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Sly (and the Family) Stone/Graham Central Station

Reviewed on this page:
A Whole New Thing - Dance To The Music - Life - Stand - Greatest Hits - There's A Riot Going On - Fresh - Small Talk - Graham Central Station - Release Yourself - Ain't No 'Bout-A-Doubt it - High On You - Mirror - Rose - Now Do-U-Wanta Dance - My Radio Sure Sounds Good To Me - Back On The Right Track - Star Walk - One In A Million You - Just Be My Lady - Ain't But The One Way - GCS2000 - Already Motivated - I'm Back! Family & Friends

The Family Stone's producer/songwriter/lead singer, Sly tried harder than any 60s pop star to realize the hippie dream of universal love, putting together a racially and sexually integrated band, and singing songs celebrating freedom, individuality, and music itself. Can we blame him for the fact that the dream didn't last? Musically he assimilated everything around him - R&B, psychedelic rock, Broadway - into a compelling personal style. Still celebrated by hip-hop and funk fans, Sly is usually remembered by rocksters as a trivial AM hitmaker. In fact, he was a first-rate innovator who influenced contemporaries like Jimi Hendrix ("We Gotta Live Together," "Straight Ahead"), Eric Clapton ("Gotta Get Better In A Little While") and Stevie Wonder (lots of stuff), and singlehandedly opened the minds of musicians, fans and radio programmers alike.

For the past three decades he has struggled personally and professionally, running afoul of the law for sundry reasons, while his infrequent releases have met with lackluster sales and reviews. One can only hope that such a major talent will eventually get himself back on track. Landmark bassist Larry Graham later formed Graham Central Station, and I've reviewed most of their records as well. I saw Graham open for in 1997 and reviewed that show; ten years later, I finally caught Sly - at least I think that was him. I've also reviewed a recent bio. For various clues about Stone mysteries, check the "true offical website," Phatta Datta. (DBW)

Personnel: Sly, vocals, organ, everything; Freddie Stone, guitar, vocals; Larry Graham, bass, vocals (left in 1973); Rosie Stone, electric piano, vocals; Greg Errico, drums (left in 1971 or a little earlier); Jerry Martini, sax; Cynthia Robinson, trumpet.

A Whole New Thing (1967)
Well, not exactly. There's a very strong Stax/Volt influence here, plus some Motown, and a lot of Sixties-style studio experimentation. But there's a lot of originality in the tunes themselves, and Sly's offhand lyrics and the phenomenal rhythm section are already in place: most of the record still sounds fresh today, like "Trip To Your Heart," a piece of which formed the basis of LL Cool J's 1990 hit "Mama Said Knock You Out." The recent CD release (about time, guys!) includes a bonus track, the fine "What Would I Do." (DBW)

Dance To The Music (1968)
Sly's more of a leader than a follower here, and sister Rosie's powerful vocals add to the mix. Sly uses the exact same chord progression on count 'em five songs, and almost gets away with it: "Dance To The Medley," a twelve-minute party, is a tour de force. Other excellent songs include the soulful "Never Will I Fall In Love Again," and the funky "Color Me True." Don't hunt for the new CD release if all you need is the bonus track: "Soul Clappin'" is just another version of "Dance To The Music." (DBW)

