The band this article is about, were one of the most important bands in the late 1960s’. They were a multiracial and multi-gender band, whose music was a fusion of styles, including, soul, funk, rock and psychedelic music. Their music influenced groups across these genres. The story of this band is one which features gangsters, freedom fighters, drugs, arrests and a member of the band being jailed. In between all these dramas, this group produced several classic albums, albums that are still influencing a new generation of musicians. Sly and The Family Stone are the group, and the album is their 1973 album, Fresh.

Sly Stone was born Sylvester Stewart, in March 1944, into a deeply religious middle class family, in Dallas, Texas. Later the family moved to Vallejo, California. Although the family were highly religious, the children were encouraged to express themselves musically. The four youngest children even formed a group The Stewart Four and recorded a single On the Battlefield of the Lord. Once in high school, he joined various local bands, including The Viscaynes, a doo-wop group, who released several singles. He also released several singles under the name Danny Stewart.

After leaving high school Stewart changed his name to Sly Stone. In 1964, he became a disc jockey, for a R&B radio station in San Francisco KSOL. He also worked as a record producer for Autumn Records, where he produced various local bands. One of the records he produced, C’Mon and Swim, by Bobby Freeman became a nationwide hit. His solo singles for Autumn Records weren’t successful, and attempts at becoming singer stalled.

When Sly Stone and brother Freddie decided to form separate bands in 1966, this would prove to be fortuitous. Sly formed Sly and The Stoners with Cynthia Robinson on trumpet. Freddie formed Freddie and The Stone Souls, with Gregg Errico on drums. Saxophonist Jerry Martini, a mutual friend of Sly and Freddie, suggested that the two bands combine. This they did, forming Sly and The Family Stone in December 1966. Both Freddie and Sly were guitarists, so Sly taught himself to play electric organ, Freddie became the guitarist and Larry Graham joined to play bass guitar. Vaetta Stewart, Mary McCreary and Eva Moulton, who had formed a gospel group The Heavenly Tones, were recruited to become the band’s female backing vocalists, Little Sisters. The trio dropped out of high school to join the band. 

Sly and The Family Stone played a concert at Windchester Cathedral, a club in California. Having liked the group, and saw their potential, David Kapralik of CBS Records, signed the group to the Epic Records, a subsidiary of CBS. The group recorded their debut album, A Whole New Thing which was released in October 1967. On its release, the album was critically acclaimed, especially among fellow musicians, including Tony Bennet and Mose Allison. However, the album failed to chart. One reason for the album’s lack of commercial success, was that the album was recorded live in the studio, rather than being overdubbed later. Had the album been overdubbed, it may have sounded very different. After the albums failure, Clive Davis of CBS asked Sly Stone to record a more commercial album. This, Sly Stone would do on the next album Dance To the Music.

After the failure of their debut album, and at Clive Davis’ request for a commercial record, Sly and The Family Stone headed into the studio to record their second album Dance To the Music. This album featured a new band member, Rose Stone, a vocalist and keyboard player. The single Dance To the Music became a huge hit, reaching number eight in the Billboard Hot 100. When the album was released in April 1968, it became a hugely influential album. It was one of the first psychedelic soul albums, a sound many other bands would copy. Dance To the Music sold well, and the band decided to tour the album. However, the tour was cut short when Larry Graham was arrested for possession of marijuana, and because of problems with concert promoters. 

Sly and The Family Stone released their third album Life in September 1968. The album wasn’t the success of its predecessor, Dance To the Music. Critics liked the album, but the record buying public didn’t, and the album wasn’t commercially successful. On this album, Stone revisits familiar topics in unity and integration, two things which were crucial to Sly Stone, and central to his philosophy. To me, the album sits between the groups first two albums, in that it’s more commercial than A Whole New Thing, but less commercially friendly than Dance To the Music.

