“Well you know that you’re never number two, number one has got to be number one”
Sly & The Family Stone had already been through a hectic transformation by the time Fresh was released. Drummer Greg Errico and bassist Larry Graham left after the fractured sessions for There’s A Riot Goin’ On, a calamitous album that succeeded both by and in spite of the sheer nerve and drug-fueled paranoia of its creator. To this day, there’s nothing quite like the dark, drug-like Riot. Released a few years after in 1973, Fresh was an attempt to get back the band’s charismatic sound–but there’s no reining Sly Stone in from his creative flourishes.
Take the first track off of the album, “In Time”. There’s the infectious groove that Stone could seemingly make out of anything, early drum machine loops, and a wiry, uncomfortable guitar hook that disorients as much as it ties the song together. Miles Davis was a huge fan of Sly & The Family Stone, and there’s rumors that he made his band listen to this song for 30 minutes straight to pick apart what was going on.
If not a perfectionist, Sly was a constant tinkerer, he was infamous for holding on to the masters for his songs for as long as possible, leaving him free to overdub or tinker with the mastering of the recording for as long as he liked. At the time, such tinkering would often have a negative impact on the overall sound quality of the record, which is why Riot features the muddy, yet bewitching sound that it does.
While Fresh kept some of the elements of Riot — like Sly’s penchant for using both live drums and drum machines, it’s an undeniably cleaner sounding record, and this helped produce the group’s last Top 20 hit, “If You Want Me To Stay”.
Sly was a creative force, and even with new band members brought in to replace old ones, he had no problem playing both the organ and bass lines on the song. Sly still had an ear for a hook, and “If You Want Me To Stay”, with it’s lilting bass line and Sly’s signature vocal drawl is perhaps his finest.
That doesn’t mean he was content with it– this clip from Soul Train shows Sly putting another hook on top, just because he could.
There’s no denying Sly’s destructive behavior, and Fresh would be his last acclaimed album before the band disintegrated in 1975. While addiction and the inconsistent behavior that went along with it marred Sly’s musical career, his music and eclecticism left a mark.
Prince, especially in his early years, sounded like a marriage of Rufus with Chaka Khan and Sly & The Family Stone, right down to the wiry instrumentals and love for drum machines–not to mention his patently bizarre behavior.
Prince collaborated with Janelle Monae in recent years, and there’s a little homage to “If You Want Me To Stay” in “Electric Lady” with the bass hook.
Sly himself has been quiet in recent years, though there’s been rumors of comebacks from time to time. David Kamp had a wonderful piece in Vanity Fair a decade ago that covered one such attempt.