Sly and the Family Stone
Higher! multi-disc retrospective from Epic/Legacy
Higher! is not the first box set from the cross-genre group. That honor goes to Best Buy’s The Collection from 2007, which assembled the group’s seven albums from Epic Records, eventually reissued as individual discs, alongside a bonus DVD (that remained exclusive to the set). The DVD wasn’t much to speak of, but the added bonus tracks—from alternate versions, single versions, and instrumentals—made it a set worth getting. On the latest compilation, only a handful of the tracks that were released as bonus tracks in 2007 see inclusion here. Included on Higher! are seventeen different previously unreleased tracks ranging from studio outtakes, live material, instrumentals, and best of all, mono single mixes, on this seventy-seven-track overview.
The set is presented chronologically, starting with singles from Sly Stone on Autumn Records in 1964 and concluding with unissued material from the period of 1975–’77, giving the listener a sense of how the multi-talented band and their leader progressed.
There’s no denying that the singles that have been ingrained in our consciences for forty-plus years are some of the greatest music of the twentieth century. “Thank You (Fa Lettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” in its mono single mix has a punch that is lacking in the more common stereo mix (thank you Larry Graham). “Everyday People” unites in ways that “Kum Ba Ya” never has, and consequently was a message the group mirrored with its multiracial mix of its musicians.
However, album-only tracks like 1969’s “Sex Machine” from Stand! show a band who is equally adept at putting the mics away and jamming. On the smokehouse blues cut, the band jams for twelve minutes until drummer Greg Errico closes it out with a minute-and-a-half solo before the group laughs and celebrates with the commentary, “We blew your mind.” As Errico recalls in the track’s annotation, Sly, Freddie Stone, and Larry Graham snuck up behind him while his eyes were closed and removed his headphones. Additionally, a reworking of “Dance to the Music,” retitled as “Danse A La Musique” and credited to the French Fries, was (oddly) requested by the label to be done in French. While the annotation doesn’t give a reason for the label’s request, the resulting work has Sly’s girlfriend singing some of the translated lines over a sizzling guitar lead. Or “Don’t Burn Baby,” recorded in 1967 but held off for release until 1968, which was a response to the Watts Riots and a play on Magnificent Montague’s popular radio call out “Burn baby, burn!” urging people to focus their energy on positivity.
We also get a chance to hear the group shine in a live setting as the third disc ends with four performances from the Isle Of Wight Festival from 1970, two of which have not been previously issued (“Dance to the Music” and “Medley: Music Lover/I Want to Take You Higher/Music Lover”).
The 104-page book rivals the set’s fantastic music, which sounds top-notch thanks to Vic Anesini, as a true marvel. Including photos of studio documents, the band performing live, and in-studio, press clippings, label scans, and so much more, as well as an introductory essay by Jeff Kaliss who has written a book on the group, and track-by-track annotations, it’s as nice of a collection of memories as one can imagine.
Fans interested in purchasing the set have two different formats to choose from, a limited edition 8-LP vinyl set and a 4-CD version. Amazon is offering an exclusive fifth disc that contains six tracks including a medley previously only available on a 2013 Record Store Day exclusive release. For those with a budget crunch, a single disc of highlights was issued as well showcasing sixteen tracks from the set.
Forget the eccentricities that have marred Sly Stone, the person, for a number of years. When you’re immersed by the sounds of the music he helped to create, you can’t help but feel what Cynthia Robinson has been shouting at us all these years: “SING A SIMPLE SONG!” Maybe trying “a little do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do” would do us all some good.
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