Saturday, June 13, 2009

Dance to the Music, Sly and the Family Stone (1968)

Yesterday I couldn't have told you how I could possibly link guitar god Richard Thompson, who I saw in concert last night for the first time, and Sly & the Family Stone, but it turns out there's a perfectly legitimate linkage, and I'm about to make it.

The advent of Dance To the Music changed the game for my generation's music scene. Fusing psychedelia, pop and soul into a new genre characterized by a front-and-center rhythm section and high-energy vocal arrangements, funk music had arrived in the mainstream and there was no turning back.

Certainly it was impossible to remain in any kind of emotional funk when that song's horns blared and the beat pulsed. I was reminded of this just last week when it appeared on the playlist for a group of women who get together to shake their groove thing once a month at a local dance studio. (Thanks, DJ Dolli!)

Oddly, the group was reportedly never all that enthralled with Dance. When their debut album A Whole New Thing failed to capture the public's imagination, their producers urged Sly to orient their material more commercially. I suppose feeling somewhat railroaded into fitting into some sort of mold, the song ended up completely self-referential, but it doesn't change the fact that it was an extravaganza of sounds by a rainbow coalition of artists who, together, shook up the music industry, captivated young audiences and influenced other artists for years to come. (Just months later, Norman Whitfield used the success of Sly's Family - some of whom were actually family - as the inspiration for Cloud Nine, which began a run of psychedelic soul hits that extended the Temptations' performing life for years.)

Family Stone bassist Larry Graham - who began his career at 13 when he was brought onstage at the Fillmore West with Ike and Tina Turner to play Clarence Gatemouth Brown’s Okie Dokie Stomp - is credited with originating the slap bass form of playing, a gymnastic sort of fingerwork that creates a percussive groove that sounds like, well, percussion. To use his words, he "would thump the strings with my thumb to make up for the bass drum, and pluck the strings with my fingers to make up for the backbeat snare drum. It made sense to me because I had been a drummer in the school band."

The technique, which he called 'thumpin' and pluckin', became the defining underpinning of all funk music, and was epitomized in their later hit, Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin). Hearing it is one thing - seeing it done is another.

Which brings me to Richard Thompson (a member, during the late '60s, of the English folk-rock band Fairport Convention). This is a guy whose insane virtuosity with his instrument is suggestive of one man playing multiple guitars at once - at least you'd think so if you closed your eyes. When you open them, you actually have no idea what it is he's really doing. Last night, I now realize, he definitely had a slap bass beat going on in several songs. Using a pick on low strings and fingerpicking on high strings as is his signature technique, Thompson had my jaw dropping as he effortlessly created what could only be described as output with funk-like overtones.

Hard to believe, but later this summer will be the 40th anniversary of Sly and the Family Stone's performance of I Want To Take You Higher at Woodstock. If you haven't seen it in awhile, fire it up. No matter how you do it, finding your inner funkster is time well spent. Sly, Larry and the rest of the Family taught us how.


Mark said...

Sly & the Family Stone's Greatest Hits, on Epic is in the rotation when I drive long road trips - windows down, volume at 11. If you want to hear another guitarist who's creating more sounds than you think 10 fingers can create, I recommend "Virtuoso" from the late Joe Pass.

Karmasartre said...

Thanks, great Post and Links. Now, I've got "Family Affair" playing in my mind's ear. While we're on the guitar jag, I think Mark Knofler and Lindsey Buckingham are two more who seem to have three hands at times. And Michael Hedges (gone now) somehow turned an acoustic guitar into a grand chunk machine:

Speaking of Richard Thompson, this is one of his best (it says here) and also showcases his guitar virtuosity:

Looking forward to some new format where your whole Estivate collection is available in some new Kindle-ish format where I can read the text and hear the tunes simultaneously....

Wade said...

Yes, Lindsey Buckingham most definitely--he's way too overlooked as a guitarist. (I love Knopfler, too--he's justly recognized.)

I found out about a guy named Bert Jansch today, a Scottish guitarist who's been around forever and has a group called Pentangle. Haven't checked him out too closely yet, but what I've seen is quite nice. He can't sing for crap (unlike Thompson, who has a limited range but a very expressive voice.)

I'll check out Joe Pass.