Sly & The Family Stone: Higher!

SlyAndTheFamilyStone_HigherCareer-spanning box with mono singles, rarities and unreleased tracks

Sly and the Family Stone’s catalog has never been difficult to find. In addition to dozens of compilations (one of which, 1970’s Greatest Hits, was their first album to top the charts), the band’s original albums have been remastered and reissued with expanded track listings. The remastered albums have themselves also been anthologized as The Collection. But there’s more to Sylvester Stewart than the Family Stone and there’s more to the Family Stone’s catalog than the albums. Pulling together pre-Family obscurities, hit singles (many in their punchy mono single mixes), album cuts, live performances and previously unissued material creates an arc of musical discovery that paints a wholly (or holy) different picture than hearing the material in separate installments.

This box set opens with five sides Stewart (not yet Stone) recorded for San Francisco’s Autumn label in 1964 and 1965. Stewart served as a staff producer for Autumn, helming sessions for the Beau Brummels, Mojo Men, Great Society and others (see Precious Stone, Listen to the Voices, The Autumn Records Story and Dance With Me for more of his production work), and his first sides riff on the hit single, “C’mon and Swim,” he’d written and produced for Bobby Freeman. The B-side, “Scat Swim,” cut a deeper groove than the plug side, and his next single, “Buttermilk (Part 1),” was a catchy blue-soul instrumental, with Stewart playing all the instruments, including organ and harmonica leads. The unreleased “Dance All Night” and his last single for Autumn, “Temptation Walk,” show how early (and easily) Stewart began mixing pop, soul, blues, R&B and jazz into his original stew.

After leaving Autumn, Stewart quickly assembled what was to become Sly and the Family Stone, and waxed the 1967 demos that would land them a contract with Epic. In the wake of the group’s later success, two of the tracks, the original “I Ain’t Got Nobody (For Real)” and a cover of Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Lose,” were released on the Loadstone label. The former is powered by Larry Graham’s insistent bass line and topped by the Family Stone’s trademark trumpet-sax combination of Cynthia Robinson and Jerry Martini. The group began recording for Epic (at the same Golden State Recorders at which Stewart had produced for Autumn Records) in mid-1967, and the fruits of these initial sessions fill out disc one, starting with their first A-side, “Underdog,” and its two B-sides, “Higher” (from early promo singles) and “Bad Risk.”

Despite a fresh sound that crackled with the energy of its multiple roots, neither the single nor the album A Whole New Thing made a commercial impression at the time; it wasn’t until “Dance to the Music” was recorded in September that the Family Stone had their first hit in the can. Launched in January 1968, “Dance to the Music” quickly established the group’s revolutionary combination of pop, rock, soul, funk and gospel, and shifted the course of pop music. Other acts quickly latched onto elements of the sound, but none could match Stewart’s output as a songwriter or the band’s approach as a unit. The group was sufficiently prolific as to leave fully-finished masters in the vault, including the four that end disc one. Here you’ll find the band trying out previously unheard original songs, experimental vocal arrangements, and repurposed lyrics and melodies.

The July-August 1967 session tracks continue on disc two, showing the wealth of great material produced before the band finally hit with “Dance to the Music.” Two of session tracks (“What Would I Do” and “Only One Way Out of This Mess”) were previously issued on the expanded edition of A Whole New Thing, but three more are included here for the first time: an inventive cover of the pop-folk song “What’s it Got to Do With Me,” an early take on the autobiographical “Future and Fame” and the Freddie Stone-sung deep soul ballad “I Know What You Came to Say.” All five session tracks are as good as the material that made the original album, but the lack of early commercial success doomed this extra material to a long stay in the vault.

The band’s commercial breakthrough is finally heard six tracks into disc two, with the ecstatic three-minute mono single mix of “Dance to the Music.” The song is, quite literally, a brilliantly catchy tutorial on the sound being created before the listener’s very ears. As memorable as are the mono singles, stereo album sides like “Ride the Rhythm” more expansively show off the band’s inventive arrangements and tight musicianship as they explode across the soundstage. Disc two finishes out with album tracks from Dance to the Music, the previously unreleased “We Love All,” the obscure mostly-instrumental French-language single “Danse a la Musique” (and it’s even stranger Chipmunk-voiced B-side, “Small Fries”), the unreleased B-side “Chicken,” and exuberant sides from Life, including mono single masters for “Life” (with a different lead vocal track than the album cut) and “M’Lady.”

Disc three opens with the band’s second smash single, the #1 “Everyday People” and its charting flipside, “Sing a Simple Song.” These tracks, along with “Stand!” (offered here in a live recording) and “I Want to Take You Higher,” powered the commercial success of the band’s third album. As with their debut, the band recorded a lot more material during the album sessions than they could issue, and disc three includes another helping of previously unreleased bonuses, including unused instrumental backings. The group became a hot live act, essayed here with performances from the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, and scored in 1969 as singles artists with “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” “Everybody is a Star” and “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” all heard here as mono singles.

The final disc open with the band’s next album, There’s a Riot Goin’ On, including album tracks and all three of its singles. Ironically, though the album yielded the hit “Family Affair,” it was recorded in large part by Stone alone, with overdubs by Family members and other hired-hands (including keyboard player Billy Preston). The album hasn’t the organic sound or joyous mood of the band’s earlier material, and the sonics of 1971 overdubbing and the use of a drum machine on several tracks subdues the group’s underlying funk. By 1973 the group’s membership was beginning to change, including new drummers, a replacement for the departed Larry Graham, and the addition of a third horn player. The group’s singles (including “If You Want Me to Stay” and “Time for Livin'”) continued to chart in the Top 40, as did their final two albums Fresh and Small Talk.

By 1975 Sly had disbanded the Family Stone and begun to record as a solo artist backed by hired musicians. His album High on You, expands beyond the musical boundaries of the Family Stone, adding steel guitar and other touches that hadn’t been heard on the band’s releases. Disc four closes out with selections from Stone’s solo work, from the then-newly formulated Family Stone’s Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I’m Back, and a pair of previously unreleased tracks, “Hoboken” and “High.” The box set lingers a bit more over the first-half of the group’s career, rushing through the latter half in a single disc, but that’s in balance with the band’s rise to fame, the peaking of their invention, and the view most listeners will have of their career.

This is a well thought out anthology, touching on Stewart’s pre-Family solo work, the Family’s rise to fame, their chart domination and fire as a live act, their eventual end and Sly Stone’s return to solo work. Along the way there are iconic hit singles, B-sides and album tracks, seventeen previously unreleased tracks and a large helping of original mono single mixes. The only real omission from this set are the studio versions of “Stand” and “I Want to Take You Higher!,” each of which are included among the live tracks. The mono mixes will be greatly appreciated by fans who have already completed their collection of the expanded stereo album reissues. For those without any of the group’s catalog on-hand, your surround sound-trained ears may find the stereo hits more immediately satisfying; check out the album reissues, or the anthologies Greatest Hits or Essential.

In addition to the mono mixes and unreleased tracks, the set’s 104-page book is its own star. The book includes finely written liner notes, an informative timeline, rare photographs, reproductions of labels, sleeves and posters, and revelatory track-by-track comments from the Greg Errico, Larry Graham,  Jerry Martini, Cynthia Robinson, Sly Stone and many others. In addition to the standard 4-CD set, there are several variations: an Amazon exclusive that adds a fifth disc (and parallel MP3 downloads), a vinyl LP edition (with its own Amazon exclusive variation) and a single disc highlights. [©2013 Hyperbolium]

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