Sly and the Family Stone

            Those who played psychedelic soul music in the late 1960s and 1970s owe something of a debt to Sly and the Family Stone, who helped develop the genre. Their sound was a keen mixture of rock, soul, funk and R&B. The band itself consisted of Sly Stone, a singer and songwriter with a penchant for record production and a talent for playing multiple instruments, as well as a number of his family members such as brother Freddie Stone and sister Rose Stone. They took on a number of other members as well, becoming the first prominent rock band in the United States to have a lineup that was both multi-gendered and racially integrated.

The band had a number of influential songs, such as “Dance to the Music,” “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” and one of their most notable hits to date, “Everyday People.” They were not only known for the mixed race and gender of their band, but with the sheer joy behind their sound in each of their most notable hits. Combined with their idealist social views, this joy made the band truly stand out in an era in which civil rights were still only cautiously becoming accepted.

Of course, Sly and the Family Stone were not just known for their joyful idealism. They were also known for their music. Sly Stone had a number of talents that he brought to the table, and he composed his funk sounds carefully and using a number of instruments. A song might start out with guitar, then move on to another featured instrument. Sometimes these sounds easily complemented each other, while other times Sly would play around with dissonance.

Around 1970 and 1971, the band started to get away with psychedelic soul music. Marvin Gaye had released an album entitled What’s Going On, which was known for its social commentary, and Sly and the Family Stone answered his question with an uncharacteristically somber album entitled There’s a Riot Goin’ On. Not only were the lyrics less upbeat, but the musical tone was darker and heavier than in previous albums. It was now more funk and urban blues, with none of the cheery rock sound that had characterized the band’s early psychedelic soul music.

Even when their next album, Fresh, exhibited slightly more joyful lyrics, the darker tone of the music itself remained. From 1971 on, the music of Sly and the Family Stone had fundamentally changed. Many of the band’s members, especially Sly Stone, had begun to suffer from a sense of pessimism that had pervaded the early 1970s. Nonetheless, Fresh had enough going for it in terms of rhythm that it is traditionally considered to be one of the more important funk albums that has ever been produced. It also had a somewhat more upbeat message, including songs such as a cover of Doris Day’s 1956 classic “Que Será, Será (Whatever Will Be, Will Be).” While the band’s original optimism had not completely returned, Fresh was still much more optimistic than the record that preceded it.

Sly and the Family Stone are still remembered for their music, whether the upbeat psychedelic soul sounds of their early career or the darker, funkier, urban blues sounds they created as they were nearing dissolution. They are one of the most important bands of all time, pivotal in the creation of psychedelic soul and the spread of funk throughout the mainstream music industry.

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