Californian Democracy

Genius mingles with dementia in a crucial seven-disc funk love letter

One of the all-time classic questions of rock music is, "Where is Sly Stone?" With the funk icon's habit (no pun intended) for turning up late (or not at all) to live performances back in the day—and his consequent disappearance from the public eye entirely by the mid '80s—it's long been a damn good question. Such a good question, matter of fact, that folks under 40 might not be out of line in asking, "Who is Sly Stone?" Last month, on April Fool's no less, the 64-year-old maestro played Vegas with a band calling itself the Family Stone, reportedly singing hits for nearly an hour. They have a Montreux gig lined up for July. Beginning with a brief showing at the 2006 Grammys, despite no small amount of apparent bodily ailments, Sly Stone is slowly returning to lay a few questions to rest.

The Collection answers everything else of consequence. A timely box set of seven remastered albums ranging from Sly and the Family Stone's 1967 debut A Whole New Thing to the '74 last gasp Small Talk, this anthology, with the usual accompaniment of fawning liners, rare pics, and B sides, provides detailed blueprints on how to construct a dirty-funk bomb. The late James Brown never withstanding, the soulful rock fusion in the sonics of N.E.R.D., Betty Davis, Martin Luther, Rick James, Labelle, and thousands of everyday-people funkateers selling homegrown joints on cdbaby.com all trace their syntheses back to the Family Stone, from Freddie Stone's manic electric guitar on "I'm an Animal" to the pioneering slap bass of Larry Graham Jr. corralling "M'Lady" (both from the long-overlooked Life) to the straight and narrow.

Sly Stone
Urve Knusik/Sony BMG Music Archives
Sly Stone

It began when former Autumn Records a&r man Sylvester Stewart ditched his DJ gig in San Fran to wave his freak flag with a newly formed, newly signed multicultural, unisex band. The Family Stone stood for the flower-power spirit of the Woodstock days like former Uptown a&r man Sean Combs embodied 1990s hiphop arriviste attitude. Living the zeitgeist, Sly was among the first to trade his psychedelic drugs for coke (and later "from coke to pep," according to Fresh's "In Time"), setting off his creative slide. But first came 1971's There's a Riot Goin' On, the enigmatic masterpiece of both the Family Stone and an era straddling hippie idealism and Vietnam disillusion. It's sadly hard to imagine any of Sly's progeny—OutKast, for example—crafting something as nakedly litmus-like for the Iraq era. For the meantime in-between time, we've got The Collection. Who'll be first to start the Internet petition for Sony to compile Sly and the Family Stone: Live at Woodstock?

 
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