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"They had the clarity of Motown but the volume of Jimi Hendrix or the Who," George Clinton said of the strange new sounds he heard from Sly and the Family Stone when he first saw them in the late 1960s. (Source, XI).
With a steady bass, a cheerful piano, and a strong horn section, the instrumentation of this new kind of music seemed to echo classic R&B of the previous couple of decades.
Songs like "Everyday People" were produced with the same kind of sleek production and sugary backup singing that Motown had succeeded with. But something about Sly and the Family Stone's sound was tinged with rock and roll. Maybe it was the driving bass or the electric guitar riffs, which only appear rarely in "Everyday People." Maybe it was the band's look and identity, or Sly Stone's way of singing that echoed soul singers but hinted at something grittier.
Whatever it was, this new kind of music was described by adjectives we now associate with the 1960s.
It was groovy, it was psychedelic, and it was funky. And it fact, it gradually became recognized as a whole new genre: funk. On the Sly and the Family Stone profile, Allmusic writes that "Sly brought hard funk into the mainstream." (Source)
Rapper Chuck D, who was deeply inspired by Sly and the Family Stone as a kid, and samples them in his songs, describes funk by saying, "You really couldn't point and say, 'Well, this is the reason why it's funky.' It's all this together like gumbo that's making this happen." (Source)
Music critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine calls Sly and the Family Stone "a wild, brilliant fusion of soul, rock, R&B, psychedelia, and funk that broke boundaries down without a second thought" (source).
Although "Everyday People" is one of the band's more tame, polished pop songs, the sound still captures that energy and fusion that made their musical style so influential in its day.
Most people who were around at the time get excited trying to describe the importance of Sly and the Family Stone in the 1960s. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame site reads:
Sly and the Family Stone took the Sixties ideal of a generation coming together and turned it into deeply groove-driven music. Rock's first integrated, multi-gender band became funky Pied Pipers to the Woodstock Generation, synthesizing rock, soul, R&B, funk and psychedelia into danceable, message-laden, high-energy music. In promoting their gospel of tolerance and celebration of differences, Sly and the Family Stone brought disparate audiences together during the latter half of the Sixties. (Source)
And Chuck D, who was a huge Sly Stone fan as a kid, said, "Sly and the Family Stone was the epitome of a group playing the music, saying the lyrics, but also backing up the words." (Source)
Did Sly and the Family Stone "back up the words" as fully as Chuck D remembers it?
Unfortunately, Stand! was in some ways, a flash in the pan, the only optimistic moment Sly and the Family Stone ever gave the world. In the years that followed, fame led Sly Stone down a road of heavy drug use and dangerous living, complete with a mansion in Bel Air and a gross tendency toward womanizing.
Hardly fitting to the liberated image of a united crew of men and women rocking out together as equals.
Sly became disenchanted with the cheerful, utopian message of the hippie movement, watching through a cocaine-laced haze as the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement were gunned down or arrested and race riots broke out year after year. He formed a habit of being late to his own shows—if he showed up at all—and more than one Sly Stone appearance ended in police interference after frustrated crowds grew angry over his absence.
By the time they released a second album in 1971, There's a Riot Goin' On, Sly had expelled two members of the group in heavy power struggles. According to some, he was even influenced by some militant Black Panther friends to fire their white Jewish manager.
Although, by the time this happened, the manager himself was so strung out on drugs that "firing" him just meant dragging him to the door. For more on all of this rock drama, check out Joel Selvin's depressing essay on There's a Riot Goin' On in his book Smartass.
By all accounts, There's a Riot Goin' On is a paranoid, disenchanted reflection on the disappointments and losses of the times. Bill Shapiro writes that "this tough, abrasive slice of community hopes and shattered dreams remains one of the most disturbing recordings ever released by a commercially successful pop band." (Source)
The funk was grittier, darker, and possibly even better than ever, but the flower power sensibility had come and gone.
Sly Stone was so heavily disillusioned and destroyed by drugs that he never really came back, though he continued to make music and talk about his dreams somewhere in northern California.
But in some ways, the disillusionment only makes the illusions more interesting. People were let down because, for a brief moment, this massive, interracial crowd really believed that the idyllic world of "Everyday People" was just around the corner.
Sly and the Family Stone's calling card is undoubtedly the fact that they captured this fleeting feeling in a song that has become a timeless anthem for the values of multiculturalism and tolerance.