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Sly Stone: The Early Days In The East Bay

Ace Records

Rock historian Ed Ward listened to two releases compiling Sly Stone tracks, Love Is the Song We Sing (Rhino) and Listen to the Voices: Sly Stone in the Studio 1965-70 (Ace).

When you think of Sly Stone, the single "Free Advice" is not the sort of thing which immediately comes to mind. It's a single by the Great Society, recorded in December 1965 and featuring Jerry Slick, his wife Grace and his younger brother Darby. It may not sound like it, but it took 53 takes to get the final one, and the reason for that is right on the record label, which reads, "Produced by Sly Stewart." By the time this was released, the young producer, a notorious perfectionist, had been working for Autumn Records, a label run by San Francisco DJ Tom Donahue and his partner Bob Mitchell, for two years.

Donahue undoubtedly knew Sylvester Stewart as a fellow DJ who held down a slot on KSOL in the East Bay, and also knew that while Sly Stone — as he was known on the radio — loved soul music, he was also into British rock. Thus, when Donahue brought a band into the studio that he'd discovered in a San Francisco North Beach club, his young producer knew just what to do with it.

"Don't Talk to Strangers" was the fourth charting single Sly Stone had produced with the Beau Brummels, and while it did okay nationally, it was a big enough hit locally that the band was soon scooped up by Warner Bros. Stone kept busy for Autumn, though, producing hits and misses for the Mojo Men and the Vejtables, whose lead singer and drummer was Jan Errico. If that name sounds familiar, it might be because her cousin Gregg was soon to emerge as the drummer in Sly's new band, The Family Stone.

When Autumn fell apart early in 1966, Sly Stone was already busy producing some sessions for Billy Preston, playing in San Francisco with his band The Stoners, and cutting demos with his brother Freddie's band which already show the fusion of rock and funk.

By late 1967, the members of The Family Stone had jelled, and they were on their way to million-sellers, Woodstock, and crossover success. In 1969, Sly Stone and manager Dave Kapralik incorporated Stone Flower Productions, and soon they were approached by Atlantic Records, which offered them a label on which to place Sly's productions. Sly's first two signings for the label were an old friend, Joe Hicks, and a trio called Little Sister — which did, indeed, feature his little sister Vaetta, known as Vet, and two of her friends. Little Sister had been a gospel outfit, but, like Vet's big brother, they liked to experiment, and they didn't get many bookings. So Sly Stone signed them.

There was no doubt who was backing them up, of course, and their song "You're the One" made it to No. 22 on the pop charts. The follow-up, "Somebody's Watching You," didn't do as well, but it did give a bit of insight into the new sounds Stone was playing with.

The last Stone Flower single, by Joe Hicks, remains one of the most disturbing records I've ever heard, "Life and Death in G and A." The extreme compression, the minimalist backing dominated by the Ace Tone Rhythm Ace machine, and the lack of chord progression makes "Life and Death in G and A" a claustrophobic, paranoid experience. Sly Stone was on to something else now, about to release There's a Riot Goin' On and then disappear for two years.

Ed Ward's new e-book is called The Bar At the End of the Regime.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Ed Ward is the rock-and-roll historian on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.