Sly & The Family Stone: An Oral History
By: Joel Selvin - Permuted Press, $18.00
Description: Sly Stone shook the foundations of soul and turned it into a brand new sound that influenced and liberated musicians as varied as Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, and Herbie Hancock.
His group — consisting of blacks and whites, men and women — symbolized the Woodstock generation and crossed over to dominate pop charts with anthems like “Everyday People,” “Dance to the Music,” and “I Want to Take You Higher.”
Award-winning journalist and bestselling author Joel Selvin weaves an epic American tale from the voices of the people around this funk phenomenon: Sly’s parents, his family members and band members (sometimes one and the same), and rock figures including Grace Slick, Sal Valentino, Bobby Womack, Mickey Hart, Clive Davis, Bobby Freeman, and many more.
In their own words, they candidly share the triumphs and tragedies of one of the most influential musical groups ever formed — “different strokes” from the immensely talented folks who were there when it all happened.
Verdict: Long considered the definitive account of the meteoric career of the pioneer funk-rock band, Sly & the Family Stone: An Oral History by Joel Selvin, the 1998 classic that has been out of print for years, now returns in a new, updated edition from Permuted Press.
Well, given that I am sure by now we all know that Sylvester Stewart aka Sly Stone (before, during and after The Family Stone) had purposely, or be accident, stumbled into a life that would not only provide great stardom highs, but come complete with some disturbing, and sometimes chilling lows, this book (in its original format) was always a massive go-to for all fans, interested parties, and, of course, lookie-loo’s.
So, if you have any interest in Sly Stone - the man - then this new, updated edition is still a must read. Veritably a compilation of thoughts by many of the people who worked for him and with him, alongside a few from some keen observers, so to speak, An Oral History is, simply put, a bloody masterpiece!
Sure it also covers the creation of his music, but for the most part the emphasis of the book is the lean main man, his self-inflicted, dashed ’60s dream, where idealism gave way to disillusionment, soft drugs giving way to hard ones (and, as expected, Sly makes no contribution to the book).
It has long since been agreed upon, by those deep inside the know, that the bad craziness began when he left the Bay Area for Southern California, in 1970. But then, and just as quickly, after a massive bump on their road to fame, as noted in this book, his disappearance from the world of music was suddenly becoming more and more apparent.
Now, as much as I am not going to spell out every word, every sentence, every paragraph and told story within, as discovering all this for yourself, first hand is the only way for this to become as surreal to you now as it was to those back then, but what i will say is that this book perfectly, astutely even, documents, through the words of his inner circle along with others attune to his external life, the collapse of a creative, innovative musical genius; as he surrendered to the dark world of narcotics.
But, it won’t be a chock to you that come the mid-1970s, Stone’s drug use and erratic behavior effectively ended the group, leaving him to record several unsuccessful solo albums. In 1993, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the group and he even took part in a Sly and the Family Stone tribute at the 2006 Grammy Awards, his first live performance since 1987.
Anyway, as I myself seem to now be acting like There’s a Riot Goin’ On by bouncing back and forth here on his timeline, the sense you are left with from the book is that he honestly, truly never acquired an authentic sense of self esteem.
From a hard-working, apparently happy maker-of-music and performer-of-music to an unreliable, physically abusive, withdrawn addict, it was the time, I get it, and he most definitely wasn’t alone in his drug-fueled descent, but wow, the man credited with creating a series of euphoric yet politically charged records that proved a massive influence on artists of all musical and cultural backgrounds, just couldn’t stay focused on what joy he had brought to his fans, the the music scene, or to life all around him.
In closing, what is genuinely missing, in my humble opinion, is Sly’s very own voice, which thusly leaves a gaping hole in the center of the narrative.
OK, and yes, instead of getting more than the barest glimpse inside the studio during the recording process of some of the greatest albums in all of American popular music history, we are given quite a lot of negative prose - including tidbits such as during his downward spiral, into his life came firearms, coke, PCP, goons, paranoia, isolation and a mean-spirited pet pit bull he named Gun - but regardless, Sly & The Family Stone: An Oral History tells it like it is; for it is an unflinching, unabashed tale of one of a man who played a critical role in the development of funk with his pioneering fusion of soul, rock, psychedelia and gospel in the 1960s and 1970s, but also found the Devil and his darkness too hard to resist.
About the Author - Joel Selvin is an American San Francisco–based music critic and author known for his weekly column in the San Francisco Chronicle, which ran from 1972 to 2009. Selvin has written more than 20 books covering various aspects of pop music—including the No. 1 New York Times bestseller Red: My Uncensored Life In Rock with Sammy Hagar — and published articles in Rolling Stone, the Los Angeles Times, Billboard, and Melody Maker.
He has written liner notes for dozens of recorded albums and appeared in countless documentaries. His most recent book is Hollywood Eden: Electric Guitars, Fast Cars and the Myth of the California Paradise.
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