No Sly Stone Left Unturned

One of the greatest funk artists of all time got a reissue set last year which finally justified his greatness. Though he has been a non-entity in the music world for many years, the music he created has endured and rightfully reveals him as one of the most talented, revolutionary artists ever to create music.

Sly and The Family Stone – The Collection

One of the most talented and eccentric performers in music gets his back catalog re-issued after years of fans begging the record company to give Stone’s work some attention. Thankfully, Columbia finally heard the din and decided to put a great amount of effort into doing this music justice. Not only does this set include all seven albums Stone and band recorded for the label (with added bonus tracks and great restored cover art for each CD) the job done on remastering is nothing short of excellent. The songs sound as bright and fresh as they did upon each album’s individual release. Though he only produced seven albums during his most fruitful period, these albums can be stacked up against anything else produced in the ’60’s (or beyond) and will compare favorably.

A Whole New Thing is the title of the aggregation’s debut but this album isn’t really a whole new thing at all, though signs of Stone’s future funk are evident. For the most part this album shows the band still plying a more traditional R&B style, albeit with some slight sonic innovations. It is in the lyrics where Stone’s genius pokes through as the topics are not your usual straight soul fare and delve into a few goofier places than the norm. Sounding more restrained than they would on later efforts, Stone’s band is funky and tight, but not nearly as tight or funky as they would become. Some rock touches give the feeling something different is happening, but it is not enough to rank this among Stone’s best. While a promising start, this album does not show enough of what made Stone and his group great. Luckily, those qualities would show up on later albums.

The band’s next album, Dance To The Music, not only provided the band’s first hit with the title track but also showed the band coming into it’s own. With an incredible feeling of joy and exuberance saturating the album, it is almost impossible not to get sucked into the spirit of the band. Though not really a classic album, it is hard to resist the band’s charms and what they brought to the popular music table. Remember, this is probably the first album ever made where the sunshiney-psychedelic feelings of the rock music at the time was mixed with pure soul music to create something totally different than anything that had come before. Everything, from the inventive arrangements to the sparking melodies and the hyped-up rhythms was fresh and new – and sounded that way. This, incredibly, is not the band’s best, but it is a damn fine album nonetheless.

The Family Stone’s third release, Life, came just a few months after Dance To The Music and features heavier, more psychedelic arrangements and much fuzzier guitars than it’s predecessor. Though there were no big hit singles from the album, the growth between the two releases is almost immeasurable. The songs show an accomplishment in songcraft that is astounding given the short time between the albums. Each song is a tight slab of funk perfection all its’ own, showing a seamless blending of instruments and vocals more intricate than all get out, yet still retaining a funky-dance feel. Instead of meaningless jams, Stone steered this album toward making each song a piece of genius. He succeeded mightily.

Stand comes next, and if listeners had thought Sly Stone and his band of funkateers had reached their pinnacle with Life, they were in for a rude awakening. Stand takes everything the band had perfected up to this point and raises it to another level. Not only does the band have an unmatched interplay, but the band’s increasingly deep psychedelic touches and effervescent melodies take the songs on sonic explorations previously unknown. Stone’s genre-blending innovations manage to blur all previous stylistic lines seperating various types of music and spurs the band to create an innovative sound all of it’s own. Added to the mix is an irrepressible social conciousness Stone would develop and expand upon on future albums. The title track, though, is a first example of the kind of social awareness Stone would soon bring to all of his music and is a standout, along with “Everyday People” and “I Want To Take You Higher.” This album is beyond great. It is a life-changing album to say the least.

