Sly Stone: Funky 7-0

By Jeremy Shatan, on 03 Mar 15, 2013

To my mind, there are three overwhelming geniuses of funk in the history of music: James Brown, Sly Stone and George Clinton. All of them are among my favorite artists but I would hazard that Sly is the most misunderstood. The 60's Sly - he of Woodstock and taking you higher - and the 70's Sly - he of blown concerts and "running away to get away" - are almost two different people. The culture embraced the former and, over time, rejected the latter. Perhaps that, more than the tragedy of his addictions, is what drove him into exile.

By the late 70's and early 80's, his later records were out of print and either maligned or forgotten. It was ironic because as his star waned, bands like the Ohio Players and Kool and the Gang had major success serving up an uncomplicated (if wonderful) version of what Sly had pioneered. In the early 90's, a friend sent me a copy of Fresh. I called him in California while it was still playing and asked why no one was talking about this record, why it was out of print (except on pricy and quasi-legal imports) and, most all why wasn't it in the canon? "I don't know, Jeremy, sometimes I think it's because it's just TOO funky." It is hellaciously funky, but after listening a few more times, I decided it was really because it was too personal.

Unlike a lot of funk and soul artists, starting with the masterpiece of There's A Riot Going On, Sly seemed to singing about specific people and situations instead of abstractions. Family Affair used to scare me slightly as a child - it was so real, so human. But as I got deeper into his catalog I just found more to love - and more to be sad about, since (aside from the odd appearance - sometimes very odd)  he seems to still be mostly in exile - from us, from his talent and from himself. Whatever his demons, from 1967 to 1980 he produced a remarkable catalog of work.

Fortunately, by now his catalog is in pretty good shape, with expanded versions of almost all of his albums easily available and a new box set on the way. Get it all.

James Brown is the giant, and George Clinton came from the Mothership on high, but Sly was the man who walked among us, dealing with his family, his past, and his worries. He gave of himself in a unique way over some of the most amazing grooves of all time. Here's a few of them to celebrate Sly's 70th birthday.