce was a cover of the 1956 Oscar-winning song “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be),” which became a theme song for Doris Day and her television show. This easy listening piece of fluff has been covered by many artists over the years, including the immortal Chipmunks, but Sly’s funky version is the most bizarre.

Rolling Stone Magazine would rank Fresh at number 186 on their list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. While difficult times lay ahead for Sly Stone, he was able to create one last masterpiece.

There’s A Riot Goin’ On by Sly & The Family Stone

June 8, 2009

If you want a musical hint of what There’s A Riot Goin’ On is all about just track down the original LP release and look at the red, white, and black American flag with suns instead of stars dominating the cover.

A lot happened to Sly & The Family Stone and to America in the nearly two years between studio albums. The civil rights movement, riots in major cities, political assassinations, and The Vietnam War dominated the news. Sly and other members of the group had found hard drugs and were constantly late for concerts when they bothered to show up at all. Tensions were high as Sly was at odds with Larry Graham and brother Freddie. Against this background they would produce a brilliant album that remains a statement of the time.

There’s A Riot Goin’ On is far removed from the joyful and exuberant Stand and Dance To The Music. Its lyrics are dark, uncompromising, urgent, and frighteningly realistic. They were also set to some of the best funky rhythms ever produced. It would resonate with the public as it became the group’s only chart topping album in The United States.

The title song clocked in at 0:00 which gave an indication of Sly Stone’s mind set. On the other hand “Family Affair” would be the number one song in America for three weeks and Rolling Stone magazine would rank it as the 138th greatest song of all time. It featured on of the first usages of a programmed rhythm section. Sly and Sister Rose sang about the positives and negatives of family life.

Most of the tracks would present a challenging listen. “Runnin’ Away” is about responsibility or the lack there of. “Spaced Cowboy” just wanders aimlessly. “Just Like A Baby” has got to be one of the most depressing songs of the early seventies. “Thank You For Talkin’ Me To Africa” was a remake of their hit “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).” It is dramatically slowed down and the remarkable bass playing gives it a whole new feel.

If you want to explore the world of 1971 then this is an album for you. If you want to hear a fully formed funk sound that would reverberate down through music history then again this is an album for you. It certainly is not Sly Stone’s easiest listen but it may be his most creative release. There’s A Riot Goin’ On is like a black hole in space sucking you in and never letting you out again.

Greatest Hits by Sly & The Family Stone

June 7, 2009

1969 ended with Sly & The Family Stone becoming one of the leading concert attractions in the world. In late ’68 their single “Everyday People” reached number one on the American charts and ’69 found its parent album becoming a huge commercial success; it would sell three million copies. Combine that with a dynamic performance at the legendary Woodstock and Sly and company were riding high. They went back into the studio to work of their Star album, but only managed to complete three tracks before abandoning the sessions. It would be almost two years between studio albums.

Their label would assemble a Greatest Hits album to fill the gap. It would be a wise move on the part of Epic Records as it would become their most successful album reaching number two on Billboard’s charts. It would also effectively close out the first phase of their career. Their next album, There’s A Riot Goin’ On,” would be brilliant but far darker as the biting lyrics would deal with controversial issues. The joyous feel of their first four releases would be left behind.

Greatest Hits would take not only the best but the most exuberant tracks from their first four releases and add the three tracks that had been recorded for their unissued album. These tracks would also be released as successful singles which would propel the album up the charts and keep the group in the public eye.

“Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again)/Everybody Is A Star” would be a very strong two sided single and the second number one hit of their career. “Everybody Is A Star” continued the trend of Sly, Larry Graham, Freddie Stone, and Sister Rose trading lead vocal lines. This was one of the smoothest flowing tunes that the group would produce. “Thank You” was the A side of the release and presented their funk sound as fully developed.

While the lyrics would hint at a different direction for the group, Larry Graham’s slap bass technique and Greg Errico’s drum rhythms would make it one of the most influential songs of its era. The third song, “Hot Fun In The Summertime,” would be another huge hit as it would top out at number two on the National charts. The lyrics, which could be interpreted as both fun and an examination of the race riots of the time, was another funky and melodic delight. If these three songs were representative of the vision of the uncompleted album, then it was indeed a great loss.

The other tracks are everything that was good about the group. “I Want To Take You Higher,” “Dance To The Music,” “Sing A Simple Song,” “Stand,” and “Everyday People” are some of the best songs of the late sixties.

In some ways Greatest Hits is now obsolete as it has been superseded by bigger and more complete compilations. On the other hand these twelve tracks form a wonderful unit that present Sly & The Family Stone at its joyous best. It’s still worth tracking this album down because if you have a pulse you’ll want to get up and “Dance To The Music.”

Stand by Sly & The Family Stone

June 7, 2009

Sly & The Family Stone released their fourth album in May of 1969. Stand remains one of the better albums of the late sixties. Its influence as an early example of funk music would reverberate down to the present day.

Stand would be a huge commercial success and eventually sell over three million copies. Several months after its release, the group would perform a historic set at Woodstock. Part of their performance would be captured on film for the resulting movie and issued on the accompanying soundtrack album. It would add to the group’s reputation and help make them one of the top concert draws in the world.

