This article originally appeared in Issue 18 of
on Sept. 1, 1968.
I first saw Sly and the Family Stone at the Electric Circus in the fall of 1967. At that time they were fairly much unknown. I was surprised to find them singing some of the hippest music around. They were from San Francisco and came to New York on the tail end of the San Francisco folk-rock renaissance in the East.
The first night I came into the automatic Electric Circus I heard this very funky bass as I was walking up the stairs. Then as I got to the opening to the dance floor I saw couples dancing in the black light of the rear in a confusion of luminous white shirts and flowered dresses. The scene reminded me of my San Francisco days and the dances at the Fillmore, the Avalon Ballroom, and the Steam Beer Factory. I miss that whole scene; here in New York, dancing is all but outlawed. As I moved onto the dance floor, I saw a huge circle of people surrounding the podium and a solid line of six dancing people on the stage. On the far right was Sly at the organ swaying and weaving and getting up to buck dance with his two brothers on guitar: Larry, who plays the bottom (the bass), and Freddy, SIy’s blood brother and lead guitarist and singer. The stage was solid motion. Heading the woodwinds was Cynthia Robinson, a saucy tomato from Sacramento with thick red hair and a sensual bougaloo. She blows a hot lip trumpet (the only female player of trumpet l’ve seen in any group) and comes forth with a sensual gutsy blues wail as well. Sly, Freddy, and Larry do some fantastic rhythm steps. They wave their long black locks and kick their dogs high doing the pony while never missing a note by voice or axe. I could not tell whether the brothers wore marcels or wigs but the effects were strikingly strange.
The Family Stone with Sly at the helm plays minor concerts. Each tune connected by organ interludes is a cog in a larger wheel of tunes that swell a spectrum from blues ballad to bip-bop jass rock back to hard-up-against-the-wall rhythm ‘n’ blues. All include organ solos, intricate Bantu voice harmonics, and holy roller incantations and exhortations. Sly and the Family Stone provide a happy jumping chorus with their voices as well as instruments welded in spirit nommo as one. They explode the energy of an orchestra. The trumpet and saxophone combinations enable them to capture the dramatic flailing woodwind rhythm ‘n’ blues changes.
The second time I saw them was at the Fillmore East on Second Avenue. Sly plays a Beulah Baptist organ. His white Gabriel cape gleams like the full moon. He riffs Egyptian chromatics with the ease of a jacklegged preacher. You begin to think he can heal people right onstage. He throws fire and he holds it back—all under control—behind the urban Baptist beat. He rides along solidly. Larry on the bottom with the bass sometimes gets into out of sight interplays with Sly’s organ.
In Sly’s tunes I hear James P. Johnson, Jelly Roll Morton, and some James Cleveland too. Rural black lands and the southern crossings of freight trains, the transcended peoples of Africa tuning their symphony banjos of Euro-America to the pitch of their voice, their rap. Voices like instruments, instruments like voices.
The seven members of Sly and the Family Stone fill the stage. Their movements cinemascope human harmonics in dance and jig. The three brothers pony and hucklebuck in popeye-leg motions, shake down and ball the jack. Sly, Freddy, and Larry get into some fantastic harmony and rhythm things with their voices. Like for instance their boom-boom vocal harmonics which made “Dance to the Music” an instantly recognizable hit.
Their boom harmonies are but part of their arsenal of innovative effects that seriously challenge the traditional rhythm ‘n’ blues establishment of New York City and Detroit: the East. Sly’s songs say something more than “I love you, baby, and you do/or you don’t love me.” Take, for instance, his “Don’t Burn Baby Burn,” where he turns a popular saying among black militants into a moving ballad. Or “Jane ls a Groupie,” which is blessed with a Lambert, Hendricks and Ross virtuosity. He also has a song on his latest album (which as of this writing is not out yet) where he talks of the city of the future: “Where everybody will be able to groove with everybody else.” “City of Love” is the name, I think.
Sly definitely has something to say. He stands strong among the young innovators of today, the young revolutionaries. But Sly’s revolution is more towards Marshall McLuhan than, say, Rap Brown. His field is communication, the electromagnetic bands, a plethora of electronic instruments, amplifiers, between microphones, headphones, dance hall or audience or recording studio, where he stands with the engineer mixing his tapes at the Columbia Studios in New York. He puts the record together, mixing, listening, talking. He sits as long as the engineer does and is in on whatever goes down. While we were talking late one night at the studio he perked up at a remark passed between the engineers. “What do you mean ‘make it louder for the commercial stations’? Like ‘Mrs. Robinson,’ huh?”
