Documenting Sly Stone’s Chaotic Stone Flower Days

Douglas Wolk

By Douglas Wolk

on 02.20.15 in Features

For a year or so around the dawn of the 1970s, Sly Stone was on top of the world. He had triumphed at Woodstock; “Hot Fun in the Summertime” and “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” and Sly & the Family Stone’s Greatest Hits were massive hits. He launched a production company, Stone Flower, and a record label by the same name, that were outlets for him to write and produce music for other artists; his sister Vet Stewart’s group Little Sister immediately scored a pair of Top 10 R&B hits with “You’re the One” and “Somebody’s Watching You.”

But Sly’s music and mind were changing rapidly in those days; by the end of 1971, Stone Flower had shut down, and he’d released his dark masterpiece, There’s a Riot Goin’ On. The label only ever released four singles, and the production company had only one additional credit, Joe Hicks’s 1969 single “I’m Goin’ Home.” Even Little Sister’s hits have been out of print for most of the past 40 years. Now, though, historian/musician Alec Palao has assembled I’m Just Like You: Sly’s Stone Flower 1969-1970 (Light in the Attic), which documents Sly’s work in that chaotic period, including the entire Stone Flower discography and the experiments with the Rhythm King drum machine that bloomed into There’s a Riot Goin’ On. I interviewed Palao by telephone about how he put the project together.

Sly Stone

Sly Stone

How did you manage to pull together all the lost and unheard material on I’m Just Like You?

A few years ago, I put together two volumes of Sly Stone’s productions, from the early days up to the end of the ’60s [Precious Stone and Listen to the Voices]. And in the process of putting that together, in 2009 or 2010, I got to know Sly, because we had to license some of the material from him, and I ended up spending quite a bit of time with him. Originally, the Stone Flower set was going to be put out by Rhino Handmade, and then it got passed over to Light in the Attic. I already had all the audio — it was just a question of putting it all together and getting his blessing. I’m a huge, huge Sly & the Family Stone fan, so I know where most of the bodies are buried.

Why were all these recordings hidden in the vaults for so long?

Stone Flower was a collaboration between Sly and his manager David Kapralik. Sly and the Family Stone were on Epic Records, but the production company was a different thing. Whatever Sly worked on, tapes would either go to Epic or to Atlantic, who were distributing Stone Flower — it didn’t really matter what it was going to end up being. So some of the precursors to what was going to be on There’s a Riot Goin’ On somehow ended up in the Atlantic vault.

Stone Flower was successful right away; why did it only last for a year or so?

I think Sly realized he didn’t want to play the difficult game of being a rock star or whatever. His first love always has been making music. He sequestered himself in the studio, and the Stone Flower label was an excuse to be doing that kind of studio work. But then toward the end of that period, he was already way past deadline on delivering a new Sly & the Family Stone record. The acts on Stone Flower, Little Sister and Joe Hicks and 6ix, were left twiddling their thumbs. 6ix dissolved, and Little Sister got integrated into the Family Stone as the original lineup broke up. And Joe Hicks was just hanging out; he ended up doing a solo album on Stax’s imprint Enterprise, with Freddie Stone.

You found some amazing never-released tracks; is there other material that’s still in the vault from that period?

The only stuff that’s still in the vault is more of the very, very bare-bones backing tracks — essentially drum patterns with maybe a little bass or keyboards.

Little Sister

Little Sister

The song “Life and Death in G & A” is a big part of the story you’re telling; there are two versions of it with Sly’s direct involvement, and later cover versions by Chairmen of the Board and Love Childs Afro-Cuban Blues Band. How did that song get recorded so many different ways?

The first time it was done was for a vocal group called Abaco Dream — but Sly and the Family Stone did the track, with Joe Hicks singing lead and Little Sister doing the backing vocals! That track was prepared by Sly, maybe as a Sly and the Family Stone thing and maybe as one of the earliest Stone Flower productions. Kapralik sold it to a producer named Ted Cooper to put the vocal group Abaco Dream on top of it, but as it happens they ended putting it out as it was. That was the first release. Then Sly went back to it when he was getting into the Rhythm King, and re-recorded it with Joe Hicks [as a Stone Flower release]. What’s interesting was that he pitched up the recording — Joe Hicks had a much deeper voice, and apparently he wasn’t very happy about that. To my mind, that’s one of the darkest tracks Sly ever did. Considering that basically all it is is [the notes] G and A, it’s interesting that it’s something people picked up on.

What did you learn from talking to Sly when you were putting the anthology together?

He’s one of the funniest and smartest people you’ll ever meet. Stone Flower came out of the inspiration from this machine [the Rhythm King] and the ability to work on things by himself. One thing that he expressed to me was that it reinforced the musical discipline that he had been taught in college. For him, it was a liberating period, and the Stone Flower label gave him affirmation for the direction that There’s a Riot Goin’ On would take.