Preaching a gospel of tolerance set against a heady genre-blending groove, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductees Sly and the Family Stone were the integrated multi-gender Pied Pipers of the Woodstock generation. The group's message – and inimitable synthesizing of rock, soul, R&B, funk and psychedelia into a danceable music – helped bring diverse audiences together, with their greatest triumph coming at the Woodstock Festival in 1969. During their unforgettable nighttime set, leader Sly Stone initiated a fevered call-and-response with the audience of 400,000–plus during an electrifying version of “I Want to Take You Higher.” Voters around the world ranked that moment as one of the greatest festival moments of all time, and it is included in the Rock Hall's feature exhibit, Common Ground: The Music Festival Experience.
The group connected with the rising counterculture by means of songs that addressed issues of personal pride and liberation in the context of driving, insistent and sunny-tempered music that fused rock and soul, creating a template for 70s funk. As proof that they were reaching a rainbow coalition among the young, Sly and the Family Stone dominated the late 60s charts with such essential singles as “Dance to the Music” (Number Eight pop, Number Nine R&B), “Everyday People” (Number One, pop and R&B), “Hot Fun in the Summertime” (Number Two pop, Number Three R&B) and “Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin” (Number One, pop and R&B).
With "Dance To The Music," Sly and the Family Stone put a new, highly idiosyncratic twist on funk without losing a shred of R&B danceability. The easiest way to understand how the song differs from conventional soul hits of the period is to listen to the lyric, which describes in both elementary and highly personalized terms what's going on. Sly starts from scratch and adds each instrument singly to build up a powerhouse of psychedelic R&B, replete with call-and-response vocals, brief solos, gleeful cries and a beat that bulldozes everything in its path. It's all so joyous it's easy to miss the message belted out by Cynthia Robinson and Jerry Martini, the horn players: "All the squares go home!" Sly once claimed he wrote the tune after Epic Records rejected other examples of his "Whole New Thing" (as he called his rock-soul-jazz/black-white/male-female fusion) as too complicated for the masses. Contemptuously coming up with a gimmick song to explain his design to the befuddled execs, he crashed his way into the Top 10 in the process.
LIVE STREAM!: Original members of Sly and the Family Stone Cynthia Robinson (trumpet), Greg Errico (drums) and Jerry Martini (sax) will be interviewed live at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum on Friday, June 20, 2014 at 1 pm!
Like many of the best minds of his generation, Sly Stone dreamed of integration. Dreaming bigger than most, he wanted to integrate not only black and white but also male and female, soul and rock, rich and poor, famous and humble. As the 1960s crashed to a close, Sly saw the dream crumble, replaced by a terrible separation. Always introspective, Sly focused so deeply upon himself after the fall that he often failed to notice the outside world at all. But so long as he offered a hip beat, crowds danced to the music. They didn't necessarily listen. Disgusted, Sly wrote off the whole thing as a meaningless ritual and began playing mind games to see how much he could get away with. He missed concerts staged for 20,000 or more. He wrote a song one day in 1969 and poison spilled out. He set it to one of his grungiest riffs, a slinky, sinister beat that picked up the tempo just a hair as the verses progressed. A close listen revealed him drawing blood with the shards of his own hopes and career, mocking his early songs. No one caught on. The record slipped into Number One in Billboard. So Sly went back into the studio and slowed it down, forcing the listener to hear that blood trickle. He called it "Thank You For Talkin' To Me, Africa" and put it out a year later on the album There's A Riot Goin' On. People still didn't get it. You might miss it yourself. If you do, listen closer.