Sly & The Family Stone's Stand! and The Early Days of Psychedelic Soul

Stand! was released on May 3, 1969, the fourth album by the psychedelic soul and funk innovators Sly & The Family Stone, and there's still a ton of good reasons to love it. But before we celebrate it for the work of genius that it indisputably is, let's take a sneak peek at what it isn't.

Anyone who suggests Stand! was the first example of funky psychedelia is hallucinating. One way that innovative black musicians of this era could escape being typecast as soul or blues artists was to integrate elements of rock and psychedelia into their sound—and this was already happening. As Sly emerged in San Francisco in 1966, Rotary Connection in Chicago and The Chambers Brothers in Los Angeles, to name just two, were already heading into uncharted mind-expanding territory. The major difference between the other psychedelic soul pioneers and Sly & The Family Stone was that Sly was able to score several hits with his take on the unfolding sub-genre.

The Rotary Connection
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The Chambers Brothers
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Sly—real name Sylvester Stewart—was in an unusual position for a black musician of the mid-'60s. Born into a deeply religious Texas family, he was singing gospel with his brother Freddie and sisters Rose and Vaetta before the family moved to San Francisco's North Bay area. He was proficient on several musical instruments and, by his late teens, had become a DJ on the local KSOL radio station. He worked as a staff producer for the hip Autumn Records, where his productions for The Beau Brummels, The Great Society (Grace Slick's first band), and The Mojo Men earned him some renown.

Sly's keyboard virtuosity was harnessed by the likes of Marvin Gaye, Dionne Warwick, The Righteous Brothers, and The Ronettes before 1966, when he got around to forming The Stoners—the clue is in the name, folks.

They evolved into Sly & The Family Stone in October of that same year, and by June of '67 the band recorded their debut album A Whole New Thing for Epic Records. Despite instant critical plaudits and acclaim from Miles Davis, Tony Bennett, and Mose Allison, it failed to chart. Hearing it today, it's hard to grasp why the zippy rhythmic attack, staccato horn riffs, Larry Graham's powerful basslines, the shared lead vocals, and the acid-rock interjections didn't catch a fire immediately. But this was, after all, 1967—and the larger world simply was not ready for a mixed-race, mixed-sex psychedelic funk combo.

A couple of decades later, the album would be plundered for samples for the likes of Public Enemy ("Turn Me Loose"), Cypress Hill ("Underdog"), Monie Love ("Advice") and LL Cool J ("Trip to Your Heart"), but for the moment it was too far out for Joe Public. Never one to flog a dead horse, Sly heeded record company advice to simplify his approach and released the result as the single "Dance To The Music," ingeniously breaking down the Family Stone sound to its elements.

Sly introduced each of those elements lyrically: "All we need is a drummer for people who only need a beat" before a solo'd Greg Errico; "I'm gonna add some bottom so that the dancers just won't hide" before Larry Graham's dirty, distorted fuzz-bass anchors the track; and "listen to the voices" before a reprise of the gorgeous a cappella doo-wop interplay that first appeared at the front of the track. By the end of the cut's three minutes, we all know exactly how this music is put together, and Sly has set us up to understand where he's going next.

The Temptations
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The Temptations
Psychedelic Shack
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The Supremes
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"Dance To The Music" went Top 10 and, within months, The Temptations, Curtis Mayfield, and others would build on its formula, enabling psychedelic soul to become a recognized genre.

April 1968 brought the Family Stone's second album, titled after that initial hit. It opens, inevitably, with "Dance To The Music," and immediately follows that with "Higher," which later would be radically reworked and reemerge as "I Want To Take You Higher," very much in the carefully considered funky formula of "Dance To The Music." Although much of the album adheres to the format, there are occasional departures, such as Larry Graham's ballad "I'll Never Fall in Love Again," the socio-political message song "Colour Me True," and Sly's quirky solo "Don't Burn Baby," revealing the increasing sophistication of his musical ambitions.