The songs contained on the album were a rare combination of catchy music with socially conscious lyrics. The message would be positive and the music exuberant. Larry Graham’s slap style of bass playing and Greg Errico’s rhythmic drumming would be copied for decades. Rolling Stone Magazine would rank the album at number 118 on their list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

Two classic songs would highlight the album. “Everyday People” would hit number one on Billboards pop charts and remains as one of the signature songs of its time. It’s line “Different strokes for different folks,” was memorable. Its upbeat message of harmony and peace was an attractive alternative to much of what was being released at the time.

“I Want To Take You Higher” is about as high energy as a song can get. Sly, Freddie, Larry Graham, and sister Rose would continue the group’s tradition of trading lead vocals. While there is no overt message contained in the lyrics, it would be adopted as an anthem by the Woodstock generation. The songs lyrical refrain of “higher” was often assumed, though never confirmed, to refer to a drug connotation.

One strong track would follow another. “Stand” featured a lead vocal by Sly and superior guitar playing from brother Freddie. The inclusion of some gospel near the end helped to under score its brilliance. “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey” dealt with the topic of racism with its chant like lyrics. “Sex Machine” is a thirteen minute jam that brings out all the instrumental strengths that the group members possessed. “Sing A Simple Song,” with lyrics exploring the realities of life, contains some more creative lead guitar licks.

The only track that seemed a little out of place was “Somebody’s Watching You.” This song had a darker edge, through its message of paranoia and would be a glimpse of what lay ahead for Sly Stone and the group.

Stand remains one of the crowning achievements for Sly & The Family Stone. If you have any interest in the music of the late sixties and early seventies or just want a superior listening experience, then this album is essential to your collection.

Life by Sly & The Family Stone

June 7, 2009

Life was the third album released by Sly & The Family Stone and their second of 1968. While it was a very good album in its own right, it had the back luck to be issued between the exuberant Dance To The Music and the five-star Stand.

Life would be a bit more undisciplined than the two previously mentioned albums. It would take the fusions of Dance To The Music and split them into their parts before they were re-assembled on Stand. The songs are psychedelic, soul, blues, and some straight funk. The album would also not contain a successful single, which would hurt it commercially.

What would be consistent would be the guitar virtuosity of Freddie Stone, the fuzz bass tones of Larry Graham, and drum rhythms of Greg Errico. Sly Stone would continue to experiment with multiple lead vocalists who would trade lines within the same song. Rosie Stone was now a secure part of the band and Cynthia Robinson would interject scattered trumpet notes and vocal ad-libs throughout many of the tracks.

“Dynamite” would feature a classic psychedelic opening guitar line by Freddie Stone. “M’Lady” would be a foray into straight funk with over-the-top production. “Plastic Jim” had cutting lyrics about how people act and has a blues feel to it.

Sly would begin to explore lyrical themes that would reappear on future releases. “Harmony” which really takes off after a disjointed beginning and “Love City” explored integration and love of neighbor. “Jane Is A Groupie” is self explanatory as it told the story of fans who follow bands. The title song began the exploration of the themes of life’s realisms which would recur over and over again in the future.

The best track may be “Into My Own Thing” with its familiar horns, organ, bass, and drums going in all directions yet returning to create a classic Sly & The Family Stone sound.

Life is one of those releases that contains a lot of very good parts that add up to an album that’s above average, but not brilliant. Two albums within the same year may have been a little much for the group at this stage of their career. However, it did set the stage for several of the best and most influential albums in American music history that would follow during the next several years.

A Whole New Thing by Sly & The Family Stone

June 7, 2009

I remember searching for this album for quite awhile. I did not start listening to Sly & The Family Stone with any regularity until after Woodstock. Albums such as Dance To The Music and Life were huge commercial successes and easy to find but A Whole New Thing was another matter. I think I finally found a copy at a record convention, at an exorbitant price no doubt, but it was the key to completing my run of Sly Stone releases.

Sly & The Family Stone was formed in 1966 from the remnants of Sly & The Stoners and his brother’s band, Freddie & The Stone Souls. A Whole New Thing was their debut album released in 1967. It contained no hit singles, sold very few copies, and quickly disappeared into the bargain bins at local record stores. The album deserved better. It may not have been of the quality and as essential as what would follow but it still remains a fun listen and the first release in a career that would propel Sly & The Family Stone along a creative road that would eventually lead to their 1993 induction into The Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame.

A Whole New Thing would not have the political bite or sociological commentary of there later releases. It would, however, contain early elements of Sly Stone’s vision of fusing rhythm and blues with psychedelic rock.

The first track, “Underdog,” quickly establishes the Sly sound as funky horns weave in and out of his keyboards and drummer Greg Errico and bassist Larry Graham lay down a strong foundation that would form the under pinning of this and future releases.

There are two wonderful ballads which were written by Sly Stone but who leaves the lead vocals to other group members. “That Kind Of Person” which is sung by Freddie Stone and “Let Me Hear It From You” by Larry Graham are R&B influenced and about as good as what was coming out of Motown at the time.

“Run Run Run,” with its early fuzz tone guitar, and “If This Room Could Talk” are just joyful fun and the type of performances that the group would be associated with in concert. The soul tune, “I Can’t Turn You Loose,” is played at a frenetic pace.

A Whole New Thing was a nice debut album. It may not have lived up to its title but the group would quickly do so within a few years. Today it remains an undeserved forgotten album by a group that influenced American music. It is worth seeking out but just don’t over pay for it.