Life (1968)
- I want to slap somebody for keeping this record out of print so long. (Attention govt/legal types: I'm not really going to do it, please don't close down this site and arrest me.) Brilliant songs abound, from the blaring guitars of "Dynamite!" to the subdued funk of "Into My Own Thing" to the pop hits "Fun" and "Life." The only sour note is Sly recording "Dance To The Music" yet again, this time under the title "M'Lady." (New CD release has another worthwhile bonus track, "Only One Way Out Of This Mess.") (DBW)
- An uneven attempt to blend the band's earlier R & B influences with the wordplay and musical eclecticism of Frank Zappa. But Stone's social satires ("Plastic Jim"), counter-culture parodies ("Jane Is A Groupee"), and random silliness ("Chicken"; "I'm An Animal") all sound childish, clumsy, and conventional compared to Zappa's contemporary records, even though they point the way to the band's full-blown acid-funk formula on the next record. The better tracks still ride close to Stone's sources ("Dynamite!" is like James Brown meets Quicksilver, like many tracks featuring much more aggressive, heavily distorted guitar parts than usual). Still, though, the band rocks hard ("Love City"); there's plenty of solid, up-beat entertainment like the funk/Stax-Volt hybrids "Fun" and "Harmony," and the lumbering, experimental "Into My Own Thing"; and there are amusing production touches like the circus clown horns on the Motown-ish "Life." (JA)

Stand! (1969)
Sly allows himself to have fun on record in a way almost no one else ever has, and it's contagious. Packed with important songs ("Everyday People," "Stand," "Sing A Simple Song," "I Want To Take You Higher"), the only weakness is Sly's tendency to overuse the same production gimmick throughout a record. Here, he falls in love with double-tracked bass (one channel fuzzed, the other clean) and scat singing through what sounds like a wah-wah'ed megaphone. (DBW)
Not to mention phased drums. Still, Sly was a million miles ahead of uptight Motown competitors like the Temptations at this point; and none of his white rock contemporaries had anything approaching his brassy ensemble sound. This is an otherwise brilliant record disgraced by two obnoxiously longwinded, over-freakified tracks - "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey" (slightly clever, but 5:55); and "Sex Machine" (wordless, and 13:42!). The monster #2 hit single "Hot Fun In The Summertime," released earlier the same year, is not included. (JA)

Greatest Hits (1970)
Collects the hits from the first records and single-only hits like "Everybody Is A Star," "Hot Fun" and the birth of slap bass and electronic funk: "Thank You falettinme be mice elf agin." Also in 1970, Sly wrote and produced a single for Joe Hicks ("I'm Goin' Home" b/w "Home Sweet Home") and two singles for his sister Vet's group, Little Sister ("You're The One Pts. 1 & 2" and "Somebody's Watching You" b/w "Stanga"). (DBW)

There's A Riot Goin' On (1971)
"The nicer the nice, the higher the price." As deeply as he had believed in the promise of the counterculture, Sly's disillusionment here is equally extreme. Submerged anger and bitterness are the watchwords for this unparalleled statement - this is the record I reach for when the shit hits the fan. Rereleased with three bonus tracks, but they're minimal instrumentals, mostly just bass, keyboard and The Man In The Box. (DBW)
There are a few problems here, like the overlong "Africa Talks To You 'The Asphalt Jungle'," and a nice but needless 7-minute version of "Thank You falettinme be mice elf agin," slowed down and augmented by a super-cool riff ("Thank You For Talkin' To Me Africa"). And it's not packed with hits the way Stand! is. However, Riot was Sly's only #1 album, and I'll grant that it's better than Stand! - it certainly has a unique, strangely muted sound, with plenty of electric piano, clavinet, and soulful, wah-wah'ed vocals. Highlights include the soothing, bouncy #1 hit "Family Affair," with a great bass vocal; "Poet"; brilliant lyrics and horn parts on "Runnin' Away"; and Sly's JB imitation on "Brave & Strong." Not to mention his crazy yodelling on "Spaced Cowboy"... (JA)

Fresh (1973)
Stone pulls off some amazing things here: the opening "In Time" is slow, relentlessly syncopated and incredibly funky; "Babies Making Babies" is sorrowful, soul-searching and incredibly funky; "If You Want Me To Stay" is popwise, melodic and still incredibly funky. He even gets away with a cover of a horrendous Doris Day tune ("Que Sera Sera"). The album's charmingly disorganized, with rambling lyrics ("Thankful 'N Thoughful"), confused political soapboxing ("I Don't Know (Satisfaction)"), and even the record's one dud: the cornball "If It Were Left Up To Me," which sounds like it belongs on Life, is pleasant and brief. Graham had left by now to form his own band, and the bass lines are by Sly himself or new recruit Rusty Allen; the rest of the band was basically unchanged. (DBW)

