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Joel Selvin weaves an epic American tale from the voices of the people around this funk phenomenon: Sly's parents, his family members and band members (sometimes one and the same), and rock figures including Grace Slick, Sal Valentino, Bobby Womack, Mickey Hart, Clive Davis, Bobby Freeman, and many more. In their own words, they candidly share the triumphs and tragedies of one of the most influential musical groups ever formed-"different strokes" from the immensely talented folks who were there when it all happened.
With David Kapralik, a older, more sophisticated, Jewish record business executive from New York, Sly found a co-conspirator who brought even more diversity to the mix as manager. The first album, A Whole New Thing (1967), announced his intentions. Witty, twinkly eyed, and hip, the album reflected its maker but fell on deaf ears. The subsequent retrenchment, Dance to the Music (1968), found Sly pulling out all the stops. This time there would be no ignoring him.
By the time he unleashed "Everyday People," that perfect pop single bursting with crafty sloganeering and the easy platitudes so attuned to the sensibilities of the day, he had honed both his music and ideology to laser-sharp precision. But equality of the races is today no longer a burning issue in the pop landscape of post-affirmative action America. With the theme running through his entire career abandoned by a society that probably never needed its message more, Sly's music continues to drift off into oldies-but-goodies land, unappreciated in a world that exalts his puerile imitatorsand pantywaist pretenders. Had Sly Stone been white, would he be as lionized today as rock musicians with whom his name was once spoken in a single breath—John Lennon, Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan? Despite his oh so-public dissipation and fall from grace, he does not even offer up a convenient corpse over which to lay hosannas. But time does not diminish his greatest work.
The twin peaks of his career—Stand (1969) and There's a Riot Goin' On (1972)—are flip sides of the same coin. While the brilliant Stand is an extroverted, cynical pop record, Riot finds a now-you see-him-now-you-don't Sly Stone sorting through his psychic detritus in a disturbing masterpiece, as deeply personal an artistic event as Brian Wilson's Pet Sounds, Bob Dylan's Blonde On Blonde or John Lennon's Imagine.
Stand was the culmination of four consecutive albums by the original group—Sly Stone (keyboards, guitar, vocals); Freddy Stone (guitar, vocals); Rose Stone (keyboards, vocals); Larry Graham (bass, vocals); Cynthia Robinson (trumpet, vocals); Jerry Martini (saxophone); Gregg Errico (drums)—with Sly acting as songwriter and record producer. Each subsequent release shows a more polished version of the emerging signature style of Sly Stone the loopy beats, the offbeat vocalizations, the witty, pun gent lyrics. Racial lines dissolved in front of him. Stand achieves a seamless blend of rock and soul—but then it comes from the former boy wonder record producer with the Beatles haircut who made all those Beau Brummels and Mojo Men records.
Stand was perfectly poised at the intersection of several musical, social, and political crossroads and glistened with a command of studio technology uncommon at the time. The record is, by turns, flagrantly transparent ("Everyday People"), openly manipulative ("I Want to Take You Higher"), and a cynical self justification ("Sing a Simple Song") and still manages to maintain a jaunty, almost cocky swagger, underscored by deft wordsmanship born of Sly's scrupulous study of the works of Dylan.
In the two-year gap that separated Stand and Riot, Sly managed one measly single release the sweeping "Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin)," backed with "Everybody Is a Star," a creative crescendo that offered a definitive two-pronged statement from Sly responding to his popular acceptance.
The less readily understood Riot finds Sly offering glimpses inside his troubled heart. Or does he? He is the man in the mirror, recording spare, drab, even deadened tonalities and dry, unprocessed vocals that create an illusion of heightened intimacy. His character remains elusive, but his spirit is all over this record—whimsical, charming, sarcastic, evil, arrogant, truthful. It is a record of immense desperation and despair recorded under dire circumstances.
Nobody seems to know exactly who is playing on There's a Riot Goin' On. Drummer Gregg Errico, who had supposedly left the group by then, hears himself on one track. But then Larry Graham, who left the group well before Fresh (1973) was recorded, hears himself on that album.
While the observers all agree that Fresh is largely Sly playing by himself, everyone remembers the Riot sessions as marathon free for-alls where he presided over a spirit of communal creativity. Bobby Womack and Billy Preston are among the acknowledged musicians who appear on the album, and other figures like Miles Davis, Ike Turner, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, and Herbie Hancock, alongside unknowns like Joe Hicks and Jimmy Ford, were around when sessions were held.
Even though Fresh finds Sly slipping into second-rate work, the album's high points would fuel a dozen lesser careers. He pushed the boundaries of the music again, testing the rhythmic possibilities of "In Time," or dipping back into his Ray Charles roots for his reading of "Que Sera Sera," a haunting, eerie, even scary performance of the old Doris Day hit. Small Talk (1974), the final album by anything resembling the original group, documents little more than the dissipation of this brilliant career.
By the time the band washed up on the rocks of Radio City Music Hall in January 1975, little was left. Sly's own Dostoevskian descent continued, producing a string of news clippings attesting to minor brushes with the law, mixed with occasional, meager comeback efforts, culminating with his disappearance as a fugitive from justice. Outside of a wobbly, inarticulate appearance accepting the group's induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at New York's Waldorf-Astoria in 1993, he has not been seen in public since.
But long before that, Sly gave up explaining himself. His final interviews were little more than monosyllabic denials of culpability. He eventually just stopped talking. Who can blame him? It has been a long, sorry crawl through unattractive territory for many years for Sly. Dignifying it with discussion hardly seems necessary.