Some believe a huge monster of electrical energy threatens to take over music. (Read Harvey Swados’s novel, False Coin, or go to a John Cage concert.) As Sly says, “Some groups just play loud.” They are absorbed into the living organism of electricity. Sly stands strong against the giant amplifiers of the Fillmore East or CBS’s voltage stockpile on East 52nd. His music is basically earth-oriented—in the Pentecostal tradition, the imparting of spirit of life, of vitality, the voice as a vessel of nommo, the body expressive of the spirit to even be played upon as a drum. Sly makes you feel the music groundswelling under you, throbbing in your backbone, making you tap your foot and bounce up and down. On the other hand, like at the concert where Sly and Jimi Hendrix performed on the same bill, Hendrix’s music assaulted the brain. Not in a harmful way like the noise of the city, which is the worst possible noise for our organism to endure, according to our scientists. Hendrix sublimates these horrible sounds of subways and exploding Mack trucks, jet exhaust buses and “dig we must” (“exploitation of energy for profit”) fascist sounds into a beautiful music with a pyramid base of urban blues guitar, like B. B. King’s looney obbligato screams, Blind Lemon’s Justice of Country Space, Jimmy Reed’s urban diddy bop beats, and exalts them all beyond our imagination. We hear spaceships landing, changing gears and turbines, factories, Frankenstein static blasts, jets taking off and exploding into melody. Ethereal melodies of the cosmos—Atomic Warfare, Volton Shagno, and Shiva. Like much of what Sun Ra does on organ, though not nearly as far out. Sun Ra says he has reached Jupiter. I would put Hendrix closer to the moon with a great deal of lunar intensity. I place Sly along with Hendrix, Havens, and the Chambers Brothers as the avant-garde of rhythm ‘n’ blues. And Nashville is also feeling some of the waves. Newark is strong in itself, taking the traditional to a genius extreme in the personages of Shorty Long and J. J. Jackson. But Hendrix, Sly, Havens, and to a lesser extent the Chambers Brothers have done for the black soul stations what in part black deejay Del Shields of WLIB has been screaming his head off for some time now at NARA conventions. And that is to bring some black intelligence and variance to the dilemma in programming that the black stations have fallen into under white ivy league management. A sign of the changing times is also evidenced by folksinger-poet-composer-troubadour Len Chandler’s gig with KRLA in L.A., in which he writes songs as part of the daily news commentary. Len Chandler’s mini-operas on his two Columbia LPs have had an underground effect on eastern black music.
Sly possesses a strong stooping pride and strangely Piscean face—rather strikingly close to Martin Luther King’s sargasso geechie lips and glinting barracuda eyes. Otis Redding is also a Pisces. Sly has Redding’s awareness of elemental melody. If there be a universal spectrum of sound, then I would place Redding and Sly into that continuum. Like the Yogis believe that sound has a deep effect on the physical body—that certain notes caress certain organs and glands (they call them chakras), that these glands and organs differently affect our sensibilities and emotions and that therefore music can affect the body in different ways—making one feel good or bad (to be simplistic). Many cultures (mainly outside the USA) consider music sacred, especially some of the ancient cultures like Egypt where the musicians gigged in the temples. Music can make you feel good. Norman Mailer attests to how he went to a Sun Ra concert in Chicago and got cured of a nasty cold. Sly makes me feel good. His music throbs an earthly loving movement. Sly has an elemental dedication which shines forth from his face. There is also the driving force and stubbornness of the bull. I remember the first time I saw him at the Electric Circus. Between the fortunately frequent appearances of the group, they would quietly play cards and receive visitors. They vivify a family unity and dedication that comes across as a devotional ceremony when they play.