Small Talk (1974)
This is out of print for some reason, and I had a hell of a time tracking down a copy (thanks Paul!). This is mostly the same band as Fresh - sister Vet Stewart joins on keyboards and vocals, and Bill Lordan is on drums - and generally in a mellow funk groove. "Loose Booty" is the major exception, a blaring horn-driven uptempo workout that was a flop single. That's his baby vocalizing on the title track, two years ahead of Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely." The lyrics aren't much, there's not as much variety as you might want, and the disc sags on side two ("Wishful Thinkin'," "Better Thee Than Me," the doo-wop "This Is Love"), but if you're a fan of Sly's early 70s work you'll play the grooves off of this. (DBW)
A gold record, so why the hell is it out of print? Drummer Bill Lordan was in the band for this disc; he soon hooked up with Robin Trower. (JA)

Graham Central Station (Graham Central Station: 1974)
The first album by Graham's new band is more of a solo project: he plays drums, guitar and piano on most tracks besides his usual bass. The sound is amazingly close to Sly's, from the heavy funk arrangements right down to the lyrical preoccupations with kitschy social commentary ("People") and the narrator's wild and crazy persona ("Hair"). But the careful production smooths away Sly's rough edges, resulting in comfortable, predictable grooves ("Tell Me What It Is"). Patryce "Chocolate" Banks contributes lead vocals to the generic love song "Why?" and "We Be's Gettin' Down"; Graham sings the rest of the leads, and wrote everything except the album's best song, Al Green's "It Ain't No Fun To Me." The band includes David "Dynamite" Vega (guitar), Hershall "Happiness" Kennedy and Robert "Butch" Sam (keyboards), and Willie "Wild" Sparks (drums). Enjoyable for funkateers and particularly Sly fans, but don't look for any of Stone's innovation. (DBW)

Release Yourself (Graham Central Station: 1974)
Slicker and less original than their debut, as Graham runs his formula of superficially engaging riffs (title track) and feel-good catchphrases ("Got To Go Through It To Get To It") into the ground. Even the funkiest tracks ("I Believe In You," later a concert staple for the Artist Formerly Known As Prince) suffer from the too-smooth production (which is credited to God). But he doesn't have the subtlety or melodicism to really pull off smooth soul, making this a rather disapppointing listen. Still, his lively good humor and virtuosity keep things from getting too terrible. Again, Graham plays many of the tracks, backed by the same basic band as the previous release. (DBW)

Ain't No 'Bout-A-Doubt It (Graham Central Station: 1975)
An incredible rebound for Graham, his peak commercially and probably artistically as well: the irresistable funk pop single "Your Love" went gold; the band is spotlighted on the powerful instrumental "The Jam"; Chocolate makes the most of her vocal feature, a cover of Ann Peebles' "I Can't Stand The Rain" (everything else is by Graham); and there are plenty of heavy grooves ("It's Alright," "Water"). Even the weaker tracks are endearing: the record company ode "It Ain't Nothing But A Warner Bros. Party" and the over-the-top Broadway belter "Luckiest People." This is the band at its tightest, and Graham at his most focused - if you're curious about GCS, start here. (DBW)

High On You (1975)
Stone seems to have run out of new ideas by this record; the title song (with a great bass line by Bobby Vega), "Crossword Puzzle" and "Who Do You Love?" are effective, but conceptually they're basically reruns. The worst songs are positively embarrassing ("Le-Lo-Li"), and you should spare yourself unless you're a devoted fan. The band is mostly the same, with holdovers Freddie, Martini and Robinson, plus Allen on "Organize," and a bunch of different drummers - Sister Rose had temporarily split. Truman Thomas adds keyboards - he also apparently led the Family Stone through 1975 sessions for the Temptations' Wings Of Love. (DBW)

