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.”

This process of reversal actually began earlier in Sly’s career. In another well-known track from 1969, “I Wanna Take You Higher,” the bass took on the sound of a siren pulsing behind the hook, seemingly designed to kill a buzz rather than prolong one. The album There’s A Riot Goin’ On, from 1971, used bass like sludgy molasses—a counterpoint to the dinky drum machine that graces several tracks—oozing and spurting through the melody.

The bass and Sly’s deep, versatile yowl knit together disparate parts. Another top-10 hit, “Dance To The Music,” sifted through acapella doo-wop vocals, a drum pounding in empty space, and Sly singing a bit of Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally.” In “I Wanna Take You Higher,” several members of the Family took turn singing lines, and most players got an instrumental solo too, for jazz’s sake. And there was the “boom lacka lacka lacka” chant, far down in the mix—Sly surely enjoyed chanting as much as conventional singing. His gleefully deranged yodel pierces through the pile of low-end sludge on “Spaced Cowboy.” Tone meant more than words.

Contemporary artists who follow in the soul and funk tradition tap into our nostalgia for the past and our love of sequels, which are easy to relate to. But they often reduce the oldies to a clean, simple rubric or signifier that can be reapplied in the present. Doing so misses the fact that even if the original sound being imitated was clean, it may have been a mess to make: One of the most pristine songs in history, Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” apparently required 91 different mixes before Jackson deemed it satisfactory.

Higher! Is an important listen, then, because Sly left a lot of his mess out in the open. The aspiring soul-men and soul-women of today should draw inspiration from Sly’s willingness to be weird—to use a thin drum machine when funk demanded heft, to play with the prevalence of rhythm over melody, and to know that the past won’t come back, so the only thing to do is to make the best of the present.