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BLACK HISTORY MONTH: FUNK,
PART THREE

Spinning “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “Cold Sweat” and other emerging funk on KSOL-AM out in San Francisco, a twenty-something DJ by the name of Sly Stone mainlined “the one” into his bloodstream. Born Sylvester Stewart in Denton, Texas, in 1943, Sly grew up in Vallejo, California, with four brothers and sisters. Musically inclined and young disciples of the Church of God in Christ, the Stewart Four released an indie gospel single when Sly was only nine. By the time James Brown introduced funk to the airwaves nationwide, Sly had made music-industry inroads as a staff producer at Autumn Records—laying tracks for Grace Slick, rock/soul striver Bobby Freeman and others. A visionary musician, Sly brainstormed and formulated his own addition to the musical counterculture of the 1960s: Sly & the Family Stone.

A multicultural, mixed-gender band, the Family Stone consisted of guitarist Freddie Stone, bassist Larry Graham Jr., keyboardist Rosie Stone, trumpeter Cynthia Robinson, sax player Jerry Martini and drummer Greg Errico. Hippies were protesting Vietnam by sticking flowers into the rifle barrels of soldiers at the 1967 March on the Pentagon; Sly & the Family Stone gave the flower-power movement funky, positivist anthems like “You Can Make It if You Try,” “Everyday People” and “Stand!” Their appearance at the Woodstock music festival in ’69 cemented the relationship.

One of the group’s key roles in the evolution of funk music became the bass-playing style of Larry Graham, who happened upon his contribution to the form in much the same way as drummer Chuck Connor: compensating for another instrument. Three years Sly’s junior, Larry Graham came up in Beaumont, Texas, playing bass on tour with his mother in The Dell Graham Trio. He eventually began thumping and plucking his bass strings percussively, making up for a missing drummer, just as Connor’s drumming offset Little Richard’s missing bass player. In ’69, his slap technique changed the tonal palette of the bass forever after the release of Sly & the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).” Graham’s solo success reached its apex in the ’70s with the self-titled debut album by his own band, Graham Central Station (1974), as well as ballads like “One in a Million You” (1980) and “Just Be My Lady” (1981).

Psychedelic music is hard to characterize, typified by longer songs with lengthy instrumental soloing, phasing from speaker to speaker, sound distortions through reversed effects, reverb and delay. You know it when you hear it—the influence of marijuana and LSD seeps through the grooves. There are quite a few examples of these things on Sly & the Family Stone tracks, and the group has historically been credited for inventing psychedelic funk. In a time period full of psychedelia from rock bands like Cream and The Doors, Sly Stone—in a band with white musicians—pioneered funkadelia, bringing funk music with a utopian view to a massive white audience on hits like “I Want to Take You Higher.”

Sly & the Family Stone also brought the funk visually, waving a freak flag that set the tone for future bands like Earth, Wind & Fire, Parliament-Funkadelic, the Ohio Players and more. Gold lamé shirts with flower-print trousers; Edwardian ruffled shirts, leather pants, fur-lined boots; assorted crocheted hats and suede vests with dangling buckskin fringe; jumpsuits and rhinestone-studded tops; sequined cowboy hats and diamond-decorated name rings—Sly and company didn’t come quietly on the eyes. A zillion miles away from the tailored suits of James Brown and the Famous Flames, the look of Sly’s outfit (no pun intended) harmonized with the likes of the Jimi Hendrix Experience and the rock zeitgeist of the 1960s.

The songwriting of Sly Stone caused rippling shifts in soul and R&B for decades. In the immediate, Motown producer Norman Whitfield laid psychedelic funk backdrops onto tracks like “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” by ‚Ä®the Temptations, the Jackson 5’s “Hum Along and Dance” and Edwin Starr’s “War.” Come the ’80s, Sly’s influence on Prince ‚Ä®compositions like “1999” could be heard as strongly in Prince’s music as James Brown’s influence (see Prince’s “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night”).

Sly’s demons obstructed him all along the way, but his work throughout the ’70s is studded with brilliance, notably the revolutionary album There’s a Riot Goin’ On and such funky gems as “If You Want Me to Stay,” “Loose Booty” and “Crossword Puzzle.” More than an architect of a genre, he has been a visionary of music’s transformative power.

This playlist, Black History Month: Funk, contains most of the cuts referenced in our primary discussion of the genre, including a generous sampling of James Brown, Sly Stone, George Clinton's various P-Funk projects, The Meters, Prince and many more. We don't mind if you decide to stop reading and dance.

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