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Music Review: Sly And The Family Stone – A Whole New Thing; Dance To The Music; Life (Original Recordings Remastered, Part 1 of 3)

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The handling of Sly And The Family Stone's back catalog over the years has long been a source of heated debate among music fans. The impact of this ground breaking band has never been in doubt however. When the final history of rock and roll is written, Sly And The Family Stone's place in the books is just about as sure a thing as it gets.

From the time they first emerged out of San Francisco in 1967, Sly And The Family Stone began a music revolution that would go on to break down just about every barrier imaginable — be it musical, racial, or even gender based. Over time, Sly And The Family Stone would go on to redefine not just R&B music, but rock and roll as a whole.

Their influence would be felt for decades, and it continues to be felt today on an entire myriad of levels. From the seventies forward, Sly And The Family Stone became the template for artists as diverse as Earth Wind & Fire and George Clinton's various incarnations of P-Funk. The "bass-popping" style — introduced to the world by bassist Larry Graham — would later be adopted as the standard for countless funk and jazz artists from Bootsy Collins to Stanley Clarke.

In the eighties, the multi racial and gender busting makeup — not to mention the sound itself — of Prince's various groups from the Revolution on, could be traced directly to Sly And The Family Stone. As a source for today's sampled hip hop records, their only real rival is James Brown himself.

So it was only a matter of time before somebody took upon themselves the formidable task of remastering Sly's back catalog to finally give this monumental work the proper treatment it so richly deserves.

Sony Legacy's remastered reissues of these landmark recordings are currently scheduled for release on April 24 (although this date has already been moved several times). Each of Sly's original seven album releases will be reissued in newly remastered form, with all of these featuring brand new liner notes, and several never before released bonus tracks. A new multi-disc anthology is also scheduled.

On their debut album, 1967's prophetically titled A Whole New Thing, it becomes apparent from the first few notes of the opening track "Underdog" that this album heralded exactly the "Whole New Thing" it spoke of. Incorporating elements of the sixties psychedelic rock the Bay Area was best known for at the time, Sly and The Family Stone would also foreshadow the big horn based funk of latter day Bay bands like Tower Of Power.

Underlying the stealthy horns however, was the razor tight rhythm section of bassist Graham and drummer Greg Errico. Balancing out the feel good funk-rock, were more blues based jams like "Let Me Hear It From You" (where you can also hear early echoes of Prince tracks like "Darling Nikki"). The bonus tracks here include alt versions of both "Underdog" and "Let Me Hear it From You," as well as several previously unreleased tracks.

By the time of the follow-up album, Dance To The Music, what was previously San Francisco's worst kept secret were well on their way to becoming a national sensation. The title track became a national top ten single, based on an irresistible hook, but more importantly on the band flexing their musical chops more than ever.

While the horn arrangement is front and center on this classic track, Larry Graham's bass is more prevalent than ever and the band's multi-gender makeup is emphasized in the vocal trade offs between Sly and Sister Rosie. On "Higher" the band offers a preview of the later updated version they would make famous at the Woodstock festival. The reissued version again includes alt versions of these two key tracks, along with several previously unreleased tracks, including a cover of Otis Redding's "I Can't Turn You Loose."

On Sly's third album, Life, released in late 1968, the band further expanded its sound into rock territory. On tracks like "Dynamite," and "Chicken" there is more of an emphasis on guitar (with a textbook example of what has often been called the "chicken scratch" sound on the latter track). The band also began to expand itself lyrically on this album with tracks like "Jane Is A Groupee" providing a look into the trappings of rock stardom in the sixties, and "Plastic Jim" showing signs of a yet to be fully developed political and social consciousness.

Most importantly, on Life, Sly And The Family Stone were playing more as a unified band than ever. This album in many ways comes closest to capturing the energy of the live performances they were soon to become famous for. Bonus tracks here include an alt version of "Dynamite" and a previously unreleased instrumental called "Sorrow."

So with these three pivotal records — all originally released in just under two years — the world was formally introduced to Sly And The Family Stone, and a firm foundation for one of the greatest bands in modern music history was established.

Nothing however could have predicted the explosion yet to come with Sly And The Family Stone's next two releases.

To Be Continued…

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.