Their fourth album Stand! released in May 1969, featured the band’s first number one single Everyday People. This was the album that made the group famous worldwide. In the first year, the album sold over half a million copies, and was certified gold. Since then, it has sold over three million copies. The album was included in the Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Stand! is a brilliant album, and is a must have for any record collection. It includes some of the band’s greatest songs including I Wan’t To Take You Higher, Everyday People, Stand and Sing A Simple Song. 

Between 1969 and 1971, Sly and The Family Stone didn’t release a new album. In an attempt to keep the group’s music popular, and because of the demand for a new album, a Greatest Hits album was released. It featured material from the group’s first four albums. The album reached number two in the Billboard 200, and became the group’s biggest selling album.

After a hiatus lasting eighteen months, Sly and The Family Stone released their new album There’s A Riot Going On. This album saw a much different sound, it’s a darker funkier sound, less melodic than their previous work. Having said that, the album features some wonderful songs including Luv ‘N” Haight and Family Affair. There’s A Riot Going On entered the Billboard 200 at number one. Like, Stand! the album sold over half a million copies in its first year, and was certified gold. It would eventually sell over a million copies and be certified platinum. The album also is included in the Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. 

Problems occured during the making of There’s A Riot Going On. The Black Panthers, who Sly Stone had been involved with, wanted Stone  to make his music more militant. They wanted Greg Errico and Jerry Martini, both white musicians, replaced with black musicians, and their manager David Kapralik replaced by a black manager. This would have gone against Stone’s belief in unity and integration. His music often spoke of peace, love and understanding, and spoke against racism and discrimination of any kind. He wanted people to love each other, and love themselves too. The other problem was that Sly Stone and other members of got addicted to drugs, including PCP and cocaine. This would come back to haunt the band later in their career.

After the huge success ofThere’s A Riot Going On changes were afoot for the band. During early 1972, Jerry Martini asked Sly Stone and his managers about money that he was owed. This lead to Pat Rizzo being hired should Martini ever become suspicious about the group’s financial practices. Later in 1972, the bad feeling that existed between Sly Stone and Larry Graham spilled over. After a concert, a fight broke out between Stone’s entourage and Graham’s entourage. Both Bubba Banks and Eddie Chin had heard that Graham had hired a hit man to kill Stone, assaulted Graham’s people. Larry Graham and his wife had to climb out a hotel window to escape, with Pat Rizzo driving them to safety. Graham then quit the band, and was replaced by Bobby Womack and Rusty Allen.

Having lost their original rhythm section, and Sly Stone becoming increasingly dependent on cocaine, the group’s sound changed, becoming much stripped down and more syncopated and the rhythms much more complicated. Their next album was Fresh, which this article is about, was released in June 1973. On its release, the album received mixed views, but has since been recognized as one of the most important funk albums in musical history. The single If You Want Me To Stay reached the top twenty in the Billboard Hot 100.

The band’s next album was Small Talk and was released in July 1974. It was the final album that would feature the original lineup of the Family Stone. Time For Livin’ was the group’s final top forty US hit, and the second single Loose Booty only reached number eighty-four in the US.

 The band split up in January 1975. After that, four further albums were released by Sly Stone. High on You was released in November 1975, and was Sly Stone’s first solo album. 

This was followed by Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I’m Back released in December 1976 and released as Sly and The Family Stone. The album featured a new Family Stone, with trumpeter, Cynthia Robinson, the only original member. Vaetta Stewart, Mary McCreary and Eva Moulton the three members of Little Sister providing backing vocals. Only one single Family Again, was released from the album and it failed to chart. After this, Epic released Sly Stone from his recording contract.

November 1979 Sly and The Family Stone release their ninth album Back On the Right Track. This was meant to be a comeback album by Sly Stone. For the first time, Stone didn’t produce the album, with Mark Davis producing it. The album featured some of the original members of the Family Stone, including, Rose Stone, Cynthia Robinson, Pat Rizzo and Freddie Stone. Both the album and its singles failed to impress the critics. However, having spent some time listening to this album, I would suggest that the album is underrated, and better than the critics suggested.

