Sly and Me

Times Staff Writer

Some revolutions begin underground. Some start in the street. And some revolutions happen at 33 1/3.

This one, of the turntable variety, was three minutes and three seconds of pure, uncut vibe. And when it was through I'd get up from the floor, where I'd crawled way-close to the speakers, and drop the needle again. And then again—teasing out the groove.

Sly & the Family Stone's 1973 album "Fresh" was just that—brand new. The album's second cut, the single "If You Want Me to Stay," was like nothing I had heard before. It was like another language, really, a colloquial or pidgin tongue that borrowed from gospel, jazz, vintage R&B and rock—all funked up, of course, by a thick, thudding bass, not just plucked but popped or slapped, stretched into something nearly 3-D.

The photograph of Sly Stone by Annie Leibovitz ("Sly and Me," Feb. 5) should have been credited to Contact Press Images Inc.

My brother remembers "Fresh" as the first record he ever bought. What I remember is tussling over it. Being the eldest, I was the one with the better stereo, relatively speaking—my recent step up from a Show 'N Tell combo picture viewer and record player. The LP migrated between our two bedrooms. This went on for years; has now gone on for decades.

Precisely what it was I found most mesmerizing, I'm still not sure. I don't know if it was that strutting, almost impatient bass line, the uncoiling, flirty purr of Sly Stone's voice, the heralding blast of horns behind it—or the fact that just as things get started, well, says Sly himself: "I'm through, babe." And then he's off, turning the corner, taking the party with him—that tinkling piano and that bass line again, slinking away like retreating footsteps.

I wasn't quite 10, but what I knew quite clearly was that a corner had been turned and that things would never be the same.

Not for music and not for me.

Thirty years on, Sly Stone's influence is still deeply felt, pulsing through much of pop music, as if he had lent it his heartbeat.

The post-Sly generation lives a life of synthesis. Sampling, mash-ups and elastic dance-floor mixes that link music not by genres but by grooves or moods or ideas are now everyday affairs. But in 1967, when Sly was just starting out, the notion of conflating a bit of this, a dash of that, was altogether new. We have him to thank for a whole category of pop music built on blurring and blending—the result of coming together.

Maybe that's why Sly keeps turning up in all sorts of places: in the musical imagination of the jazz-jam organ trio Soulive; in the funky noise of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Black Eyed Peas, a multiple nominee at this week's Grammy Awards; over your morning latte at Starbucks on the Hear Music compilation "Higher!" Then there's the just-released "Different Strokes by Different Folks," a tribute album of sorts featuring a cross-genre jumble of artists—the Roots, Big Boi, Moby, Janet Jackson, Steve Tyler, John Mayer—who are ostensibly Sly's heirs. The disc's real selling point, of course, is that it was produced by the long-underground Sly Stone himself, the man who's been known in certain circles as "the J.D. Salinger of pop."

It's been a long, long time since Sly graced us with an appearance beyond a mere cameo. He blew through for a minute. Shook things up. Then took his leave.

Conventional wisdom now holds that there is black music Before Sly Stone and black music After Sly Stone. "He transformed the first-generation soul of Ray Charles and James Brown into a new sound that came to be called funk," as Joel Selvin put it in his book "Sly and the Family Stone: An Oral History." "He liberated artists as diverse as Miles Davis and Stevie Wonder . . . . He revoiced how harmony vocals sounded in black music much the same way Brian Wilson did in white pop."

Back then, the radio dial was like a string of segregated towns on a highway. Soul was on one frequency, rock was on another, country was a couple of places down the dial—with an occasional transient crossover. What you listened to branded you. There were unspoken rules: Black kids didn't listen to rock. White kids didn't listen to soul or R&B, and if you did you kept it to yourself. If you didn't—well, that made things more complicated. You were just plain strange.

But the West Coast had a different history—socially, culturally, politically—than the South or the East. It was no coincidence that Sly Stone came out of San Francisco about the same time that Jimi Hendrix came out of Seattle. "Sly and Jimi were coming of age in a moment when there was a lot of opening up in American culture," says Maureen Mahon, author of "Right to Rock: The Black Rock Coalition and the Cultural Politics of Race" and assistant professor of anthropology and Afro-American Studies at UCLA. "They were fearless and brave and maybe crazy."

By 1973, Sly and his "family"—which featured only two of his blood relatives, brother Freddie on guitar and sister Rosie on keyboards—had been in the business of funk for at least half a dozen years, tossing out hits that were not just songs but anthems, manifestos, prayers. They'd created a singular body of work. The sunny "Dance to the Music" would later be followed by "There's a Riot Goin' On," an album full of worry lines. The band itself had become the physical embodiment of the post-Civil Rights hope—it was multiracial, it was gender equitable, it preached love and togetherness but didn't ignore the realities of inequality and disenfranchisement. The Family Stone jaywalked across all manner of barriers, rock and soul, black and white.

