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Check It Out

Check It Out!: November 8, 2013

Sly and the Family Stone —

Higher! (Epic/Legacy)

Even though Sly Stone is best known to music fans through a handful of hit songs that are standards on oldies radio, the fact is, this Denton, TX, native was a game changer. Not only did he lead a multi-racial co-ed band at a time when most rock bands were predominantly made of white male members, but Stone was a multiple creative threat — singer/songwriter/producer/all-around visionary. By virtue of the doors he kicked down in the music industry and pop culture, his immensely talented acolyte Prince was able to walk through and take everything to the next level. This 4-CD set does an excellent job burnishing the man and his group’s legacy in the year of his 70th birthday by way of 77 chronologically arrayed tracks that include 17 previously unreleased recordings. Capping it all off are excellently written liner notes by authorized Sly & the Family Stone biographer Jeff Kaliss and exquisite track-by-track annotations featuring insights from numerous people involved with the group, up to and including original band members Greg Errico, Larry Graham, Jerry Martini, Cynthia Robinson and Sly Stone himself.

But in the end, it’s the music that’s all the proof you need. Starting with early recordings made when Sly was going by his birth name Sylvester Stewart as a staff producer for Autumn Records, you can hear the mix of surf music, ’50s rock and roll, and rhythm and blues to go with hints of jazz and blues sprinkled throughout songs like “I Just Learned How to Swim” and “Buttermilk, Pt. 1.” There are of course those jubilant timeless singles like “Dance to the Music,” “Everyday People” and “I Want To Take You Higher” all overflowing with optimism, infectious horn arrangements, timeless harmonies and enough funk to launch George Clinton’s Mothership. And while drugs, cynicism and the Summer of Love’s idealism taking a darker and sordid turn wound up having Stewart’s music take on a much more sinister overtone, there’s still plenty to sup on here. Of particular note are Sly & the Family Stone’s performances from 1970’s Isle of Wight Festival that includes a killer version of “Stand!” to go with an equally excellent medley of “Music Lover/I Want to Take You Higher/Music Lover.” Highlights also include latter-day singles like “If You Want Me to Stay” and “Family Affair” along with lo-fi gems like “Luv N’ Haight” and the relentlessly rhythmic “Loose Booty.” Higher! winds up being the proper tribute to a man whose singular influence is lost amid drug-fueled foibles that wound up sidetracking him permanently.

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