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Music Review: Sly & The Family Stone – A Whole New Thing, Dance To The Music, Life

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Despite 40 years of non-stop airplay on the radio, movies and commercials, countless samples, and scores of imitators, the sonic accomplishments of Sly & The Family Stone are still fresh and mind-blowing.  Mixing soul and psychedelic rock with social consciousness, the San Francisco-based septet forged a new path in pop music.  Without them, the careers of, among others, George Clinton, Frank Zappa, Bruce Springsteen, Prince and OutKast would have been entirely different, if not altogether impossible.

To commemorate the 40th anniversary of Sly & The Family Stone's debut, Epic/Legacy will release re-mastered limited edition CDs of the seven albums the band recorded for Epic, complete with extensive liner notes and bonus tracks.  

According to the story, Sylvester Stewart was working as a DJ and recording engineer under the pseudonym Sly Stone.  During an ill-fated session with The Great Society, Grace Slick's pre-Jefferson Airplane band, he decided to create his own band, the likes of which had never been seen.  Bringing together the best musicians he knew, regardless of gender or color, he formed The Family Stone, which included his brother Freddy on guitar.  

Rarely has an album been aptly named than their 1967 debut, A Whole New Thing.  From the opening notes, a horn-driven, minor-key take on "Frère Jacques," it signifies a new direction in pop music.  It's a joy to hear the sound of an exceptional band finding itself, particularly on "Underdog," "Run, Run, Run," and "Turn Me Loose."  Everything that would work so well later on – the sharing of the lead vocals, the rock stomp, the joyous choruses, Larry Graham's remarkable basslines – is all there.  It just needs more memorable songwriting, which would come later.

Still, what really makes A Whole New Thing worthwhile is how thoroughly they had already absorbed the different soul idioms.  They can go from the horn-driven sound of Stax Records to the bass-heavy, harmony-laden pop of Motown to furious James Brown funk in an instant, while never losing sight of the groove.   

In the original liner notes to their second album, Dance To The Music, New York DJ Al Gee describes their sound as "the closest thing yet to a new musical religion!", and he's not that far off.  Stone's songwriting had improved, and his vision began to take flight, particularly on the smash hit title track, whose themes are expanded upon in a 12-minute workout called "Dance To The Medley."  Fuzztone and wah-wah guitar sounds are added to the equation, as the addition of Sly's sister Rose on keyboards allowed Sly to switch between keyboards and guitar, his primary instrument.

Dance To The Music was also groundbreaking in its sound.  At a time when most black music was still heard on AM radio, Dance To The Music, with its hard left-and-right panning and complete separation, is quite possibly the first soul record designed to be heard in FM stereo, something A Whole New Thing merely hinted at.

On Life, the group integrated psychedelia into its sound like never before.  The distorted guitars and sonic swirl of Dance To The Music return with greater frequency, and with stronger songwriting, too.  But that doesn't make Life any less danceable.  If anything, the new sounds deepen the groove. 

Despite the existence of tracks like "M'Lady," "Fun," "Harmony," and the title track, Life failed to make an impression on the charts, creating, in hindsight, the belief that it is a minor record.  But in reality, it is the album on which the history of Sly & The Family Stone pivots.  The next summer would see Stand! with the classic "Everyday People," followed by a legendary performance at Woodstock and mega-stardom. 

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About Dave Lifton

  • Dave,

    Enjoyed the review and agree 100% on the connections to Clinton, Prince, and Outkast. I’m not quite so sure I agree (at least directly) with the ties to Zappa (who had already established his musical identity) or Springsteen (whose own ties run more to Dylan and people like Phil Spector in my view). Would love to hear you elaborate more on this. Good review and overview though.


  • Thanks, Glen. You are correct about Zappa having already started. Admittedly, I’m not the most knowledgable guy on Zappa, but it seems that Sly helped make Zappa sound a little more…palatable, y’know? Kind of the link between the mainstream and Zappa. There’s a line that, I think, Peter Buck said in the early-90s, that REM were the “acceptable side of the unacceptable stuff.” That’s what I’m getting at.

    My point about Bruce refers to the flip side of the Sly equation. Just as Sly put a rock stomp and psychedelic sounds onto soul music, Bruce took rock and added R&B touches to it, especially in concert.

    Does that clear things up?