There were all the hallmarks of a cruel prank when the phone rang on the first afternoon of April. A friend asked, 'You didn't go to Vegas last night, did you? Because Sly played at the Flamingo â?¦.â?� The appropriate response was a sputtered, 'What? OMIGOD! I didn't hear about it, but â?¦ wait, isn't today April 1?â?�
The thing was, the call wasn't a joke. Late in the Las Vegas evening of March 31, the historically undependable Sylvester Stewart made a cameo appearance during the performance of a tribute band that consists of former members of both the Stone family and the Family Stone. Sly was supposed to do the same in January at a show at the Anaheim House of Blues (and the victim of the above joke was two seconds away from booking a round-trip flight to see it). But his Anaheim stage time ' though twice as long as his infamous mohawked apparition at the 2006 Grammys ' didn't click past the 10-minute mark. The Vegas crowd was treated to a full half-hour ' despite the 45-1 odds that bookies had against it.
This is what has become of the Sly Stone legend. The musical pioneer who exploded two different genres (flower-power soul and post-JB funk) over a frenzied five years is now better known for the shows his drug-addled ass has blown off than for the minds his music has blown over the past five decades. Sly himself is the biggest perpetrator of the 'mystique,â?� knowing that just the hint of an appearance starts a buzz that gets even bookmakers excited. His substance-abusing days are allegedly a thing of the past and, at least since the mid-'90s, he's been plotting a comeback to define and cement his musical legacy. It's no accident, in other words, that the Grammys, the Anaheim appearance and the Vegas show have led up to this month's long-delayed reissue campaign of every Sly Stone record released between 1967 and 1974. For it's in that music ' not in the bright 'SLYâ?� belt buckle or the wild blond mohawk ' that his peculiar star power shines the brightest.
Landmark '60s albums such as Stand! (1969) and Dance to the Music (1968) are packed with hits like 'Everyday Peopleâ?� and the latter's title track. While these songs are obvious touchstones and a huge part of this seven-CD series, it's the world past the post-psychedelic darkness of 1971's There's a Riot Goin' On that's far more interesting. Fame, depression, turmoil, drugs and the swirling pit of corruption and evil that America had become under Nixon's watch yielded Riot, Stone's most acclaimed disc. What came after it, though, the long-neglected and recently revered Fresh (1973), stands as the most cohesive work of Sly's career.
ONE FUNKY FEMALE
In 1973, Miles Davis’ ex-wife went into the studio with Sly Stone’s former rhythm section. Wrap your head around that for a minute. Stop trying to calculate how many pharmaceuticals were consumed. Then put on the new reissue of Betty Davis’ self-titled debut (out next month on Seattle-based Light in the Attic Records). After listening, you’ll realize the limitations of your funk imagination.
Ex-Family Stone drummer Greg Errico was tasked with producing the first sessions from the woman who coaxed Miles into plugging in. With the assistance of most of the members of Graham Central Station (bassist Larry Graham’s post-Stone group), some of Tower of Power and the pre-disco Pointer Sisters, Davis laid down 11 gritty tracks that bristled with Funkadelic-inspired soul-raunch. A sharp contrast to the blues belters and polished soul singers who could have been considered her female counterparts in those pre–Millie Jackson days, Davis fearlessly stomps and struts through her vocal limitations with balls to spare.
She may not have had Aretha’s voice, and she wasn’t the recipient of Errico and Graham’s A-game material, but this disc proves that a strong personality can make a record sound a whole lot better than it is.
— Jason Ferguson
The year 1972 was the beginning of the end, according to most Family Stone histories. Bassist Larry Graham and drummer Greg Errico were gone, and Sly's drug use and paranoia fed on each other. Accordingly, the album that emerged from this period expanded on the stark intensity of Riot, but in a fashion both tighter and weirder. The drum machines, clean basslines and crisp production of Fresh belied the dark experimentalism at the heart of the disc. Whether or not Sly intended it to be the least danceable funk album ever recorded, the off-measure harmonies of 'Frisky,â?� the puzzling, minor-key arrangement of 'Keep on Dancin'â?� and the plaintive future-blues of 'Babies Makin' Babiesâ?� were light-years away from the happy face of early Stone cuts like 'Turn Me Looseâ?� and 'Sing a Simple Song.â?� Flag-waving statements for hippies and Panthers had also been abandoned.
Though his methodology presaged the studio approach of hermit auteurs like Prince, and its sparse grooves have a shallow echo in this current generation of R&B producers, Fresh wound up being an appropriate conundrum for Sly. It was a poorly received follow-up to an illustrious album, but it was seriously adventurous. It's been deemed influential, but you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who's made music that sounds like it. Even Sly couldn't do it; on the 1974 release Small Talk, tracks like 'Loose Booty,â?� 'Time for Livin'â?� and 'Better Thee Than Meâ?� tried to grow Fresh's dialogue, but the afflicted magic of the moment had passed.
Epic/Legacy's reissue series of these seven albums is thoughtful and elegant; they're presented in limited-edition, deluxe digipaks. The requisite bonus material is excellent on all the discs, but is most noteworthy on Fresh. Five alternate and revelatory mixes from an 'unreleased album masterâ?� (which actually was released, by accident, in a run of CDs back in the late '80s) are appended, shedding further light on the genius/madness of the elusive Sly.