Our program, “A Brief History of Funk,” is a great place to start for the novice funk fan or really anyone who wants to hear some of the most explosively foot-stomping music ever recorded. Of course, there is way more great funk than can fit within the constraints of an hour-long radio show. That’s why we’re presenting five of our favorite “unheard” Sly and the Family Stone tracks. While Sylvester Stewart and his multiracial band have justly been lauded for masterpieces like Stand!, Fresh and There’s A Riot Goin’ On, unless you’ve dug a little bit deeper into the catalog, it’s likely that you’ve missed these absolute gems.
Sly and the Family Stone’s 1967 debut A Whole New Thing lived up to its title. Released the same year as James Brown’s seminal “Cold Sweat” and a full three years before Funkadelic made their debut, the album introduced somewhat bewildered audiences and critics to the intricately arranged, brightly colored sound that the group popularized later in their career. People in 1967 just weren’t ready for it, but we’ve still got great songs like album-opener “Underdog” to remind us how powerful the Family Stone was right from the get-go. And really, powerful is the word–few other tracks in the band’s catalog hit this hard. Also, the song begins and ends with a soulful interpretation of “Frere Jacques.” Need we say more?
After the disappointing response to A Whole New Thing, Sly and the Family Stone was pressured by CBS executives to make their sound more accessible to pop audiences. The title track of their next album, Dance to the Music, made the Top 10, so they kept their label bosses happy, but they were also able to sneak in strange and wonderful experimentation like “Dance to the Medley.” The song features three parts: “Music Is Alive,” “Dance In” and “Music Lover.” Each one is more unabashedly psychedelic and rugged than the next. Hard-edged guitar playing, doo-wop backing vocals, and Sly’s own powerful voice all combine for a rollicking 12-minute long experience. Yes, this was on their “artistically-compromised pop” album.
After the relative success of Dance to the Music, Sly and the Family Stone returned to their pre-Stand! underground status. “Plastic Jim,” off their next album, Life, starts off with an “Eleanor Rigby” reference. The rest, though, is a rocking soul-funk jam whose subject is the sort of soullessness that the band’s celebratory sound strongly refutes.
After the career-defining masterpieces Stand! and There’s A Riot Goin’ On, Sly and the Family Stone came back with Fresh in 1973. While probably best known for the indelible hit “If You Want Me to Stay,” the rest of the album is often under-explored. Sticking close to the dark, muffled groove that defined There’s A Riot, “Babies Makin’ Babies” has a slinky, loose feel to it, along with one of Sly’s many great song titles.
“Mother Beautiful,” from 1974’s Small Talk, is two minutes of some of the most gorgeous and joyful music that Sly and the Family Stone ever put out. Which is to say one of the most gorgeous and joyful two minutes you’ll experience in the entire course your funk-digging adventures.
There’s just too much greatness in the annals of funk to listen to it all, but Sly and the Family Stone were one of the absolute masters of the genre and these lesser-known tracks deserve some love. So put on your fringed vest and high-heeled boots and jam out to some killer tunes that just want to take you higher.