The band was now playing to huge audiences across the US, but despite the impact of Dance To The Music, their third album, Life, released in July 1968, didn't enjoy similar chart success. Again, it's hard to fathom the reason, because cuts like "M'Lady," "Fun," and "Love City" became live staples for the band, and later years would see samples borrowed by many artists, notably Fatboy Slim for "Weapon Of Choice," which made profitable use of the intro to "Into My Own Thing." Lyrically, the band was progressing increasingly toward the socio-political themes of racial unity and integration that would dominate their definitive opus, Stand!.

As usual, the album was written and produced in its entirety by Sly, and it has become accepted as a high-water mark. Not only does it include the ultimate anti-racist statement, "Don't Call Me N-----, Whitey," an extremely courageous move in the highly charged atmosphere of 1969, but also the album introduces "Sing a Simple Song." This was another message piece, since covered by Diana Ross and The Supremes, The Temptations, The Jackson 5, and numerous others, and sampled by everybody from the Wu-Tang Clan to the Backstreet Boys.

The album includes that re-make of "Higher" into "I Want To Take You Higher," transforming a slightly muddled album track into a funky powerhouse that was a standout during the band's supercharged appearance at the Woodstock festival on August 16, 1969.

There's also a 13-minute jam called "Sex Machine," where Sly scat-sings through a vocoder and, as on "Dance To The Music," the track provides solo showcases for every band member. More significantly, there's "Everyday People," which not only gave the band their first No.1 single, but astutely incorporated Muhammad Ali's phrase "different strokes for different folks," which eventually found its way into the language as a popular expression, inspiring the title of the TV series Diff'rent Strokes.

Stand! peaked at No. 13 on Billboard's main chart and No. 3 in the Rhythm & Blues chart, was certified gold by the end of the year, and finally notched up platinum sales in 1986. The album's significance was further underlined in 2015, when it was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for inclusion in the National Recording Registry.

However, in the wake of Stand!, Sly and the band moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles, where they mixed with gangsters and Black Panthers and became heavy users of illegal drugs, primarily cocaine and PCP. Sly often failed to turn up for live shows, and the band’s hedonistic lifestyle interfered with their timely delivery of fresh product for Epic’s release schedules. That’s why a Greatest Hits compilation appeared in 1970, and, while Epic intended it to be a stopgap, it included the superb non-album singles “Hot Fun In The Summertime” and “Everybody Is A Star”/“Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” which offered proof that even if the band was down, they were still far from out.

Sly & The Family Stone - "Family Affair"

Their fifth album, There’s a Riot Goin’ On, finally surfaced in November 1971, a gloriously crazed exploration of the outer limits of Sly’s battered but still brilliant brain. Its centrepiece, "Family Affair," combined pioneering use of a primitive drum machine with killer vocal hooks and a supremely laidback Hohner Pianet keyboard groove, and it delivered their third and most successful No. 1 single. Elsewhere, the airy, childlike funkin’ simplicity of "Runnin’ Away" and the spaced-out stoner vibe of "(You Caught Me) Smilin'" are the equals of anything released while they were still residents of Frisco.

Less conspicuously successful, but ultimately more influential, were Sly’s bizarre combinations of everything from countrified yodeling (“Spaced Cowboy”) to minimalistic funk jams and groundbreaking mixes (“Africa Talks To You”) which widened audio horizons for everybody from George Clinton to the Beastie Boys.

As mutant funk replaced psychedelic soul, the ‘70s proved less receptive to Sly’s willfully wayward approach to making music, but albums like Fresh (1973) and Small Talk (1974) still contained much to satisfy any committed fan. And while the original Family Stone broke up in 1975, Sly Stone would continue to deliver uniquely skewed takes on psychedelic soul into the early ‘80s.

About the author: Johnny Black is a music journalist and author of over 40 years experience, having written for Q Mojo, Smash Hits, and many others. He is a former head of press at Polydor Records and the keeper of the vast music dates archive He lives in Devizes, England.