In the ’60s and early ‘70s, there was no group as exciting and powerful as Sly and the Family Stone. The brainchild of producer, writer, arranger Sly Stone, Sly and the Family Stone hit the scene in the late ’60s as a multi-racial and multi-gender unit. The sound was as varied as their lineup. The band had joined rock’s hard edge and freedom with the mechanics of complex R&B to make a seamless fusion that was brilliant in concept and sound. The hits were plentiful, ranging from the driving “Dance to the Music” and “Stand!” to warm tracks like “Hot Fun in the Summertime” and “Everybody is a Star.” Stone’s early style was influential, as producers and artists like Norman Whitfield, George Clinton, Miles Davis and Stevie Wonder were all taken by Stone’s sonic landscape and fearlessness.
By 1970, however, “A Whole New Thing” seemed to transmogrify into something more somber. It was during this era when Stone began to be known for his “flakiness,” missed shows and delayed albums. 1971’s often grim and brilliant There’s A Riot Goin’ On was delivered late and, despite hit singles like “Family Affair” and “(You Caught Me) Smilin’,” there was an undercurrent of unease throughout. By the early ’70s, Sly and the Family Stone began to see personnel changes as drummer Greg Errico and the the bassist Larry Graham both left by 1972.
Despite the differences in sound and band chemistry, the departures didn’t seem to affect Stone’s muse. A lot of Fresh is sonically striking and innovative, especially with its use of rhythm patterns, horn arrangements and a general sense of the intellectual and odd. If there’s one prevailing problem on Fresh, it’s the declining lyrics and lack of strong structure that made songs like “In Time” and “Let Have it All” a bit lesser than they could have been. Luckily, Fresh still has the after burn of his classic and prolific era, so it’s not a total loss. The best songs make themselves known immediately. The playful “If You Want Me To Stay” was a hit single and went to #12 on the pop chart and hit #3 on the R&B charts. The great “Babies Making Babies” is nearly as good and shows true wit in a thought-provoking subject matter.
If anyone was looking for the conciseness and profundity of There’s a Riot Goin On’, they were disappointed with Fresh. Songs like “Skin I’m In” and “Thankful n’ Thoughtful” couldn’t rise above the lyrical bromides despite the sharp production. All isn’t bad, however, and one song in particular seemed to have the snap and focus of Stone’s best work. Stone’s cover of Doris Day’s “Que Sera Sera” is more affecting and winningly eccentric than most of the album.
Fresh went gold in fairly short order and hit the pop chart at #7 and landed at #1 on the R&B chart. In retrospect, this album and era all but made Stone’s earlier blitheness and pop utopia a thing of the past. Regardless of the lack of enduring pop success or “good vibes” Fresh remains one of music’s best albums and is arguably Stone’s last great effort.
Jason Elias is a music journalist and a pop music historian.