Sly and the Family Stone
Greatest Hits [Original Recording Remastered]
5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
BOOM SHAKA-LAKA- LAKA-LAKA, BOOM!
If you’re familiar with that tribal call to arms then you’ve been indoctrinated into the funky world of Sly and the Family Stone, a groundbreaking rock and soul aggregation from the late 60s whose influence is still felt today in the music of The Parliament Funkadelic, Stevie Wonder, Prince, John Mayer, and nearly every rapper whose ever swiped a rhythm track.
Sly and the Family Stone’s legacy has had an amazing resurgence in the past year with the reissue of their catalogue on Epic Records. Epic has remixed “Greatest Hits,” one of the band’s most successful and all encompassing releases, adding generous helpings of artwork and photos. In particular, the sound of Greg Errico’s drums have been tweaked to foot stomping perfection. On the previous “Greatest Hits” CD Errico’s percussion sounded like mush, turning him into an ineffective ghost. Now Errico is abundantly clear and you can hear his moneyed musicianship, especially on “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” “You Can Make it If You Try,” and “Sing A Simple Song.”
The group was founded by Sylvester Stewart, a former producer for The Beau Brummels (“Laugh, Laugh”) and The Mojo Men (who did a version of “Sit Down I Think I Love You,” written by Stephen Stills). Adopting the nom de plume Sly Stone, Stewart assembled a “family” band consisting of brother Freddie on guitar, cousin Larry Graham on bass, drummer Errico, saxophonist Jerry Martini, and horn player Cynthia Robinson. Within a year of their formation, Sly and Freddie’s sister, Rose, would join the family as vocalist/keyboard player. A trio of back up vocalists dubbed “Little Sister” (and featuring the family’s youngest sibling Vaetta “Vet” Stewart), was added for studio work.
Sly and the Family Stone were not only one of the earliest integrated rock bands in the U.S., they were among the first to feature female musicians in promient roles. But what made the group a stone legend was their ability to distill a variety of influences into their sound. Deep dish fuzzy bass lines, utilizing Graham’s unique style of popping the strings, wah wah guitars, blaring horns and snappy attacks of snare gave their music a polished, body shaking strut. The four singers, (The three Stones and Graham) often sang a line of each verse, an unheard of vocal approach at that time. Cynthia Robinson shouted ad-libbed vocal directions to the audience and the band -- “Out with the squares!” When spunky Cynthia emoted, audiences listened. Although Robinson’s meowing made her sound like Geraldine from “The Flip Wilson Show,” and Graham’s throaty Pigmeat Markham vocals bordered on being too-good-to-be true, by mixing these elements together with Errico’s rock signatures, Martini’s jazzy riffs, Sly’s acid funk and Rose and Freddie’s soul predilections, the group discovered a sound that appealed to freaks, hippies, brothers, sisters and bikers.
Sly and the Family Stone recorded four albums between 1967-69: “A Whole New Thing” (1967), “Dance To The Music” (1968), “Life” (1968) and “Stand!” (1969). They also charted three singles in the U.S. Top 40, “Dance To The Music” (#8), “Everyday People” (#1), and “Stand” (#22), with two songs both hitting #37 in the U.K. (“Fun” and “Life”). A highlight at the Woodstock Festival, Sly and the Family Stones’s popularity peaked in 1969. Drugs, paranoia, internal friction and more drugs strained Sly’s relationships with his brother Freddie and, in particular, Graham. Jonesing for product, Epic coerced Sly into recording a new song, “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” recycling “Fun” for the B-side of the single. The song reached #2, but it would be another year before Sly produced a new single, “Thank you (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”/ “Everbody Is A Star,” which hit #1. The songs were supposed to be part of the group’s next album, but it took Sly another year to finish “There’s A Riot Goin’ On,” and by then the upbeat tunes didn’t fit the album’s dark mood.
In the interim, “Everybody Is A Star,” “Thank You,” and “Hot Fun In the Summertime” needed a home. With Sly sucking up hillsides of coke, guarded by beefy bodygaurds and plotting a hit on Larry Graham, Epic decided it was time for a greatest package to fill the creative void.