The tenth, and final, Sly and The Family Stone album was Ain’t But the One Way released in 1982. Originally, the album was meant to be a collaboration between Sly Stone and George Clinton. Stone had guested on Funkadelic’s 1981 album The Electric Spanking of War Babies, and Ain’t But the One Way, was meant to be the sequel. However, Clinton and Funkadelic fell out with Warner Bros and left the label. Sly Stone disappeared, and was discovered to have entered self-seclusion. As a result, Stewart Levine was brought in to complete the album. Having done what he could, the album was released. It wasn’t well received by critics, and wasn’t a commercial success. It was a sad end to a long career, one that saw Sly and The Family Stone release several groundbreaking classic albums. As I said at the start of this article, the story of Sly and The Family Stone is one of many ups and downs, and much in the way of controversy. 

Now that you know the story of Sly and The Family Stone, I will tell you why Fresh is such a good album. Fresh opens with In Time, a track that has a subdued start, just drums and percussion playing. Then suddenly, an organ plays and Sly Stone sings, behind him a trumpet plays and backing singers accompany him. Rhythms emerge gloriously, Stone’s voice is strong and clear. Granted the sound is different from on their earlier albums, but this is funky with a capital F. The longer the track goes on, the better it gets. It has an infectious quality, that makes you want to dance, and is a great way to start the album.

After such a great start, Fresh just gets better, with If You Want me To Stay. If you weren’t hooked after the first track you will be now. This is easily one of the album’s highlights. From the keyboard and bass at the start of the track, and Sly’s vocal, you realize that this is the work of a musical genius. While Sly sings, he’s enveloped in a  musical melange of beauty, where everything combines masterfully to produce the albums best track. The track pulsates along, a bass the heartbeat of the track, a piano playing beautifully and the brass section uniting as if providing musical punctuation. In front of that, Sly’s vocal soars and falls, giving a passionate performance. Only one world can describe this track. Brilliant.

A wah wah guitar plays at the start of Let Me Have It All. When Sly sings, he’s accompanied by some brilliant backing vocalists. They’re the perfect foil for him, and take the track to another level. The band seem as if they’re playing within themselves. Their performance is almost understated, as if longing to emerge from the shadows. They never quite cut loose, and before they get the chance, the track ends. Although just a short track, it reminds us what a great band the Family Stone were, even without their original rhythm section.

Frisky begins with a Hammond organ playing, a funky rhythm, it’s joined by a guitar, which uses the effects pedal well to transform the sound. Straight away, the sound’s funky. When Sly sings, and the brass section join the fray, we’re into funk overload. The sound is big and loud. It’s a track that grows, it’s very much from little acorns. Once again, just as you’re wallowing in the funkiness of the track, it’s over. Like the previous track, it comes to a sudden end. I feel the last two tracks could have been developed, and made into an even better track. There is so much going on in the track, that doesn’t get a chance to develop. Having said that, it’s a great track, just one that could’ve been made so much better. It was a magnus opus in waiting.

The next track Thankful ‘N’ Thoughtful, has a subdued, almost understated start. A guitar laden with effects plays, a drum plays briefly and Sly sings, accompanied by his female backing vocalists. It’s like call and response. Behind him the track meanders, some rhythms waiting to emerge, develop fully. The brass section play, punctuating the track, their playing of the highest quality. Unlike the previous two tracks, this one is allowed to develop fully. When it does, it’s full of rhythms, some of which are more complex than on earlier albums. Others repeat constantly, burying themselves in your consciousness. The track has a hypnotic quality, caused by the constant repetition of rhythms and lyrics. You’ll find yourself singing the lyrics, and remember the rhythms for days afterwards. Thankful ‘N’ Thoughtful, is a great track, one that shows a different side to Sly, as it’s not a full on funk assault.

