Of the three pillars of funk — James Brown, George Clinton and Sly Stone — Sly was always the most adventurous and the most open-ended about his music, his politics and his self-identity. At the height of the Black Power movement, he championed integration and trumpeted inclusion with good-natured populist anthems like “Everyday People,” “Stand” and “Everybody is a Star.” And he walked his talk by assembling the first mainstream band — Sly and the Family Stone — that mixed races and genders among its core personnel while playing a racial amalgam of fatback soul and psychedelic rock, horn-driven funk and vocals that ranged from a doo-wop croon to a blues-fried scream. The sound fashioned by sonic auteurs such as Prince, Michael Jackson and late-period Miles Davis, let alone lesser ensembles like the Black-Eyed Peas, simply doesn’t exist in the same way without the musical and philosophical example of Sly.
Now comes Higher!, a 77-song compilation that includes mono masters of all Sly’s major hit singles, 17 previously unissued tracks that range from incendiary live performances to earnest formative studio sessions, a host of deep-in-the-album gems, and more obscure releases on either side of the band’s prime. Aside from the first half-dozen or so songs — amateur, now-anachronistic attempts by then-producer/DJ Sly to capitalize on the regional hit, “C’mon Let’s Swim” that he helmed for Bobby Freeman — nearly all the obscurities are much better than typical completist-baiting compilation-filler, especially the whisper-to-a-scream anti-celebrity lament, “Fortune and Fame,” the surf-rockish “Dynamite!” with guest vocalist Johnny Robinson, and the doo-wopping “What’s That Got To Do With Me.”
Then there is the cream of the catalog, which is just spectacular. The mono compression consolidates the punch of the horns and shouts on timeless material such as “Dance to the Music,” “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again)” and the aforementioned anthems. Even so, you’ll hear Larry Graham’s popping bass and baritone asides, Cynthia Robinson’s wailing trumpet and Sly’s vocals and rainbow keyboards poking through. The murk and despair of the classic stuff from There’s a Riot Goin’ On (which echoes and answers Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On) remains riveting. And for the veteran Sly fans with an already deep collection who think they can take a pass, there are a couple of previously unissued performances from the Isle of Wight Festival that belong in your ear buds — it will send you scurrying back to past favorites.