Sly and the Family Stone, Fresh

The #albumoftheweek visits a joyful looking album that has some ominous shadows around the edges, along with some of the greatest funk ever.

Album of the Week, September 30, 2023

I want to take a moment before I start this week’s Album of the Week to talk about Larry Graham, who is not on this album. But he was on the last Sly and the Family Stone album that I reviewed. I didn’t say a lot about him then, but as the first bass player for Sly and the Family Stone, the inventor of the slap bass technique, the founder of funk band Graham Central Station, a key collaborator with Prince in the 1990s (credited with introducing the Purple One to Jehovah’s Witnesses!)—his funk bona fides are without question. So when I say that somehow, this first album by Sly and the Family Stone to not feature Graham is even funkier than the ones that came before, it says something about the sheer amount of funk rolling around in Sly Stone’s being.

Sonically the record feels slightly more subdued than Stand!, perhaps because of the shift away from guitars to a more drum and bass driven sound. According to legend, Miles Davis made his band listen to the opening song, “In Time,” on repeat for over thirty minutes; it’s hard to know if this actually happened, but Stephen Davis’s contemporaneous review of the album in Rolling Stone talks about Miles’s admiration for Sly, and you can hear some of the influence in the best of the early 1970s fusion material that Miles cut (for instance, on the Champions compilation). “In Time” repays that kind of close listening; it’s got everything from a rocking opening (here driven by organ and brass rather than guitars) to an intricate interlocking rhythm line that has enough going on that it confused the Rolling Stone reviewer into thinking that it was in 3/5 time. But the song is solidly in funk territory; as George Clinton once proclaimed, “everything is on the one.”

If You Want Me To Stay” is probably my favorite of Sly’s songs (though “Loose Booty,” from the follow up album Small Talk, is a superior funk jam). The simmering melody stays in a minor mode throughout, powered by a slinky bass line from Rusty Allen (or possibly Sly himself; it’s thought that he played all the instruments on this track). The lyrics are classic Sly word salad, but in the middle of it there’s the couplet “I’ll be good, I wish I could/get the message over to you now,” and there might not be a finer encapsulation of the “please take me back” archetype anywhere on record. It’s over in three minutes, but what a jam.

Let Me Have It All” is an ominous groove on a similar theme, with Sly directly asking “You set up a barrier/Don’t you know I’d marry ya/Can’t explain how you make me feel/Don’t you know I’m feeling real.” The song never moves off its opening minor chord, and is in and out before you know it, again clocking in under three minutes. The mood lightens slightly for “Frisky,” but the lyrics, which celebrate his drug use, are bleak in retrospect, as his habit made him progressively more unreliable and ultimately cost him his band and career.

Thankful ’n’ Thoughtful” lends an emotional core to the album. While powered by the same funk power, the track finds him singing his gratitude for being alive over that continuous groove. In what might be his only mention of his family on record, he reports “People got to be reminded where it’s really at/
Make your daddy happy and mama, your mama like it like that.” By contrast, “Skin I’m In” is a defiant statement that “if I could do it all over again/I’d be in the same skin I’m in.” The brief interlude contains one of the most complex harmonic chord progressions on the album, including a short bridge with a pulsating horn section that might be one of the great riffs in funk.

Side Two continues with “I Don’t Know (Satisfaction),” which might be a civil rights call to arms under the funk and Rolling Stones allusions. Sly’s lyrics feature a triple rhyme which lends punch to lines like “I see abuse, what’s the use/Time must let my people loose.” The song repeats the same groove over and over, building up to a crescendo before dropping to the fade out. “Keep on Dancin’” has a little more harmonic variety, opening with a downright threatening bass line before the backing vocalists sing the opening hook. The echo of the early Sly hit “Dance to the Music” lightens the track a bit, but there’s still the shadow of drug abuse lurking over the track with Sly saying “I’d get snowed in if I could.”

Perhaps the most unlikely track on the album is the band’s cover of “Qué Séra, Séra,” which begins as a more or less straight cover with Rose Stone singing the melody in a straight Doris Day voice. Then the chorus… the Family Stone take the tune to church, with Sly’s organ playing providing gospel notes under the family’s stacked harmonies.

If It Were Left Up to Me” is in a completely different vocal space from the rest of the album, featuring lead vocals from Rose Stone and harmonies from Little Sister. It was apparently recorded in 1970 for an intended Little Sister album, but was shelved until the song surfaced on Fresh. The melody is a breath of fresh air, carrying some of the optimism of the earlier Sly and the Family Stone albums.

Babies Makin’ Babies” is more in the pocket than the proceeding song, but still has some of the more ambitious harmonies and a great stacked-harmony chorus from Little Sister. Before I heard the track, I was convinced I was going to hear social commentary, but it turns out to be a funk chant with more word-salad lyrics. But what a funk chant! The groove is deep, folks.

Sly would record one more album, the aforementioned Small Talk, with the original Sly and the Family Stone, but his mental state had already begun deteriorating into paranoia and he started missing gigs. The band dissolved after booking Radio City Music Hall but only filling it to 1/8th capacity, having to scrape together money to make it back to Los Angeles. His subsequent career petered out by the mid-1980s. In 2010 he filed suit against his former manager, and was alleged to be homeless and living in a van in 2011. He is, apparently, still alive, and will release an autobiography this fall, but others have picked up the funk torch. We’ll hear from one of the most significant of those bands next week.

You can listen to today’s album here:

Sly and the Family Stone, Stand!

The #albumoftheweek swerves into the funk lane, checking out Sly and the Family Stone’s first big hit.