Mirror (Graham Central Station: 1976)
When Graham's on, he makes funk sound so easy: killer tracks like "Do Yah" roll out so offhandedly they sound effortless. As with the previous album, his bread and butter is heavy funk (title track) with an occasional ballad ("Love (Covers A Multitude Of Sins)"). But he keeps messing with the formula: "Save Me" finds room for disco strings, an organ break, and so many musical detours you may not even notice it's a Scripture lesson. (Around this time he seems to have become occupied with the spiritual concerns that eventually led him to the Jehovah's Witnesses.) In other sneakiness, Graham remakes "Dear Prudence" as a funky love song ("Priscilla"). My only criticism of the sound is that Graham's bass is so front and center it sometimes overwhelms the tunes ("I Got A Reason," with a shared lead vocal); there's one composition that doesn't pull its weight, the synth-overloaded, unfortunately named "Forever." (DBW)

Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I'm Back (1976)
I don't have this; it was a flop and hasn't made it to CD. By now the only original members left were Sly and Cynthia. Peter Frampton plays lead guitar on "Let's Be Together." (DBW)

Rose (Rose Banks: 1976)
A solo album from Rose (who had by now married Hamp "Bubba" Banks), with backing provided by Freddie Stone, Allen, Thomas, Robinson, Pat Rizzo, and David T. Walker. Producer Jeffrey Bowen tries a little bit of everything - a version of Sly's "High On You"; Motown remakes (Holland-Dozier-Holland's "Darling Baby") and original material - but never succeeds in defining Rose's sound. Either she sounds like she's trying too hard (the Arethaesque piano ballad "I've Got To Make It On My Own") or, more often, not hard enough (the somewhat funky "Right's Alright"). At best, the record is listenable 70s pop ("You're Much Too Beautiful For Words," recalling Minnie Riperton) but nothing special. (DBW)

Now Do-U-Wanta Dance? (Graham Central Station: 1977)
The same good-time vibe as Graham's previous discs, but lacking in subtlety ("Crazy Chicken") and tunefulness: "Stomped Beat-Up And Whooped" is pseudo-doowop a la "Your Love," but unengaging; "Have Faith In Me" is a flabby love song that never hits the heights it reaches for. "Earthquake" is a bass-heavy tour de funk that became a staple of Graham's live act, but even that gets lost amid distracting codas and sound effects. There's a cover of Al Green's "Love And Happiness," and "Lead Me On" is by Deadric Malone; otherwise it's all by Larry. By now, Chocolate had moved on, and Gaylord "Flash" Birch had replaced Sparks on drums. (DBW)

My Radio Sure Sounds Good To Me (Graham Central Station: 1978)
Like his mentor, Graham started having trouble holding his band together. By this release, he sounds like a solo artist working with a bunch of faceless session musicians. He's also running short on tunes, as several of the tracks have minimal melodies ("Are You Happy?," "Is This Love"). But none of that matters, because his bass playing is better than ever - he can floor you with unbelievable speed and precision (the aptly-named "Pow"), move you with deceptively simple elastic lines ("Boogie Witcha, Baby"), or hit you with a distorted solo ("Turn It Out"). Lots of good riff tunes help too ("Pow"), and there's lots of variety (the pseudo-doowop title track) - plus Graham's cheerful attitude is winning. Not the most profound album you ever heard, but fans of old school funk should definitely give this a listen (if you can find it - it's still out of print). (DBW)

