Best known for the seminal dance oriented recordings from the late 1960’s, the youthful ‘Stand’ (1969) and especially the socio-political commentary of ‘There’s A Riot Going On’ (1971), by 1974, when the first album on this trio of mid-1970’s recordings was made, Sly Stewart was considered to be experiencing something of a creative decline and the original band was gradually falling apart. In its place, however, a new and mature Sly and the Family Stone was emerging and one that was taking on board the new, mellower sounds of soul. It is in this vein that one should approach these recordings which, though falling somewhat short of the aforementioned zenith of the band, are now in retrospect surprisingly interesting and ahead of their time, and they present a more varied stylistic ethos and one that has influenced musicians subsequently, most notably Prince.
To these ears, the first album, ‘Small Talk’, bears the mark of the Hi Records’ sound of Al Green and this is illustrated on ‘Say You Will’, that is an organ-led ditty with strings and a pared down rhythm section. A softer, more reflective side to the Family Stone is heard on the brief ballad, ‘Mother Beautiful’, whereas fans of the old style dance groove can still find echoes of ‘Family Affair’ as on the uptempo ‘Time For Livin’, which is a strong contender for album highlight, and on the funkier-edged, ‘Loose Booty’, which was a minor US R & B success. It was actually the second album, ‘High On You’, that met with greater critical acclaim and once again, Sly delivered an evenly paced set, with new band members including his model wife on vocals. The third album is, perhaps, the least successful and furthest away from the classic sound of the Family Sound. Released in 1976, when disco was starting to hit big, it was mixed at Sigma studios in Philadelphia and had the imprint of Kenneth Gamble who also wrote the original sleeve notes. Rock star Peter Frampton guests on ‘Let’s Be Together’, but as a whole this album is far less coherent and directly led to a period of steep decline in Sly’s commercial and personal health, with a long-term drug addiction blemishing both. His career thereafter became increasingly chaotic and by 2011, there were sadly reports of the singer now being homeless and living in a camper van on the streets on Los Angeles. The extensive notes by Mojo writer and soul authority Charles Waring amount to an extended essay on Sly’s career and rightly place this trio of albums in a much wider context. Iconic black and white cover photos on the first two albums hint at the greatness of the Sly and the Family Stone legacy. Not definitive Sly by any means, but for those who are already familiar with his greatest work, these recordings are nonetheless worth exploring, especially if you are hearing them for the first time.