There’s A Riot Going On is the beginning of a change in Stone’s music, and marks a change in mood for the band. Where the band’s previous albums were so upbeat you couldn’t help but smile while listening to them, this album marks a downturn in Stone’s mood as he seems to have become very jaded within a relatively short time span. While some have attributed the mood switch to Stone’s increasing drug problems, that is too simple an answer. What we have here is an album almost totally devoid of the pure joy found in the band’s previous works. Stone seems disgusted by all of the social unrest going on in the world at the time and seems intent on voicing his frustration in a series of songs that can only be called disturbing. While still immensely funky, there is a disconcerting level of depression and disappointment evident in everything Sly does on this album. Whatever had him, be it drugs or band pressures, he let it get the best of him on this disc. Not as bad album, mind you, just more bleak compared to Stone’s earlier efforts.

The band’s next album, Fresh, makes a move back to the fun of Stone’s earlier efforts, though it isn’t a total return to his previous form. A modicum of the joy is back in Stone’s music, however, and while traces of the dark cynicism pervading the band’s last album remains, Stone seems to have found some of his smile. The good humor is tempered by Stone’s remaining bitterness at the world’s ills, a fact the music on this album can never quite overcome. The difference here is Stone seems not to be as resigned to the world’s social problems and let’s a bit of hope seep through, though not much. Still, the funk here is really hot and this is considered Stone’s last great album.

The last album included on this set, Small Talk, is his weakest, mostly due to personnel problems in the Family Stone and changes within his own life including his marriage and the birth of his child. For the first time, Stone sounds tired instead of inspired, exurberant or angry. In fact, Stone sounds disinterested, although the album does have a few strong cuts. For the most part, this album is for fans only and is the last album containing any of the Sly Stone sound people associate with his music. From here on, even though he recorded other albums for other labels, Stone’s career went downhill and from listening to this album it is easy to see the inevitable coming. The song “Time For Livin'” is the standout cut on this album.

Fans of deep funk are just going to salivate all over themselves after checking out this great 7 CD box of some of the greatest booty-shaking tracks ever. Let’s face it – my reviews are loaded with hyperbole. I bathe in hyperbole and eat hyperbole crunch cereal for breakfast, okay? This is the one time – one time, dammit – that every thing I write is the total fucking truth. This is one of the greatest collection of funk tracks ever gathered on seven CDs. The craziest thing about it is one man is responsible for all of it! God bless you, Sly Stone. May you some day come back to us with your talent intact and ready to make great music again. There’s a light on in the window, Sly. Please come home.

Betty Davis’ Thighs

Nothing like some great obscure soul to get your body moving.

Betty Davis – Betty Davis
Betty Davis – They Say I’m Different
Light In the Attic

Stand up and shout hallelujah! Two of the greatest lost soul albums of the ’70’s have finally been reissued after way too many years out of print. Kudos to Light In The Attic for digging up these great albums and allowing the world to once again enjoy the unfettered funk of the sultry, sexy, flamboyant and raw Betty Davis! Of course, with all of the great soul and funk sides being re-released these days (as well as the classics we all know about) one would be forgiven for thinking I might be heaping undue hyperbole on these albums. Suffice it to say, one listen to these albums by the great Davis would erase all doubt. Don’t know who Betty Davis is? It’s no wonder, as these albums were put out on a tiny label and hardly promoted at all due to the semi-raunchy material contained within. But, let’s not confuse matters by blaming circumstances beyond anyone’s control. These two albums are some of the rawest, greasiest, greatest funk ever released and stand toe-to-toe with anything James Brown, Sly Stone or the P-Funk army released at the time.

