Music Review: Sly and the Family Stone - Higher! (Four-Disc Set)

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If you have a funk fan on your Christmas list this season, or maybe you just want to school the unenlightened, the most slamming box set to hit shelves in recent months is Epic and Sony Legacy’s Sly and the Family Stone career overview, Higher!. Four discs containing 77 tracks (17 of them previously unissued), this is the mother lode of classic funk, soul, and R&B. The accompanying 104-page booklet is 10”x10”, so there’s no eye strain required for soaking in all the vintage photos and reading the essay by Family Stone biographer Jeff Kaliss. There are also track-by-track recollections from various band members and associates.

The journey through multi-instrumentalist, singer-songwriter Sylvester Stewart’s musical evolution begins with a selection of early, pre-Epic singles. These start with blast of Chuck Berry-style guitar licks (“I Just Learned How to Swim”) from 1964 and bring us up to 1967, with a cover of Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose.” Early Epic singles give way to five cuts from The Family Stone’s 1967 debut album, A Whole New Thing, including the psychedelic freak-out “Trip to Your Heart.” Disc one concludes with a quartet of previously unissued songs, highlighted by the almost maddeningly catchy “I Get High On You.”

Sly Higher display (380x220).jpgBefore getting to the band’s immortal breakthrough hit single, “Dance to the Music,” disc two opens with a pair of previously unreleased recordings. First up is a cover of Jim & Jean’s “What’s That Got to Do with Me,” with tightly-arranged backing vocals. Better known as “Life of Fortune and Fame,” more impassioned vocals highlight the unreleased take “Fortune and Fame.” Guitarist Freddie Stone leads the band with a delicate falsetto lead on another gem from the vault, “I Know What You Came to Say.”

Then, after the tantalizing build-up, we’re treated to their first iconic classic, with Greg Errico’s drums, Stone’s guitar, inimitable bassist Larry Graham famously adding some bottom, Sly Stone’s organ, the blasting horns of Cynthia Robinson (trumpet) and Jerry Martini (saxophone) all combining for possibly the most joyously combustible three minutes of popular music ever committed to tape. From here on out, Higher! is simply one funk explosion after another. It’s a musical odyssey through the career of one of music’s most fascinating, gifted figures. Sly and the Family Stone’s influence on rock, pop, R&B, dance, and funk is incalculable, not the least of their contributions being their multi-racial, multi-gender line-up.

Oddities like the French version of “Dance to the Music” (“Danse A La Musique”), credited to The French Fries and backed by an even cooler bit of strangeness called “Small Fries,” rub shoulders with groove masterpieces like “Into My Own Thing” (dig that intro, widely heard as a sample in Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice”). Disc three contains enough monster jams to register on the Richter scale when played at high volumes. Oldies staple “Everyday People” and the sublime “Hot Fun in the Summertime” demonstrate Sly’s unerring commercial sensibilities. Predating the unrelated James Brown hit of the same name, “Sex Machine” is a 13-minute funk stew from the 1969 album Stand!. Also culled from that masterwork are the anthemic “I Want to Take You Higher” as well as “Sing a Simple Song” and “Somebody’s Watching You.”

For some reason, the studio versions of Stand!’s title track and “You Can Make It If You Try” are absent. While that’s worth griping about, both are accounted for in live form, recorded at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival. While both tracks were originally issued on a compilation album, previously unreleased takes of “Dance to the Music” and a medley of “Music Lover/I Want to Take You Higher” come from the same show. They’re both smoking hot examples of the Family Stone’s power as a live band and a surefire conclusion to the best disc of the set.

Disc four covers the early-to-mid-‘70s, beginning with several cuts from yet another essential album, There’s a Riot Going On. The album is well represented, with the smash hit “Family Affair” obviously leading in terms of recognizability. But the minor hit “Runnin’ Away” is another reminder of Stone’s ability to craft irresistible hooks. I know we simply couldn’t have it all in one place, but a case could’ve easily been made for including “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me Africa,” “Poet,” or just about anything else from this supremely funky album.

It’s kind of downhill, however gradual, after the Riot tracks, as the remainder of disc four charts personnel changes (including Larry Graham’s departure during 1973’s Fresh), selections from a solo Stone album High on You, and somewhat less-distinguished tracks recorded with a mostly-new Family Stone line-up. Fresh remains a decidedly killer album, and tracks like “In Time” and “Skin I’m In” are thick and nastay grooves. But where the hell is “Babies Makin’ Babies?” I guess leaving off key tracks is one way to ensure that people will still go out and buy the full studio albums.

That strategy ultimately results in the one caveat of a box set like Higher!. Hardcore fans already have the albums (expanded editions are available in some cases), so they’re buying this for the alternate versions and previously unreleased material. But by leaving off some of the best album tracks, Higher! is kept from being a truly comprehensive Sly and the Family Stone bible.

Still, Higher! is an absolutely remarkable document that offers the best one-stop-shopping overview of the band. The fidelity is terrific throughout, the song selection is generous, and the book contains a great deal of history that certainly emphasizes Sly and the Family’s Stone’s status as one of the most important band’s in popular music history.

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Chaz Lipp is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose focus is music and film. As “The Other Chad,” he has written for the online magazine Blogcritics since 2008. When he’s not writing, Chaz can be found trolling jazz clubs, attempting to find somewhere to play his sax (whether anyone wants to hear…

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