Sly made it clear that "created equal" meant music too. He was political, but he was stumping in uncharted territory. The man who had been a DJ on KSOL in San Francisco, who would spin R&B hits of the day right next to the Stones or Dylan or maybe even a twist of Lord Buckley, had a DJ's ear for mixing genres, styles, beats. He'd throw violins in with guitars, toss organs against the elaborate cursive of brass and never scrimp on bass—Larry Graham could always be counted on to turn up the funk, forever altering our expectations of what bass playing could and should sound like. While the lyrics were about hope, striving for a better future, for better race relations, the music itself was about the unruliness of the mix.

Growing up in California, the backdrop for so many people's projected dreams, you almost expect life to have a score, at the very least some sort of theme song. On the playground of my ethnically mixed elementary school in a predominantly black neighborhood just east of Crenshaw—1968, post-Watts riots—Sly & the Family Stone's hit single "Everyday People" seemed a fitting score for our sometimes tense little experiment in race relations. The song was ubiquitous, yet perfectly tailored to fit the odd contours of California's (on the face of it) easygoing sensibility: "We got to live together." "Everyday People" became our unofficial schoolyard anthem—the turn-of-the-jump-rope rhyme. It was a mishmash of new sounds in the spirit of my split-pea-green, lace-up leather jumper.

Sly's borderless thinking changed not just the way we listened to or, rather, heard music, but the way we felt it. It was something visceral. He and his mixed-race vagabond family rendered boundaries superfluous, amping up psychedelia with a sweaty basement bass, screaming guitars, gospel allusions. It was spirit music for the world. Consequently, I'm a black woman who loves thick-as-molasses bass lines and neck-hair-raising guitar solos—and really, I don't see why they can't coexist in the space of one song. In other words, I love rock, but it's got to have a soul.

It would be too neat to suggest that Sly is the only reason my brother eventually picked up a guitar and hasn't ever let go, finding himself in various bands playing everything from jazz to speed metal to ska—all of it a natural progression in his head. Or that for me, music has long been worth crossing borders for; no matter how treacherous, no matter the threat of being ostracized, the reward was too great. But after Sly Stone, borders became passageways. His ecumenical approach to songwriting, to performance, to life, slipped me a passkey to open up many doors and step inside and wander. I learned early that rock was never very far away from soul, and that jazz shares a fence with classical, and that people all over the world sing their version of the blues. And that was just for starters.

Sly's fearless commitment to inclusion epitomized what it was to live a life in the mix—my California—a place full of contradictions, distractions and noise. Ours was a world, a life, that looked and sounded utterly different from anywhere else: It had its own pace, tongue and touchstones. This was a place where things happened in the nexus, in the coming together. Sly wasn't afraid to acknowledge all of the many parts that made him him. In a time of black nationalist pride and Woodstock love-ins, Sly could hold two opposing thoughts in his head and not skip a beat. His music synthesized the contradictions and spit them out again in a way that felt urgent, colloquial and relevant. Life, like art, was political. It could be silly. And it also could have a groove.

"Fresh" would turn out to be the last of the great Sly & the Family Stone albums. The moment was over. What was left was the rubble of urban riots, the ruins of Vietnam and the irreparable fracturing of the nation's trust in government. The peace-and-love fest was fraying, and so too the bonds of one of the period's most emblematic musical ensembles.

On the cover of "Fresh," fashion photographer Richard Avedon was somehow able to extract what was left of Sly Stone's ebullient spirit: shooting him all in leather, midair, letting loose a radiant smile. Who knew we were at the end of it? Sly's descent into drugs and the band's discord would become a metaphor for post-'60s disillusionment.

Rumors spin, and along with them all manner of theories about what happened in those later years. Sly was "caught in the middle," "between two worlds": The black nationalists urged him to be more political and outspoken. The white pop world felt bruised by his straight-up confrontations over how race is played in America, a theme he gave voice to in "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey," on the 1969 album "Stand!" But without Sly in front of us to consider the question of why he walked away, the most likely answer is that it was just time, something as simple as the retreating line on "If You Want Me to Stay": "I'm through, babe."

At least for the moment.

There have been sightings of late: Sly riding around Hollywood on a motorcycle; sporting a blond Mohawk; showing up for a gig at the Knitting Factory to cheer on his little sister; slipping into a party-in-progress dressed head-to-toe in white leather. All of the reports could very well be greatly exaggerated. Somehow, though, I think not. With "Different Strokes," the silence has been broken. And unlike Elvis, he's not dead yet.

Sly Stone has always had a kaleidoscopic vision. Not in a nostalgic or psychedelic sense, but in a creative sense and as a metaphor for life: How you shake it determines what you get. All those shards shift, fall into place—and always make something altogether new.

Lynell George, a senior writer for West, is the author of "No Crystal Stair: African-Americans in the City of Angels."

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World