Of every instrument that Sly Stone has mastered during his long and colourful career in music, perhaps the most significant is the recording studio. 20 years before the advent of computer-based recording, this maverick was pushing available recording technology to its limit. When he finally tired of the restrictions imposed by official facilities, Sly built his own, to satisfy his creative urge when, where and how he saw fit. It was the ultimate manifestation of the impulse that had transformed Sylvester Stewart of Vallejo, California into Sly Stone, titan of popular music.
Sly drew from gospel, R&B, rock, jazz, pop, folk rock, psychedelia and everything in-between, married them to a positive outlook tinged with humour, and stayed focused on achieving his goals, using the tools he had. In doing this, Sly Stone liberated black music - rhythmically, lyrically, sonically - but he did it all within the context of the song. That is the reason Sly’s music has been covered by the Beach Boys, why Sinatra accorded him respect, why Miles Davis would wait hours in the studio for a chance to watch him at work.
“Listen To The Voices” is the sequel to Ace’s earlier survey of Sly’s musical progression, “Precious Stone: Sly Stone In The Studio 1963-65”. It’s a project that has been in my back pocket for some time, for, as a terminal Sly freak, I’ve ransacked not just studios, but tape vaults, collector’s stashes and beyond, hunting for any and all evidence of this singular artists creativity, because every last scrap provides another clue, another revelation or, in most cases, just reconfirms Sly’s genius. His funky 1966 demo of ‘You Really Got Me’ came from a bank vault near the Mexican border; an unlikely H.B. Barnum was the source of the folk-punk ‘Underdog’ that Sly recorded with the Beau Brummels in October 1965. And my good pals Edwin and Arno Konings, the Dutch detectives whose forthcoming book “Thank You” will finally give Sly the definitive biography he deserves, came up with an acetate of the brilliant ‘Man Does Not Live’ – written for Walter Jackson in 1968 but performed here by the Family Stone with a touching, heartbreaking dollop of pure soul.
Starting where “Precious Stone” stopped, on “Listen To The Voices” we continue Sly’s journey to the end of the decade, joining some dots, revealing some hidden gems, reiterating the team effort that lay behind the creation and evolution of a truly once-in-a-lifetime outfit, Sly & The Family Stone. The Stone Souls’ recordings reveal why Sly easily pegged his brother Freddie and Greg Errico to be in his new band, and the Family Stone’s earliest demo session reveals the sheer joy they found playing together. But even with their level of success, Sly’s creative desire was unsated, resulting in side projects that complement, and on occasion even match, the Family Stone’s catalogue. His 1969/70 Stoneflower productions on 6IX, Joe Hicks and Little Sister are crucial pieces of the Sly Stone jigsaw, while the outrageous French Fries single is finally identified as a Family Stone recording.
In May 2009 I spent several days in Sly’s company talking about music and its creation, creativity, for the sleeve notes. The man is as funny, smart and brilliant as he ever was, and he seemed to enjoy talking purely about his music for once, rather than being asked prurient questions about his personal life. It was an unforgettable experience. Freddie and Greg also contribute to the notes, which shed fresh light upon the years in question: quite possibly Sly’s purple period. “Listen To The Voices” is a celebration of both Sly & the Family Stone the group, and of Sly Stone the auteur. It’s my way of saying “Thank You” to the incredible, unpredictable, one and only – Sly.
By Alec Palao