Back On The Right Track (1979)
Basically a Sly pastiche, as producer Mark Davis pillaged the Family Stone back catalog to come up with new songs. "If It's Not Addin' Up..." relies on the "Thank You" bass line; "The Same Thing (Makes You Laugh, Makes You Cry)" sounds like "The Asphalt Jungle"; "Simple Song" is recycled during "Shine It On" and "It Takes All Kinds"; and so on. Unlike any of Sly's other records, here there's absolutely no hint of how brilliant he can be. Cynthia, Freddie and Rose add some tracks, but most of the instruments are by a band of little reknown: Alvin Taylor (drums), Keni Burke (bass), Hamp Banks and Joseph Baker (guitars) with Davis on keys. The disc cracked the Top 200, unlike some of Sly's other comeback attempts, but still didn't make a lot of impact; that same year, Sly and Freddie guested on a Bonnie Pointer album. (DBW)

Star Walk (Larry Graham: 1979)
This sounds like it was cut in a hurry: it's stereotypical Graham funk, with servicable hooks and technical flash, but no depth. There are only six songs, and they mostly go on forever, particularly the corny ballad "Tonight" - the shortest cut, "The Entertainer" is also the most energetic and the most enjoyable. The lyrics are sillier than usual, but not in an engaging way ("Sneaky Freak"). Graham's band had almost disappeared by now, with Larry playing nearly all the tracks, and bringing in outsiders Ron Kersey and Maurice Spears to add strings and horns respectively. If you're already a fan you'll bob your head to "Scream" and "(You're A) Foxy Lady," but if you want to find out why this guy's a bass legend, look elsewhere.(DBW)

One In A Million You (Larry Graham: 1980)
If the previous record over-relied on lengthy funk workouts and Graham's bass-playing dexterity, this disc has the opposite problem: nearly every song is a sickly-sweet ballad ("Forever Yours") or pop tune ("Sweetheart") with almost no bass playing at all. Larry played and wrote almost everything himself (no horns or strings), and a couple of tracks are winners: "Stand Up And Shout About Love" has a moving verse, bouncy chorus and funky fade; "I'm So Glad It's Summer Again" is lightweight but fun. The only pure funk tune is a dull rerun ("I Just Can't Stop Dancing"), and his most venturesome bass playing is on the brief, demo-like "Sunshine, Love And Music." The sappy title song (written by Sam Dees) was Graham's biggest post-Sly hit, pulling this album into the Top Forty. (DBW)

Just Be My Lady (Larry Graham: 1981)
After "One In A Million You" returned Graham to the charts, he cut an album consisting purely of schlocky ballads: "Loving You Is Beautiful," "Our Love Keeps Growing Strong," "I Just Love You," etc. It's damn difficult to tell one track from another, with no memorable melodies, instrumental variety, or clever lyrics - it's difficult enough just staying awake. Jesse and Jo Ann Belvin wrote "Guess Who," and Tina Graham (backing vocals), Eric Daniels (keyboards), Wilton Rabb (guitar) and Noel Closson (drums) contribute some tracks, but basically this is a one-man show. Too bad it's uniformly dreadful - the only part you might enjoy is the album cover, where Graham is wearing a very sharp purple suit and tie. (DBW)

Ain't But The One Way (1982)
Though this is credited to Sly and the Family Stone, there are a million guest musicians, and it's really a Sly solo album. There are good hooks (title track) and mildly clever lyrics ("Hobo Ken"), but it's overprofessional: there's none of the farsighted originality or endearing sloppiness of his best work. The best example of this is his cover of the Kinks' "You've Really Got Me," which falls flat despite neat tricks like wailing sax and vocoder. The only track that shows Sly's true idiosyncratic colors is a 44-second improvised organ and vocal number, "Sylvester." (DBW)

Sooner Or Later (Larry Graham: 1982)
Graham nods to 80s dance music on "I Feel Good" and the title track (present in vocal and instrumental mixes), using a variety of special effects - overamplified fingersnaps, pitch-wheeled synth, and most criminally, Moog bass - that just scream "1982!" Otherwise it's basically a mix of Just Be My Lady mawkishness ("Let Me Come Into Your Life"; "You're My Girl") and Star Walk underwritten jams ("Don't Stop When You're Hot"). George Duke produced two cuts, the ballad "Still Thinkin' Of You" and the jive, slap-pop funk "Walk Baby Walk," and it's a very bad sign that his work is no worse than Graham's... that's what they call in the finance biz a "negative leading indicator." (DBW)

