50 Years Ago: Sly and the Family Stone Sum Up First Era on ‘Greatest Hits’
There was already discord within Sly & the Family Stone when the band's Greatest Hits compilation debuted on the Billboard albums chart on Nov. 7, 1970. It had been a year and a half since their last album, Stand!, and that gap didn't seem to be closing anytime soon.
That fourth LP - which peaked at No. 13 - marked an all-time high for the group, who played a career-defining set at Woodstock four months after Stand!'s April 1969 release. They were in position to scale even greater heights as anticipations rose for new music. But the only record Sly & the Family Stone had managed since then was a double A-sided single, "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" / "Everybody Is a Star," which became their second No. 1 in early 1970.
A move to Los Angeles during the last part of 1969 led to continual drug use by band members, especially leader Sly Stone, whose appetite for cocaine and other substances occupied almost all of his time. There was hardly any time for new music. Plus, group members were fighting, its interracial lineup was under fire from outsiders and the record company wanted more records, preferably more commercial ones.
Sensing nothing would be arriving in the near future, Epic Records assembled the 12-track Greatest Hits, comprised of five songs from Stand!, three from its predecessor Life, the title track from 1968's Dance to the Music and three stand-alone singles, including the most recent No. 1 twofer.
Listen to Sly & the Family Stone's 'Dance to the Music'
In fact, 10 of the dozen songs were radio-proven singles: All but "Fun" and "You Can Make It If You Try" hit the Hot 100, with "Everyday People" staying at No. 1 for four weeks, their biggest song. So, in a way, Greatest Hits summed up an era even if it was, basically, a quick, pre-holiday record-company tiding-over.
It turned out to be so much more.
Before Stand!, Sly & the Family Stone struggled to be heard. Their previous two albums - Dance to the Music and Life, both released in 1968 - reached No. 142 and 195, respectively; their 1967 debut, A Whole New Thing, missed the chart altogether. But they finally hit their groove on Stand!
Even with the controversial "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey" and the nearly 14-minute aimless jam "Sex Machine," the album sharpened the group's funk-pop-soul sound and focused its mainstream appeal. Then "Everyday People" shot up the chart; Woodstock came next. Greatest Hits served as a catching-up point for many people, collecting all of the band's biggest songs in one place and spotlighting the best of an often spotty catalog up to that point.
Listen to Sly & the Family Stone's 'Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)'
Within the context of Greatest Hits, those songs stand out, even more so than they do on their respective albums. There's a strong case to be made that Sly & the Family Stone's Greatest Hits may be the best greatest-hits album ever released. Few compilations like this open an artist's career to reevaluation. They were big before the LP came out, but Sly & the Family Stone moved to another level afterward.
The album made it to No. 2, stayed on the chart for more than a year and a half and eventually sold more than 5 million copies. And it remains, in a way, the group's most definitive record. But other things were brewing with Stone, who found himself sinking deeper into drug despair as his band slowly imploded, thanks, in part, to his loosening grip on the group and reality.
When he finally emerged a little more than a year later, the fifth Sly & the Family Stone album sounded like the apocalypse in 45 doom-filled minutes. There's a Riot Goin' On explored the dark, druggy corners of Stone's mind and embraced what it found there. Recording much of the work by himself in his bedroom - presumably between bong hits - with the help of a primitive drum machine, following the slow dissolution of the band, he pretty much encapsulated the mood of the early '70s in songs like "Family Affair" and "Thank You for Talkin' to Me Africa."
It remains one of the greatest album-length statements of the era. And it made it to No. 1. But after another similarly minded project, 1973's less-murky Fresh, Stone settled into career stagnation and mediocrity, releasing a few more records before retreating into the shadows, rarely beating the drug and mental issues that have plagued him for decades. The timeless Greatest Hits serves as a reminder of his promise and occasional greatness.