Skin I’m in starts with a a guitar, drum, organ and bass all playing quietly. When you first hear the track, you wonder where it’s heading, then, suddenly, the brass section burst into life. Sly joins them and the tempo heads upwards, the sound big and loud. Sly’s vocal veers between gentle and subdued, to almost a scream, but is always in control. The brass section play brilliantly, and are the mainstay of the track, providing some wonderful rhythms. 

On Fresh, the music varies from track to track. This is the case on I Don’t Know (Satisfaction). From the start of the track, a full on funk assault looks likely. As the track begins the sound is funky, guitar, bass and brass section combining masterfully. Sly and the female backing vocalists, almost duet, they feed off each other. The track wouldn’t be half as good without their contribution. I Don’t Know (Satisfaction) pulsates, a melting pot of the most glorious rhythms, played and sung be some hugely talented musicians and singers.

When Keep On Dancin’ begins, the backing vocalists sing the lyrics from Dance To the Music. Once Sly starts singing the lyrics to Keep On Dancin’, they don’t have the same quality as Dance To the Music. This becomes more obvious when the lyrics to Dance To the Music are sung during the chorus. The lyrics may sound better without the direct comparison to a classic song. It’s like comparing a Porsche 911 to a Kia. My other criticism of the song is that it has an unfinished feel and sound. All of a sudden it ends, and you’re left thinking is that it?

More years ago than I care to remember, when I bought this album, and realized the next track was a cover of the old Doris Day song Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be) I feared that this could be a car crash of a song. The track begins with a moody Hammond organ solo playing slowly. Then a female backing vocalist sings the lead vocal. She is backed by the rest of the band, then Sly takes over the lead vocal. So far the track is promising. They sing the song slowly, totally transforming it, making it a far different song. I’ve never liked the original, but this version I enjoy. It sounds like a totally different song. There is a lovely moody, atmosphere. A wah wah guitar plays, the organ is a constant and the vocals are slow, spacious and full of character. My verdict is a very good, very different version of an old song.

The tempo increases with If It Were Up To Me. It’s the total opposite to the previous track. Again a female vocalist sings the lead, her performance strong and full of passion. Behind her, the band’s performance is understated, with occasional bursts from the brass section punctuating the track. This is another short track, but this time, it sounds finished. The structure is much better. For me, it’s one of the album’s best track.

Fresh closes with Babies Makin’ Babies. As the track begins, a Hammond organ meanders, Sly scats. Backing vocalists join in and are accompanied by the bras section. Quickly the funky atmosphere is set. It’s a magical mixture of bass, brass section, organ and vocals. When Sly sings, it seems as if much of his performance is ad-libbed, the lyrics don’t follow the usual structure of verse, chorus. However, the track works, and what Sly Stone has come up with, is a good way to end the album.

When I decided to write about Sly and The Family Stone, there were many great albums I could have chosen to write about. I’ve long been a fan of their music, and to decide, listened to all their back catalogue. In the end, I thought instead of writing about one of their more successful albums, I’d write about one of their underrated albums. Fresh is an album full of wonderful music, and it was recorded at a difficult time for the band. They’d lost their original rhythm section, and Sly and other band members had acquired a drug problem. When you consider these problems, it’s remarkable that they were even able to record an album, let alone one as good as this. The album was recorded towards the end of the original Family Stone’s career. They split up in January 1975. After that, the band was never the same again. If you’ve never heard their music, there are plenty of great albums waiting for you to discover. As well as Fresh, I’d recommend Dance To the Music, Stand and There’s A Riot Going On, as the albums to buy. These albums will allow you to hear the best of Sly and The Family Stone. Then you can explore the rest of their music. In a way, I envy you, as you’re about to discover some wonderful music. I hope you enjoy the musical journey that awaits you. Standout Tracks: If You Want me To Stay, Let Me Have It All, I Don’t Know (Satisfaction) and If It Were Up To Me.


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