Album of the Week, September 16, 2023

After spending the better part of six months exploring the intersection of jazz and funk music through the catalog of CTI Records, I thought it might be fun to dig into the other side of the equation and talk about funk for a bit. This is going to be a brief, non-encyclopedic peek, because I don’t have some of the records that should really be at the foundation of this discussion. No James Brown, no Funkadelic… But I do have a few that I’ve wanted to write about for a while, so let’s dig in.

Sylvester Stewart was born in Texas in 1943, but his family moved to California when he was young, and you can hear it in his music—a sense of sunny optimism that shines through many of the tracks on Stand!. After singing in doo-wop groups and spending time as a DJ, he formed the band Sly and the Family Stone with his brother Freddie and his sister Rose, both of whom took the Stone stage name as their surnames. The band featured an integrated line-up, following the example of Sly’s high-school doo-wop group; an exciting line-up of vocalists; a great horn section; and the combination of Stone’s rock-influenced guitar and Larry Graham’s relentlessly funky bass.

All the group’s features are in full display on the album’s title track. “Stand!” starts out as a pretty straightforward rock song… for about four bars, until it changes keys in the second half of the verse. A chugging guitar and bass combo leads to the ecstatic chorus. The second verse follows the pattern of the first, and the second chorus starts the same way—and then an abrupt cut into funkytown plays out the last minute of the track, with an incredible syncopated bass pattern on the base and fifth from Larry Graham. Apparently Sly tested the song in a San Francisco club, got a lukewarm response, and went back and recorded the ending with a group of studio musicians.

The second track swerves hard into psychedelia. “Don’t Call Me N—, Whitey” has one of the great (if unprintable) titles of 1960s rock, and the verse (sung by Rose Stone) suggests irreconcilable racial tension and a weariness after the difficult 1960s:

Well, I went down across the country
And I heard two voices ring
They were talkin’ funky to each other
And neither other could change a thing

“Don’t Call Me N—, Whitey”

The rest of the track is pure psychedelic funk, with distorted vocals reminiscent of a harmonica solo over a fiery guitar solo. It wouldn’t be out of place on an early Funkadelic album.

I Want to Take You Higher” is one of the great bits of synthesis on the album, as the pessimistic blues funk of the second track meets the relentless singalong optimism of the first. A gutbucket harmonica line alternates between solo and backing as each of the band’s five vocalists takes turns on the verse, with stacked harmonies on the chorus. But the most amazing feature on the song has to be the locked in rhythm section, with Graham, drummer Larry Errico, a chugging rhythm guitar, and handclaps hold the line ominously and doggedly on the tonic. The narrator may want to take you higher, but something is decidedly anchoring him to something a lot lower.

Somebody’s Watching You” again starts out sounding like a pop song, with the verse’s alternating vocals from Sly and the Little Sister backing group over a great trumpet line from Cynthia Robinson. But Sly’s funky organ and the gospel inflected chorus bring the track out of the polite airwaves and into a much funkier place.

Sing a Simple Song” is a straight ahead funk onslaught, with the band’s secret weapon Rose Stone opening up with one of the bluesiest “yeah, yeah, yeah” openings on record. After the second verse everyone drops out except for drums and trumpet for a moment of pure funk satori. The instruments suddenly drop out behind the vocalists with ten seconds left in the track, to reveal Sly and Rose trading lines with Little Sister behind. It’s a stunner.

Everyday People,” ironically, had the longest afterlife of any song on the album, thanks to its use in the late 1990s by Toyota for an ad campaign. It deserves its fame for the great songwriting—a chugging bassline behind a low-pitched verse; the trumpet ratcheting up the tension to the chorus an octave higher, with the voices leaning in from the ninth; and the great B part with Rose Stone taunting all the haters to the tune of “Nanny, nanny, boo boo.” It’s the song that Larry Graham famously claims is the first ever use of slap bass. It’s the song that popularized the phrase “different strokes for different folks.” Is it therefore the song that we should blame for Gary Coleman’s career? I find it difficult to be too cynical while singing that chorus, though.

And then, “Sex Machine.” No relation to James Brown’s better known “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine,” this is the longest track on the album, clocking in at almost 14 minutes of pure funky jam. Sly returns to the vocal harmonica technique from “Don’t Call Me…” on this track for a lengthy improvisation, with Graham’s bass alternately walking up and dropping out. A five minute guitar solo follows, leading up to a crescendo and the return of the harmonica vocals. Another solo on fuzzed out guitar follows, and the track speeds up just a notch. Jerry Martini comes in on saxophone and blows through a key change from G to A, topping out with an ecstatic high A. The rest of the instruments fade out to reveal Eric’s drums; after four measures of the pattern that he had played for the last 12 minutes, he speeds up, soloing in double time, then slowly drops the speed until he is waiting several seconds between beats and someone calls “Time!”

The album closes out with “You Can Make It if You Try,” the only track not featuring Graham on bass; Sly played the instrument on this closing track, which opens with the chorus and alternating vocals on the verses. Then a moment that caught me by surprise—suddenly we get the organ and drum part that the Jungle Brothers famously sampled to create “Because I Got It Like That.” Again, Sly peels away the instruments until it’s just drums and backing vocals, then brings the guitar, organ, and bass back in one at a time for the final coda. It’s an optimistic finale to an improbably upbeat album.

The album was Sly’s first big commercial success, hitting 13 on the Billboard pop chart and 3 on the R&B album chart. “Everyday People” hit number one the week of February 15, 1969. Sly and the band enjoyed the success, maybe a little too much. We’ll hear another one from them in a few weeks, but next week we’ll hear how some of the funk sounds on this album influenced an unlikely musician…with help from someone we’ve heard many times before in this series.

You can listen to this week’s album here: