Sly and the Family Stone – Underdog
Track 1 Underdog Track 2 Bad Risk
Sylvester Stewart was born in Dallas, Texas, in March of 1944 & began his recording career at the very early age of four as a vocalist on the gospel tune On the Battlefield for My Lord. In the 50’s, his family moved to the San Francisco area where he & his brother Freddie learned to play various instruments & made music under the name the Stewart Four. Stewart also played & sang with doo-wop groups & in high school sang with a group called the Viscanes, appearing on their record Yellow Moon, & at sixteen made a solo record called Long Time Away which gained him some modest fame.
Stone studied music composition, theory, & trumpet at Vallejo Junior College in the early 60’s & began playing in several groups on the Bay Area scene. Around ’64 he had become a disc jockey at the R&B station KSOL, & his radio appearances led to a job producing records for Autumn Records. There he worked with a number of San Franciscan garage & psychedelic bands & he himself recorded three 7’s titled Buttermilk PT1-2 & Temptation Walk PT1-2, both in 65, & also the unusual surf track I Just Learned To Swim in ’64 flipped with Scat Swim, which is a personal fav’ that I’ll have to share sometime in the future…it’s a little insane!
As a DJ he gained notoriety as one of the more eccentric voices on radio, blending sound effects with public service announcements & mixing soul singles with rock & roll records by Bob Dylan & the Beatles, & was generally considered the top R & B commentator in the area.
In ’66 Stewart’s current band The Stoners split, & it was saxophonist Jerry Martini who approached Stewart, who was content at the time with his DJ gig, into fronting a new band. Along with Martini, Stewart enlisted brother Freddie as guitarist & his sister Rosie to play piano, with the addition of bassist Larry Graham & drummer Greg Errico & ex-Stoners trumpet player Cynthia Robinson. Stewart changed his name to Sly Stone, & the Family Stone was born.
The band quickly attracted the attention of Columbia Records A&R executive David Kapralik & soon signed with Columbia, releasing its debut LP, A Whole New Thing, in 1967 on the Columbia subsidiary Epic Records. The album didn’t fare particularly well, but my only explanation for that could possibly be only because of the lack of radio hits, & definitely not the lack of fat funk! The opening track on that Lp, Underdog is a killer & the debut album’s only 7″ release which, I suspect, was a promo only (please correct me if I’m wrong!). I myself think this is the most desirable & important Sly 45 to have! It’s an epic tune, with big vocals, snappy rap versing & the sharpest percussion. I’m just not sure the world was ready for this!
But it didn’t take long for the Family to hit it big, which they certainly did with the almighty (& much more radio friendly) US. and UK. Top 10 smash Dance To The Music, from their follow up LP of the same name. Even Sly admits he wasn’t ready for what was about to hit them!
In ’69, Sly released the album ‘Stand’ which included the next big follow up hit Everyday People. A big album, with some big songs, also including I Want To Take You Higher & my personal fav’ from the album, the title track Stand!
This album went on to sell two million copies.
Underdog was also released on a french picture sleeve as a B side to Dance To The Music, but it’s this bad boy you want with the baddest Bad Risk on the flip!
It must be noted that Sly & the Family Stone did release a mysterious 7″ with the titles I Ain’t Got Nobody & Otis Redding’s I Can’t Turn You Loose on the flip, on a small San Francisco-based Loadstone label. This is said to be the first “Family” 7″, however the dates I’m getting on this release are all over the place ranging from 67 to 72. The track also appeared on their ’68 LP.
The Family Stone are credited as one of the first racially integrated bands in music history, belting their message of peace, love & social consciousness through a string of hit anthems. Their music fused R&B, soul, pop, jazz, & an emerging genre soon to be dubbed funk! Sly developed a formula for the band’s recordings, which would still promote his visions of peace, brotherly love, and anti-racism while appealing to a wider audience. And his new fused sound not only worked in selling records, but influenced the entire music industry. When “Dance to the Music” became a Top 10 pop hit, soul producers and labels immediately began appropriating the new “Psychedelic soul” sound. By the end of 1968, The Temptations had gone psychedelic, and The Impressions and Four Tops would join them within the space of two years.
Sadly Sly eventually fell down the spiral with his constant drug addictions over some many years. While he still may have that spark in his eyes, & that beautiful energy in his aura, he clearly has paid a price for those early years of fame. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 1993, & is the recipient of the 2002 R&B Foundation Pioneer Award.
Referencing and recommendations…
Documentary – Sly & the Family Stone “Coming back for more” (I would love to see this!)
Documentary -Sly Stone: Portrait of a Legend