John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

Why Sly Stone Lives On

Rumors of his death were untrue. And his music seems eternal.

By - May 6th, 2016 01:10 pm
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Sly & The Family Stone

Sly & The Family Stone

Prince is dead, Bowie too. Of course Trump and cockroaches are flourishing. Looking down from cloud nine, the guy who makes Keith Richards look like an amateur, Sly Stone, is smiling with six inch choppers obscured in a haze that could be purple or any other color. He disappeared a long time ago into drugs — cocaine was his rumored nemesis. This month saw a claim he died go viral on the internet, but it was untrue. Sly still lives, somehow avoiding both sobriety and death, and his music has to be considered among the very the best of the late 60’s and early 70’s. It still sounds Fresh, the title of one of his finest albums.

Sly has already proven everything he needed to. He conquered the charts with an interracial band that balanced on the thinnest fence between white pop and black funk (invented by James Brown, but perfected by The Family Stone, his impossibly tight band.) Then he somehow died without dying, vaporizing like a cloud of crack smoke into the atmosphere, an enigma so unsolvable, I could ponder it every day and never really get any closer to understanding it.

There was always something so joyously alive about his music, so wondrously creative and mischievous. Both Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix were smitten, paying tribute, somehow managing to not be blown completely off course. Had Hendrix survived and the planets aligned perfectly, a collaboration with Sly might have been potent enough to reverse the flow of gravity.

Consider music’s survivors and the dearly departed — there is no rhyme or reason to it. Sly, with a foot in both worlds, can’t be called either. It’s like the Grim Reaper got his orders and just couldn’t do it. He probably was too busy dancing. Yet he’s taken way too many from us lately. The treasures are taken while ugliness thrives on the glowing screen of modern life — how to process?

Probably better to crank up a work of genius by the insanely gifted, paradigm-shifting dervish and improbably alive artist du jour, Sylvester Stone. Let’s go with something from “Fresh.” Nothing but great cuts from start to finish, but this one, “If You Want Me To Stay,” could not have have come from anybody else. It is chock full of Sly-isms, from the idiosyncratic jive to the peppery horn charts. The temperature is high enough to melt glass and his singing ranges from ecstatic to elastic with enough gravel to resurface a country road. This is the recorded version; I didn’t find any live performance that didn’t kick off a medley, but nothing is stopping you from looking around. He’s especially good with David Letterman’s band in a rare solo appearance and on Soul Train, in an expanded band featuring Sid Page, Dan Hick’s violinist, the same one who delivered the solo on “I Scare Myself.” Here are the lyrics, go ahead and sing along:

If you want me to stay,
I’ll be around today,
to be available for you to see.
But I am about to go,
And then you’ll know,
For me to stay here I got to be me.

You’ll never be in doubt,
That’s what it’s all about,
You can’t take me for granted and smile.
Count the days I’m gone
Forget reachin’ me by phone
Because I promise I’ll be gone for a while.

And when you see me again,
I hope that you have been,
The kind of person….that you really are now.
Got to get in straight,
How could I ever be late,
When you’re my woman taking up my time.

Whoa, oh how could I ever allow,
I guess I wonder how,
I could get out a pocket for fun. HOW HOW!!
When you know that you’re never number two,
Number one’s gonna be number one,
ohh oww oohh

I’ll be good,
I wish I could
I get this message over to you now.
ahhh, yeah, message, mmmm
When you see me again,
I hope that you have been,
The kind of person you really are now.
I’ll be so good, oh
I wish I could,
I get this message over to you now.

© Sylvester Stone

The musical changes, an update on Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny,” are a magic trick. A couple little substitutions and some quick sleight of hand  and the musical line is turned up, down and back around and delivered neatly right back to square one. He repeats this all the way from start to finish — all the development is in his vocal and the crazed horn chart. Nobody ever dreamt of songs like this, let alone wrote, arranged and performed them. The lyrics, clever but hokey braggadocio, are fun and even more fun to read. But what to make of the enigma who wrote them?

My pal Phil Lee, who drove cab in L.A., back in the day, picked Sly up when he was carrying a massive TV he was hocking. Apparently he needed a fix fast. This is a guy whose mailbox was feasting on a steady diet of delicious royalty checks. It’s beyond lucrative to have the kind of hits he had — you almost have to have your own zip code and post office just to process the mail. But Sly was out selling a used television. That says something about either his extravagant habits or bad accounting.

Back in the 80’s I saw a phoned-in performance by Sly with a pick up band (a rather good one, though) that was still better that almost anything I’ve seen since. He did his hits, some of them twice and spent less than an hour on stage. Not a lot of effort, just another paycheck, probably — but it was spectacular. The mystery of talent on that scale is how little joy seems to be available to those who give so much to others. It’s a story told way too often, with predictably fatal results. Then there is the rare exception, the ones who live past that magic age of 27, when the limo usually turns back into a pumpkin and The Devil comes calling to collect his fee. Not this time. Sly is a first rate bullet dodger.

Should we expect more music from him? Probably not, but there’s a volume knob on that device of yours and the repeat function doesn’t have a governor. Enigmas and riddles seem less important when the soundtrack is perfect and the world is fresh again. Dance to the music.

5 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: Why Sly Stone Lives On”

  1. Tee Watts says:

    Contrary to what you imply, music from Mr. Stewart still ekes out. To wit; http://www.thehypemagazine.com/videogallery/unity-ft-amuka-sly-stone-bebe-george-clinton-free-the-funk/, released on cd 5/1/16, not to mention recent tracks with Clinton, etc.

    Also, his vault of unreleased material, remains vast and grows larger as we speak. As for when it will be released, as Bo Diddley once wrote, “You’ve Got To Wait.”

  2. Thomas says:

    Thanks, John, for debunking the rumor of the demise of Sly Stone and for your wonderful reflection on the brief brilliance of a great artist who more or less disappeared a long time ago. I still feel like dancing when I hear “Dance to the Music,” “I Want to Take You Higher” or “Thank you For Lettin’ Me Be Myself” on nostalgia radio.

    Thanks, Tee, for the link to more recent Sly Stone offerings. If Sly is still alive and has a vault of unreleased material, perhaps he could be encouraged to release some new songs “sooner rather than later.” It is hard to argue with Bo Diddley’s “You’ve Got To Wait:” Then again, maybe someone could remind Sly of these words of Mississippi Fred Mc Dowell: “You’ve Got to Move.”

  3. Danny says:

    The problem with those juicy royalty checks is that Sly has been totally screwed by his manager Jerry Goldsmith and though I don’t know the current status, he wasn’t getting squat for a long time. I met Sly in a studio in the late 80’s when he was still with this manager, and he was recording….. none of it ever came out.

  4. Tee Watts says:

    Exactly!

  5. Danny says:

    God, Amuka needs a real job, what an atrocious song & video

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