In the late 1960s, Sly Stone would often be asked, “Who’s family in the Family Stone?” I imagine him smiling at this point, a knowing, playful smile to fill the pause before he delivered his customary line. “We all are”, he would inevitably reply.
It was, of course, in the way these things have to be, too good to be true. An inter-racial ‘family’ embodying all that was good about the hippy dreams of the Age of Aquarius; an R&B band who embraced psychedelia, who could rock harder than your favourite rock band; a band who couldn’t be anything but political just by dint of their being, but who wrote subtly brilliant political songs and got the party started with it.
But everyone loves to hear of the fall rather than the rise, so here’s the question: how, after just five years, did Sylvester ‘Sly’ Stone find himself holed up in a secret studio behind a bookcase, strung out on cocaine, PCP and more, muttering into a mic, fiddling with a simple little drum machine, slowly piecing together a load of seemingly half-finished, unstructured songs with the Family Stone almost nowhere to be seen? And how – and this is the amazing part – and just how is the resultant muddle one of the most beguiling masterpieces pressed to wax? Oh, and one more thing: what’s with the yodelling?
Sylvester Stewart was born in Texas in 1941 and moved to California as a child. His recording career began at the age of 11 and by his early 20s he had some pedigree as a singer and producer, an A&R job for a local label and a Saturday night radio show in San Francisco. Sly and the Family Stone came together around ’67, as Sly’s own project Sly and the Stoners crumbled around the same time as his younger brother Freddie’s band, Freddie and the Stone Souls. So there’s the first ‘real’ family: Freddie played guitar. More family came after the debut LP, in the form of keyboardist and sister Rose Stone. Cynthia Robinson took the trumpet, Larry Graham Jr. the bass. They all sang, more or less.
Then there were the white boys, two Italian Americans: Jerry Martini on saxophone, and Greg Errico on drums. A white drummer! Was this some happy, hippy accident, or was Sly playing with us? It wasn’t like Errico was the hottest drummer in town, nor Martini the finest saxophonist. And mid- 60s San Francisco wasn’t exactly short on musicians. Whatever: this was a pretty radical proposition, and if we’re now jaded by hyperbole and deceitful pronunciations of novelty, we should read the sleeve of their ’67 debut album with whatever naivety we can muster. ‘A Whole New Thing’ was pretty good on its promise, if no revolution. It didn’t really sell and ’68’s ‘Dance To The Music’was a more conservative affair, a successful swipe at the pop jugular. The rockier, superior ‘Life’ followed hot on its heels and then the real breakthrough: ’69’s ‘Stand!’
You can make it if you try, they sang: black and white, boy and girl, rock and funk. They were Everyday People. America loved them.
By 1971, the story goes, everything had changed, both for the band and in the world around them. They had achieved stardom: their performance at Woodstock in ’69 helped see to that. Their label rushed out a Greatest Hits in 1970 to meet demand as fans waited and waited for the new album. Many of them were to be disappointed. 1971’s ‘There’s A Riot Goin’ On’ was a long way from the gleaming exuberance of old. It sounds tired. Not dated, but exhausted. Jaded. Bitter. The ‘end of the hippy dream’ angle has been done to death but if there’s a sound to match the disillusionment of the time, of the breakdown of the civil rights movement, of Richard Nixon, of Altamont, of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, of Vietnam, of Jimi Hendrix, it’s deep in these grooves. Not of the title track though: that doesn’t exist. 0 minutes and 0 seconds. I don’t know why Sly did that. I wouldn’t be sure he does either.
Recorded in a $12,000-per-month Bel Air mansion, replete with secret studio behind that bookcase, details of the recording are hazy at best. Most of it was done alone by Sly, or members of the band recording single overdubs – despite the track, this is no Family Affair. It was overdubbed to death, creating that awfully seductive murky sonic sludge. The world’s sharp corners are blunted, its bright lights are dimmed. There were bodyguards, guns, groupies, in-fights, affairs, a constant stream of celebrity guests, from Ike and Tina to Miles and Herbie. You can hear Bobby Womack, Ike Turner and Billy Preston on the record, you can sometimes hear the Family Stone. But what you can really hear is Sly, and Sly’s crying. Even when he’s yodelling.
WORDS BY ALEX ROBINSON
Released: 20th November 1971
Produced by: Sly Stone
01. Luv ‘n’ Haight
02. Just Like a Baby
04. Family Affair
05. Africa Talks To You ‘The Asphalt Jungle’
06. There’s a Riot Goin’ On
07. Brave and Strong
08. You Caught Me Smilin’
10. Spaced Cowboy
11. Running Away
12. Thank You For Talkin’ To Me Africa
Sly Stone – vocals, organ, guitar, bass guitar, clavinet, piano, harmonica and drum programming.
Rosie Stone – vocals, piano, keyboard. Freddie Stone. background
Larry Graham Jr. – background vocals, bass guitar.
Cynthia Robinson – trumpet.
Jerry Martini – saxophone.
Gregg Errico – drums.
Gerry Gibson – drums.
Little Sister (Vet Stone, Mary McCreary, Elva Mouton) – background vocals.
Bobby Womack – guitar.
Ike Turner – guitar.
Billy Preston – electric piano.
1971: In The News
• The United Kingdom and Ireland both switch to decimal currency.
• The original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is released.
• Jim Morrison from The Doors is found dead in his Paris, France apartment.
• Walt Disney World opens in Florida.
• Ricky Martin is born. The world rejoices
1971: The Albums
‘What’s Going On’ Marvin Gaye
‘Roots’ Curtis Mayfield
‘Revolution Of The Mind’ James Brown
‘John Wesley Harding’ Bob Dylan
‘Maggot Brain’ Funkadelic