Victory (Larry Graham: 1983)

Fired Up (Larry Graham: 1985)

GCS2000 (Graham Central Station: 1999)
Another reclamation project for The Artist, who co-produced and turns up on a few songs, including "Free" (along with Chaka Khan). The material is all by Graham, and it's mostly new, except for a painful eight minute version of his listless 1981 single "Just Be My Lady," and an opening hodgepodge of GCS hits ("Intro"). He hasn't lost any of his technique on bass, which he proves with his solo feature ("I'magettin'") and masterful light touches on "Don't Let 'Em Change U," but the production and compositions are disappointing. Nearly every song features a unvarying, obvious programmed drum track, overwhelming even the better tunes ("Free"). Meanwhile, most of the bass lines are simple and unmemorable, the lead vocals lack spark, and there are no surprises in the arrangements except for nasty lead synth on "Love 4 1another": though the Hornheadz blow on nearly every track, they don't get much to do. Worst of all, Graham seems to have misplaced his sense of humor: social statements ("Utopia") and love songs ("I Just Found Somebody 2 Love") alike lack his earlier engaging charm. Graham laid down most of the tracks himself; other players include one original GCS member, "Butch" Sam, plus Martini and Robinson from the Family Stone. (DBW)

Already Motivated (Rose Stone: 2008)
Rose Stone's first album in thirty-some years is a laid-back but well considered set. She works with Brother Freddie's church these days, and many of the tunes reflect Christian concerns ("Higher Love"), but the sound isn't gospel, it's an modernized take on Sly's Riot period (the slowly simmering title track). In fact, a version of the Family Stone appears on "Sooner Or Later," while "Here I Go Again" includes a lengthy quote from "Thank You" and briefer interpolations from other hits. Some of the tunes are slight ("Love Is More Than Words") but the confidence of her vocals and songwriting is winning. While most of the instruments are subordinated to the groove, Rose gets in a tasty organ solo on "Perfect Love" (not the Patrice Rushen song). (DBW)

In 2008, Sly Stone appeared on George Clinton And His Gangsters Of Love and the debut CD of daughter Novena's band, BabyStone.

I'm Back! Family & Friends (Sly Stone: 2011)
A collection of remakes (plus three new songs) with a heavy-duty Boomer guest list: Ray Manzarek (sneaking "Light My Fire" into "Dance To The Music"), Bootsy Collins ("Hot Fun In The Summertime"), Johnny Winter, Carmine Appice, and others. None of the material is reimagined in the slightest, and some of the guests are just vibing (Ann Wilson is almost inaudible on "Everyday People"). The big exception, unsurprisingly, is the redoubtable Jeff Beck, who lays a brilliant lead on "(I Want To Take You) Higher." Despite the unambitious environs, though, it's nice to hear Sly still has most of his voice ("Family Affair"). Best of the new tunes is "Plain Jane," with a deeply funky groove even though it never develops; the other two don't get off the ground at all (the mechanical "Get Away"). (DBW)

Raise Up (Larry Graham & Graham Central Station: 2012)
Apart from the rapturous "Throw - N - Down The Funk," Graham's first release in over a decade is shockingly thin: there are three perfunktory remakes ("It's Alright"), three Prince guest shots that sound like GCS2000 outtakes ("Movin'") and a cover of "Higher Ground." Cloying sentimentality returns on "Hold You Close" and the seven-minute slog "No Way." The good news is, the sound is very much like the band's 70s prime, with a live feel, blaring horns, good humor, and loads of bass ("It Ain't No Fun To Me"). Raphael Saadiq guests on "One Day." (DBW)

I wanna take you higher...

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