Keep On Dancin’: Sly and the Family Stone’s Fresh at 50

How the band’s sixth LP signified a new phase of funk

Fresh magazine ad (Image: Tumblr)

Okay, I know we’re supposed to be talking about the music here, but can we just step back for a moment and take a look at that cover?

What an amazing photo of Sly! It was taken by legendary fashion and portrait photographer Richard Avedon, whose cover image of Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends is downright iconic, and whose covers of Barbra Streisand’s Je m’appelle Barbara and Cher’s Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves come damn close to downright.

There’s a joyous and infectious energy that draws the music fan in, as if all the passion and spirit of 1968’s megahit “Dance to the Music” and the Family Stone’s triumphant Woodstock performance were expressed in a single photo.

A half-century ago, when album cover art mattered a whole lot more than it does now, Sly’s smile and physical exuberance stood out in the context of a career that was firing on all cylinders.

The previous two albums, acknowledged as the band’s very best, delivered some of their highest high points: “I Want to Take You Higher” and “Everyday People” from 1969’s Stand. “Family Affair” from 1971’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On. Both albums were hugely successful and would be certified platinum. Stand, in fact, was selected for inclusion in the National Recording Registry, considered by the Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Sly and the Family Stone Fresh, Epic Records 1973

Then, on June 30, 1973, along comes Fresh, the band’s highly anticipated sixth studio album. Like its two predecessors, it was a huge success, hitting number one on the R&B chart.

Rolling Stone awarded it five stars, with critic Stephen Davis concluding that “Fresh is a growing step for Sly — out of the murky and dangerous milieu that infused Riot and into a greater perspective on his own capacity to make music a positive form of communication. In its own sense, and on its own terms, it is his masterpiece.”

With the benefit of five decades of hindsight, “masterpiece” may be debatable, but it’s a winnable debate. No less a talent than Brian Eno, writing in Downbeat in 1983 in an essay titled “The Studio as Compositional Tool,” cites Fresh as a seminal turning point in recording, at which “the rhythm instruments, particularly the bass drum and bass, suddenly become the important instruments in the mix.”

Meanwhile, funk music legend George Clinton hails Fresh as one of his favorite albums, and convinced the Red Hot Chili Peppers to cover “If You Want Me to Stay” on their Clinton-produced 1985 album, Freaky Styley. And it’s been reported that jazz legend Miles Davis was so fascinated by “In Time,” the opening track, he made his band listen to it repeatedly (some say for a half hour, other say for more than an hour).

Miles, of course, knows his stuff – and “In Time” is a great album opener, setting the mood with a smooth funky sound that is irresistible to one’s feet as Freddie Stone’s guitar dances over Sly’s bass. It’s followed up by the track that Clinton brought to the Chilis – an unapologetically commercial blend of funk and pop that was the band’s last top 20 hit, rising to number 12 on the pop chart and number 3 on the R&B chart. In addition to the Peppers, it’s been covered by Etta James, Victor Wooten and Kermit Ruffins, among others.

As the album unfolds from there, it feels in many places like a confident statement from an artist who, at the time, was a huge star dealing with huge issues, any one of which could have caused Fresh to be a hot mess: excessive drug use that accompanied excessive success, increasing friction in the band (Fresh is the first album without founding member and drummer Greg Errico, who was replaced by Andy Newmark), a tug-of-war between whether his music should be more commercial or more militant, horrifically erratic live performances.

“Thankful and Thoughtful” seems to find Sly acknowledging those issues (“From my ankle to the top of my head / I’ve taken my chances hah, I could have been dead”) yet looking to the future with a sense of positivity (“Oh something gets me, hah, put my head on tight / Because I know the future everything’ll be all right”).

Not that Sly has any regrets. “Skin I’m In” lays it down as direct as can be: “Ooo hoo, if I could do it all over again / Ooo hoo, I’d be in the same skin I’m in / The clothes I wear and the things they dare me to do.” It’s hard to hear a lyric like that and keep the artist separate from his art.

It sounds like Sly’s looking back, too: “Keep On Dancin“ lyric-checks the monster hit “Dance to the Music” in a way that feels more like nostalgia than something new and, well, fresh. It’s followed up by a cover of “Que Sera Sera,” reimagining the 1955 Doris Day hit as a wrenching blues. “Whatever will be will be, the future’s not ours to see” – a sentiment that echoes throughout “I Don’t Know (Satisfaction).”


VIDEO: Sly and the Family Stone “If You Want Me To Stay”

By the time the needle comes to the end of the horn-infused last track, “Babies Makin’ Babies” (not the examination of teen pregnancy the title might suggest), the listener is left with the feeling that this is exactly the album one hoped for from Sly: mature, forward-looking, positive. The ‘60s are over, Nixon just got re-elected, and the Greatest Hits album is three years in the past, but this is the start of a new phase – dare we think it, a Fresh phase, for Sly.

Sadly, it was not to be. The bad habits continued to take their toll, and in early 1975, following a show at Radio City Music Hall for which about 85% of the seats in the famed building were empty, the band broke up.

But for a bright shining moment in June 1973, it really did seem like Sly and the Family Stone would be able to pull it all back together and take their music and careers to the next level … and it’s all captured on this terrific album, ranked #186 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time in 2003. It’s worthy of its position – and worthy of a relisten.



Craig Peters

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Craig Peters

Craig Peters has been writing about music, pro wrestling, pop culture and lots of other things since the Jimmy Carter administration. He shook Bruce Springsteen’s hand in 2013, once had Belinda Carlisle record the outgoing message on his answering machine, and wishes he hadn’t been so ignorant about the blues when he interviewed Stevie Ray Vaughan in 1983.

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