Sly Stone shares with Chuck Berry a similar background- both are black men who grew up in predominantly white neighborhoods -Stone in Vallejo, Ca. and Berry in St Louis, Mo. This was important because it exposed them to the music white audiences listened to in a segregated time (musical and otherwise).... These were country western in Berry’s case and pop in Stone’s.
The end result in both cases was revolutionary – a synthesis of styles that created something new.
In the case of Stone, the gorgeous popscapes he created on the first five Sly and the Family Stone albums turned into the bitter devastating deceptively loose sounding funk of THERE’S A RIOT GOIN’ ON (and this funkiness is closer to what Radiohead’s doing now than what was considered funk at the time) this was followed by two strong albums showcasing all he’d learned – FRESH and SMALL TALK. This was colorblind music in much the same way Chuck Berry’s music was and is. Both RIOT and the GREATEST HITS album that covers the period before RIOT belong on any list of the best records of all time.
There is no depressing story in the history of rock/popular music than the burn out and disappearance of Sly Stone. Perhaps it’s all about drugs as has been widely written and told or perhaps it was the breakdown of a sensitive soul who’d written such anthems of universal brotherhood like “Everybody’s a Star” and “Everyday People” coming to terms with end of sixties idealism and a dream for equality not realized.
In any event, the conventional wisdom is that the albums made after SMALL TALK before he finally stopped recording in 1982 are not worth bothering with, the works of a musician whose muse had long since left him to be replaced with something glassy eyed and dull going through the motions.
I’d never listened to these later records but this week found myself streaming HIGH ON YOU the album immediately following SMALL TALK and the only record made under his name alone without The Family Stone appendage although all the albums made afterwards are really just him with guest appearances from Family members(superbassist Larry Graham is especially missed).
HIGH ON YOU is not a great record but neither is it a bad one. The lead off single/track “Crossword Puzzle” is actually one of his greatest songs - clever lyrics about a child born out of wedlock and a percolating string bass cymbal groove. “My World” is a ballad in the manner of an old standard with a meticulously beautiful string arrangement and a heartfelt Stone vocal. The second single “Le Lo Li” reminds me of their earlier stuff-the same free flowing pop innocence and fun. “So Good To Me” finds Stone fully engaged taking a few shots at the media for their increasing bashing of him over an edgy arrangement. The backing vocals are excellent on all the tracks here.
Of course, not all of it is good....”Organize” is a bad “Stand” re-write and “Green-Eyed Monster Girl” is a pointless instrumental that makes me think Sly was just too lazy to write lyrics.
Sly Stone at his greatest with the Family Stone( “Hot Fun in the Summertime” for example) was a maestro of divergent styles that produced something unique and more importantly addictive to listen to. Even on a record like HIGH ON YOU his great gifts are still there just below the surface. Sly Stone – you’re a genus and I salute you!