Under the Microscope: Sly and the Family Stone’s “Dance to the Music”

1967 was a year of peace, love, unity, and having fun in Northern California. In the fall, during the aftermath of the summer of love (Which included The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s debut on American soil at the Monterey Pop Festival. During their performance of Wild Thing, Hendrix subsequently torched his own guitar; an iconic moment in rock n’ roll lore), an eclectic group of musicians released a single so fresh it stood above the rest. Sly and the Family Stone’s Dance to the Music was reminiscent of a shot from a cannon. A fusion of Motown and soul, with a dash of psychedelia, jazz, pop, gospel and rock. A groove so freeing your body naturally begins to dance before your conscious mind makes the choice.

Sly and the Family Stone broke the mold of what a musical force was traditionally. They were a multicultural group of brilliant young men and women. Sylvester Stewart, better known as Sly Stone, was the group’s charismatic, musical mad scientist. He was their principal songwriter and producer, as well as a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist. He sang with the heart-wrenching soul of Ray Charles. He performed with the raw energy of James Brown. He was a bandleader in the vein of jazz greats like Duke Ellington. Freddie Stone, the band’s legendary guitarist, left you in awe with his technical prowess. He made you move with his rhythmic riffs. He was also a gifted vocalist with a gospel-tinged touch as smooth as soulful silk. Larry Graham was the band’s bassist extraordinaire. He was also blessed with a smooth baritone voice and a commanding presence. Cynthia Robinson was the band’s trumpet player. She astonished you with her jazz and funk-fueled instrumentation. During recordings and in concert, she kept the energy high as their hype woman. She was one of, if not the first, female horn players in a major American group. Rose Stone, one of the group’s four lead vocalists, sang with the divine power of an entire gospel choir. Greg Errico was drumming force of nature. He had jazz chops, a rock n’ roll approach, and funky rhythm. Jerry Martini, the band’s saxophonist, was a skilled jazz musician. He added swing and punch to the instrumental dynamic. Little Sister, the band’s background vocalists, beautifully sang at the front of the stage; side-by-side with the instrumentalists. They represented cultural diversity and unity. They seemed less like a musical collective and more like a tight-knit family.

A Whole New Thing, their prior LP, while an innovative blend of psychedelic rock, jazz, gospel and soul, did not produce a hit single to drive record sales. “We had pressure from CBS to write a hit, so Sly said,“Well, OK, we’ve got to capture the audience and get them to listen. Then we can get more sophisticated and more political,” Greg Errico, Sly and the Family Stone’s original drummer, explained to Rolling Stone. [1]

“Sly wrote a song about dancing to the music, but he also injected some of the attributes that the band had – the vocal thing, the black/white/male/female thing, a little vocal breakdown, a drum breakdown, Larry Graham’s bass and Freddie Stone’s guitar, plus the horns – and to show we’re dancing and having fun together. It engaged everybody, but it was designed to get attention so then we would be able to say what we wanted to say.” [1]

Greg Errico, Sly and the Family Stone’s drummer

While not the politically dense funk of Stand and Everyday People, it was a critical and commercial smash; finishing 20th on Billboard Magazine’s hot 100 pop hits for 1968. It established their audience. After Dance to the Music’s success, Epic Records gave them the creative freedom they thirsted for. In three short minutes, each band member articulately showcased their individual musical gifts, as well as their knack for uplifting and infectious melodies. It brought psychedelia to soul music. It pioneered funk as a genre. It sounded like nothing that was clouding pop radio upon its release. It was the calm before the storm. It’s innovative production and song structure directly influenced The Temptations, Motown’s chart-topping powerhouse, to evolve their sound. They would release singles such as Cloud Nine just a year after Sly’s breakthrough. [2]. It inspired George Clinton, producer and bandleader of Detroit soul group The Parliaments, to experiment with the psychedelic and funky Sly Stone sound. He would then assemble a new collective — Funkadelic [3]. Their groovy instrumentation, genius arrangements and poetic lyrics brought them to the forefront of the funk movement as leaders and pioneers.

Before Public Enemy fought the power. Before Melle Mel preached the message. Before Prince created controversy. Before Funkadelic proclaimed one nation under a groove. Before Stevie Wonder was superstitious. Before Curtis Mayfield was superfly. Before Isaac Hayes whipped up a pot of hot-buttered soul — Sly and the Family Stone made us dance in awe to their incomparable music.

References

[1] J. Slate, “Sly & the Family Stone Band Members on Glory Days and Being ‘Too Weird’,” 8 July 2015. [Online]. Available: https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/sly-the-family-stone-band-members-on-glory-days-and-being-too-weird-51404/. [Accessed 5 August 2018].
[2] D. Lynskey, “The band that took Motown higher,” 32 October 2008. [Online]. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2008/oct/31/temptations-whitfield. [Accessed 5 August 2018].
[3] S. Knopper, “George Clinton’s bottomless well of funk,” 14 May 2015. [Online]. Available: http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/music/ct-george-clinton-parliament-funkadelic-p-funk-20150514-story.html. [Accessed 5 August 2018].

 

 

 

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