Indeed it was like a devotional ritual, a jass funeral to Shango (the African god of life and death) when the Family Stone sang Otis Redding’s classic “Try a Little Tenderness.” Sly did not sing it exactly like Redding, nor did he sing it exactly like himself. He moved in between Redding, his own here and remaining true to the original there. Towards the crucial climax of tenderness, that beautiful building up Redding did which made us burst in anticipation of the clashing woodwinds and Otis’s plea, a screaming “got to got to try and please her.” When Sly gets to this point, he suspends tenderness in a heartsinking abyss. Sly holds the “got to got to,” slowly begins to repeat it, and then staggers the phrase; his brothers join; the pendulum swings wider and wider and pretty soon the three brothers are into a time-suspending chant: “got to got to now now now, got to got to now now now got to got to now now now.” They chant it for a while, and pretty soon we have ceased to hear the original words. We’re hearing something else, something closer to the utter archetypal root of the words in the melody, something out of the forests of Germany and those Anglo-Saxon crags off mainland Europe, with the backbone base of African drum chant in body ruba. And then after what seems like an eternity, a trip at the speed of light over continents and centuries, they end “Tenderness” in the resounding glory of Otis. The light show screen shows purple orbs merging and exploding into an immense twilight blue. Then they break into a fire and brimstone rhythm, and then as quickly into the hambone. We wanted the audience to quit the freak applause, so we could hear the three brothers’ hambones individually (the thump of hand on chest and the slap of palm on thigh dual rhythm in hump position) to discover if they were into anything. They were together. Then they jump into traditional proscenium Apollo steps, and the freight train is off once more.
Even in the timelessness the Family Stone can get us into, Sly has the power to rock the joint at any given moment. Each tune is irrevocably interwoven. We can dance for the duration. Then Sly is into a pure blind blending of the rock and rhythm beat with jass improvisations on guitar, organ, trumpet, and saxophone. The jass is reminiscent of Lester Young, Charlie Parker, and Clark Terry in the bip bop and cool periods of the late forties and early fifties. Sly reveals, as Sun Ra says, “an infinity in music that includes the past, the present, and the future.”
One Saturday we conducted a mock interview which really consisted of going around to the Lower East Side Village head shops, and shopping on St. Marks Place for a dress for his old lady. They were to go to the Americana that night to hear the Fifth Dimension. We drove around and got back to the hotel. After a series of changes in which we had to get a friend who was taking us to a kamikaze oriental sword-fighting ?ick, we grouped at his hotel for a hot hour concentrated talk before dashing to Chinatown.
In the ensuing hour, Sly filled us in on some of the questions and assumptions we posed. Sly could be called a musical prodigy, inasmuch as he started singing and playing at the age of four as part of a church group at the All Nation Church of God and Christ. All of four years old, he sang in a family group which included his brothers and sisters, called the Stewart Four. His sister and brother sing with him now not many years later. He is a neighbor of Little Dion the five-year-old (Jackie Wilson) musical talent on the Coast. Sly’s father and mother sang together as a duo when they were young. Now Sly’s father is their road manager. Sly made a recording with the Stewart Four backing him up called “On the Battlefield for My Lord.” When we asked Sly who was his chief musical mentor, he answered after a long pause, “a fellow named Blind Daniel. He was a man of the Lord who used to visit our church and sing and play.”
Sly has two albums (A Whole New Thing and Dance to the Music) out on Epic, as is his latest, of which I don’t know the name. Dance to the Music takes off from the hit 45 of the same title. A whole side is devoted to the exploration of that tune and, as Sly says, basic message of frivolity of dance and rhythm. “Dance to the Music”—a simple sentiment holding together a welter of thought. If only the population could indeed dance to the music, the music of life, instead of, as England’s Anthony Powell says, the music of time. Fuck time. I recommend both albums—especially if you dance, they are indispensable. Both of the albums have a myriad of beautiful and surprising effects, and they are good to make love to as well. A Whole New Thing blends the ballad and the jump tune with fineness. We found especially pleasing a tune called “If This Room Could Talk.” It’s a ballad about, as you guessed, a cat in a room thinking about his old lady. It has beautiful Indian (American) effects. The theme is transmuted from the western movies, but their harmonies vocally transform the wary cry into a modulating tour de force. “Let Me Hear It from You” is a beautiful ballad from baritone-bass Larry. He tells his girl that if she wants to break up with him he wants to hear it from her. I remember in the fifties when groups like the Dells, the Spaniels, and the Velours, up at the Apollo, all had fantastic deep basses. Larry qualifies as a boss bass. He covers the bottom instrumentally and vocally. On Dance to the Music, I recommend the entire album, especially “Higher” and the “Dance to the Music” medley. On the other side, “Color Me True” and the boss ballad “Don’t Burn Baby Burn” and “Never Will I Fall in Love Again.” I guess the total message of this long-winded piece is to strongly pull your coat to the Family Stone. They provide in their music a sure and avant-garde direction to where the rhythm and race music is going. Goodbye.