The drug reference in “I Want To Take You Higher is obvious. Sly swore the song’s title was meant to refer to the group’s music, which could take listeners to an elevated astral boogie plane. “Higher” is a supercharged power anthem with a chant as scary as a line of charging Zulu warriors ready to slice open their enemies: “BOOM SHAKA-LAKA-LAKA-BOOM SHAKA-LAKA-LAKA, BOOM!” Football teams in the 70s crumbled at the sound of Sly’s rallying war cry, although it was surreal hearing the phrase issuing from the lips of predominantly blonde cheerleading squads.
“Everybody Is A Star” is as close as Sly ever came to penning a ballad. Stay the course, Sly tells the audience, and if you’ve got love in your heart you’ll be happy: “Everybody is a star, I can feel it when you shine on me. I love you for who you are, not the one you feel you need to be.” The singer’s each take a line, with Larry Graham’s resonant tones as ear-catching as his bass playing. The song conveys the remaining shreds of sincerity from an artist who’d already begun to lose himself in an everything goes better with coke world.
“Stand” is a call to action, as much a demand for civil rights as Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech: “Stand, in the end you’ll still be you, one that’s done all the things you set out to do. Stand, there’s a cross for you to bear, things to go through if you’re going anywhere.”
Three of Sly’s lesser known hits elevate and motivate on the same high level as his well known standards. “Life” adopts a carnival theme, as if to say take life seriously, take your lumps, but make sure you enjoy yourself too (“You don’t have to die before you live!”) Life is indeed a carnival. “Fun” is slight with off balance vocals and a Sgt. Pepper arrangement. “M’Lady” has doo woppy vocal interplay between the principals, with Larry Graham’s low to the ground vocal (“A pretty face…A pretty face, oh what a gorgeous mind”), followed up by a few bars of fatback bass.
With its shimmering strings, plucky piano and warm vocals, “Hot Fun In The Summertime” is one of Sly’s most enduring and endearing songs, stirring up memories of county fairs and being furloughed from school. Each of the singer’s distinctive deliveries sounds as if they’re a little teary about missing those fun summer days, as well as the waning camaraderie within the band.
“You Can Make It If You Try” puts Sly in the role of motivational speaker: “You can make it if you try. You can make it if you try. Push a little harder, think a little deeper, don’t let the plastic bring you down.” Cynthia Robinson joins in with a cat scratch vocal, as much a shout and a demand as anything else (“Altogether now!”) In addition to playing a crisp coronet, Cynthia bore Sly a child and served as the group’s cheerleader on studio recordings. Coupled with Jerry Martini, Robinson’s tooting (not the powdered organic kind) paved the way for horn sections being accepted as an essential component in rock bands, inspiring groups such as Chicago, Tower of Power, Lighthouse, and Earth, Wind, and Fire. Robinson and Martini’s circular horns and Freddie Stone’s washboard guitar create a habit-forming beat, but see if listen closely, you can catch Larry Graham banging out “Shortening Bread” on bass near the end of the song.
Cynthia Robinson’s back in the cheerleader’s catbird seat, shouting out her elementary solution to the world’s problems: “Sing A Simple Song!” on the introduction to the song of the same name. Sly, Freddie, Rose and Larry get their “ya ya ya ya yas” out in as Errico breaks down a funky foundation on drums and the horn section blares like a passing limo. “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” is another urban anthem that’s as much a veiled threat as an inspirational piece. The group delivers the lyrics in a tight gangland chant that says, “Let me do my thing or I’ll open up a can of whip ass.” -- “Lookin’ at the devil, grinin’ at his gun. Fingers start shakin’, I began to run. Bullets start chasin’, I began to stop. We began to wrestle, I was on the top.” Larry Graham’s buggy bass and the guerilla horn section all play to the song’s intense chip-on-my-shoulder attitude.
A perfect release to begin with, “Greatest Hits” could only have further benefited from the addition of Sly’s last three big singles, “Family Affair,” “Running Away,” and “If You Want Me To Stay.” Although it would have affected the CD from a historical perspective (the three songs were still in the band’s future) it would let prospective fans know that Sly and the Family Stone’s career didn’t end with the release of this album.
Summer may be over, but you can have plenty of hot fun with Sly and the Family Stone’s “Greatest Hits”…Get up and dance to the music!