When former KSOL DJ Sly Stone formed the Family Stone, he brought together an eclectic group of black and white (not to mention male and female) musicians, an idea that was pretty much unfamiliar to the mainstream music scene. Close to forty years after releasing their first album, Epic Records releases a seven-CD box set, which includes all their group albums, plus a few alternate takes and some previously unreleased material.
Over the course of their first three albums, Sly and the Family Stone got their sea legs, mixing rock and funk, and laying down the foundation for what would become known as the San Francisco sound. Then they hit their stride with their 1969 album, Stand! It’s simply one of the best albums of the period — a tribute to liberty, fraternity, equality, and all the stuff you learn about on Sesame Street. Songs like “Stand,” “You Can Make It If You Try,” and “I Want to Take You Higher” expressed optimism amid civil rights era strife. Before it was appropriated as a jingle to sell Toyotas, “Everyday People” was an inspirational message that people could respect each other’s differences and live together in peace and love. Even edgier, rougher fare like “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey” maintained an underlying message of understanding.
Then the disillusionment kicked in. As the ’60s turned into the ’70s, the Vietnam War still raged, racial unrest was as prevalent as ever, and music really wasn’t making the world a better place. The drugs soon followed and the group’s music reflected the rampant cynicism that pervaded the grand celebration of “Me” in the ’70s. The sound of the There’s a Riot Going On and Fresh was darker, fuzzier, and almost spaced out. But despite the group’s collective state of mind, the music stayed brilliant. Tracks like “Poet,” “(You Caught Me) Smilin’,” “Babies Making Babies,” “Just Like a Baby,” and “In Time” are some of the funkiest songs recorded by any artist or group.
By the mid-’70s release of Small Talk, however, the Family Stone turned into a standard episode of VH1’s Behind the Music. Small Talk isn’t a bad album, but a lesser one because of the turmoil. “Time for Living” was a second-tier “You Can Make It,” and even the album’s hit, “Loose Booty,” sounded like a Funkadelic outtake. The group soon disbanded.
Since then, Sly Stone has become one of the great enigmas of music. He recorded a few solo albums using the Sly and the Family Stone name, and then became a recluse, almost completely disappearing into a world of drugs and paranoia. He occasionally resurfaces, once at the 1993 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony to accept his award. And again at the 2006 Grammys, where he embarrassed himself by sporting a blond mohawk, warbling a verse of “I Want to Take You Higher,” and wandering off the stage soon after. The other original members of the group reunited with Sly noticeably absent, but these performances must seem like watching the Rolling Stones doing a medley during the Super Bowl halftime show. The music sounds familiar, but the feeling is gone.