Davis (nee Betty Mabry) was born in a small town in North Carolina but her family eventuallly moved up north to Pittsburgh, though she later moved to New York City by the early ’60’s. It was there that she began exposing herself to all the cutting edge music the ’60’s had to offer, from jazz to avant-garde to rock. Working for a time as a model, Davis slowly became part of the music scene, first by working at the hippest clubs, then by cutting a few singles, and finally by becoming a songwriter, scoring a hit song (“Uptown”) for the Chambers Brothers. Her talent and beauty placed her in the midst of the hipster circles where she eventually met and married Miles Davis and began influencing his career and persona in surprising ways right down to the clothes he wore. Introducing him to the music of Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone and other artists on the cutting edge of funk and rock (in some cases arranging meetings between the artists themselves) she began working with and inspiring her husband to craft albums melding funk, rock and jazz. These albums eventually became In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew (which Miles named in honor of his wife) and became milestone works in the world of jazz, influencing and inspiring much of the jazz fusion which followed. A long union was not to be, however, as Miles soon divorced his wife because he found her too intense and suspected her of carrying on an affair with Jimi Hendrix. She soon drifted to England where she began to get caught up in the heavy rock scene, briefly dating Eric Clapton (who wanted to work with her on an album but was rebuffed by Davis as being too blues-oriented – the relationship imploded soon thereafter) and a member of Santana’s band. Upon returning to the US, she decided to take the ideas she had been formulating and presenting to labels for bands like The Commodores (yep, she worked with Lionel Ritchie before he became famous – Miss Davis seemed to be everywhere during this time period) and turn them into vehicles for herself. Signing a contract with a little upstart label, she began recording her first album.

The self titled album Betty Davis (1973) was and is a milestone release. While countless female soul artists had released albums, no other female artist had such frank and overt sexual material on an album before Davis and had so obviously controlled the proceedings as she had. It was as if Davis was trying to position herself as a female version of George Clinton. For a comparison, think Millie Jackson (or, better yet, Tina Turner) dressed in a spacesuit and then add some searing P-Funk guitars and some thunderously booty-shaking beats to go with the very sexually risque lyrics. Featuring musical talent from Sly Stone’s band (including bassist Larry Graham), Michael Carabello and an incredibly young Neal Schon from Santana, background vocals from the Pointer Sisters, and members of the Tower of Power horn section, the album was stacked to the hilt with the best musicians of the era. Featuring songs such as “If I’m In Luck I Might Get Picked Up” and “Game Is My Middle Name”, Davis left no doubt she was freaky-deaky and ready for anything. Sadly, Davis wasn’t quite ready for one thing: her album to bomb. While containing no cusswords, Davis’ lyrics left little to the imagination. Consequently, her album got little airplay and her concerts were often picketed.

Disappointed but not deterred by the poor sales of her debut, Davis released her next album, They Say I’m Different, a year later with a different cast of musicians than her first groundbreaking release. Gone were the big names and studio ringers of her debut, replaced with younger, newer players who had been raised on the funk sounds of the artists she was trying to emulate and, more likely, dethrone so she could take her rightful place on top of the funk heap. Not surprisingly, these young turks were more than up to the challange and manage to at least equal (if not better) the deep, deep funk displayed on her debut. Featuring the songs “Shoo-Be-Doop and Cop Him” and “He Was A Big Freak” Davis once again challenged listners and censors with her raw sexual appetites and her willingness to sing about them. The cover features her in an outfit straight from the P-Funk Mothership and seems to be a distant cousin of the outfit Cher wore on her Take Me Home album of the late ’70’s. Once again, radio stations refused to play her music and angry protestors made their presence felt at her now-infrequent live appearances. It seems the world was not ready for a sexually charged, talented young black female to tear the roof off the sucka. Davis released one more album (entitled Nasty Gal) to the same public apathy as her discs before abandoning the music scene forever and moving back to Pittsburgh. Tired of her music being ignored, Davis never recorded again. An album consisting of outtakes from her third album was issued after Davis “retirement” but, like her other albums, it made pretty much no impact save for a small but devout coterie of followers, DJ’s and beatheads who know great music when they hear it. A greatst hits compilation was also released, but quickly deleted.

Fans of funk need these albums in their collections. It isn’t an issue of “wanting” these reissues – if you are a fan of funk and soul music these are albums you simply have to acquire or settle for having a mediocre collection. You wouldn’t want that, would you? Then rush to your local store and order this right away. You will not be sorry – this is some of the most blazing funk of all time!