The Inimitability of Sly Stone

Today's R&B stars borrow liberally from their predecessors, but Sly Stone's production quirks and messy rhythms have rarely been duplicated.
Sly Stone performing at the Grammy Awards in 2006. (AP / Mark J. Terrill)

His mother’s none-too-pleased about the VMAs, but Robin Thicke’s bigger problems could come from a judge: A court may decide that his hit “Blurred Lines” bites too much from Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up,” released in 1977.

Thicke’s legal troubles are new, but there’s of course nothing new about musicians reworking what’s old. Contemporary artists routinely look back to the ‘60s and ‘70s to compose their music, tapping into people's instant recognition of a previously established sound. In R&B, this might mean emulating Diana Ross’s swing, James Brown’s propulsion, or Michael Jackson’s “ooh!” It is essentially a conservative move, and the resulting soul music—created by Thicke, Justin Timberlake, Raphael Saadiq, the Alabama Shakes, or even Daft Punk—cleanly updates what came before it, sometimes so accurately that people file lawsuits.

But not all ‘60s and ‘70s R&B singers are so easily distilled. A recently released four-disc box set, Higher!, honors a foundational figure whose tunes have turned out to be too off-kilter for this latest generation to sanitize and update: Sly Stone, who turned 70 this year. Sly embarked on a different sort of adventure, irreverently mashing up musical genres and unafraid to sound weird.

Sly Stone, originally Sylvester Stewart, involved himself with all aspects of pop music from an early age: working as a radio DJ, producing and scouting for Autumn Records, and playing in his own groups. He formed Sly & the Stoners in 1966, but soon merged the group with his brother Freddie’s band to create Sly & the Family Stone. Their debut album, A Whole New Thing, came out in October of 1967. Higher! uses 77 tracks (the label says that 17 of these are “previously unreleased,” though some can be found on other compilations like In The Studio With Sly Stone 1963 – 65 or The Autumn Records Story) to cover most of his career, from his early days working with garage-rock bands to his mid-‘70s funk recordings.

What made Sly & the Family Stone different from their comrades and competitors? The personnel, for starters: The Family Stone, an integrated group, contained both men and women. Sly also showed an early commitment to political music, addressing politics before a lot of people in R&B and rock did.

But Sly’s appeal lay principally in his songs’ quirks. The still-ubiquitous “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” landed one of the biggest bass lines pop music had ever seen, a slap in the face at the start of the song that made it impossible to ignore on its climb to No. 1. In contrast, “Family Affair” took a different, remarkably understated route to the same coveted chart location. Besides Sly’s bass, everyone else playing on the song—including Billy Preston, who had worked with Ray Charles and the Beatles, and Bobby Womack, a formidable soul guitarist—seemed to play as little as possible, especially when compared with the previous top pop hit, Isaac Hayes’s “Theme From Shaft,” a master-class in grand, orchestral build-and-release.

The bass in Family Stone tracks—usually handled by Larry Graham, who went on to form the group Graham Central Station—played a crucial role whose evolution listeners can track through the chronologically organized Higher! In 1979, Brian Eno noted that “[i]f you listen to records from the '50s, you'll find that all the melodic information is mixed very loud. ... and the rhythmic information is mixed rather quietly. ... from the time of Sly and the Family Stone's Fresh album [released in 1973], there's a flip over, where the rhythm instruments, particularly the bass drum and bass, suddenly become the important instruments.”

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Elias Leight writes about music and books for Paste and Popmatters.

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