DAVE DAVIES, host:
Sly Stone is known to millions from the records he made with Sly & the Family Stone. But he had a career before he and the family got together and at one point had his own record label, Stone Flower.
Rock historian Ed Ward says Stone's other work adds another dimension to the career of this enigmatic character.
(Soundbite of song, "Free Advice")
Mr. SLY STONE (Musician): (Singing) Woman says she loves me she gives me free advice. Woman says she loves me every single night. I wonder who it is she loves if she wants me to be so nice.
ED WARD: When you think of Sly Stone, this is not the sort of thing which immediately comes to mind. It's "Free Advice," a single by the Great Society, recorded in December 1965 and featuring Jerry Slick, his wife Grace and his younger brother Darby. It may not sound like it, but it took 53 takes to get this one, and the reason for that is right on the record label, which says produced by Sly Stewart.
By the time this was released, the young producer, a notorious perfectionist, had been working for Autumn Records, a label run by San Francisco DJ Tom Donahue and his partner Bob Mitchell, for two years.
Donahue undoubtedly knew Sylvester Stewart as a fellow DJ who held down a slot on KSOL in the East Bay, and also knew that while Sly Stone - as he was known on the air - loved soul music, he was also way into British rock. Thus, when Donahue brought a band into the studio that he'd discovered in a San Francisco North Beach club, his young producer knew just what to do with them.
(Soundbite of song, "Don't Talk to Strangers")
THE BEAU BRUMMEL (Rock Band): (Singing) Follow your lone beaten path. Wander where you can't be grabbed. Be aware of hidden dangers. And don't you go talking to strangers.
WARD: "Don't Talk to Strangers" was the fourth charting single Sly Stone had produced with the Beau Brummels. While it did okay nationally, it was a big enough hit locally that the band was soon scooped up by Warner Brothers. Sly kept busy for Autumn, though, producing hits and misses for the Mojo Men and the Vejtables, with a J, whose lead singer and drummer was Jan Errico. If that name sounds familiar, it might be because her cousin Gregg was soon to emerge as the drummer in Sly's new band, The Family Stone.
When Autumn fell apart early in 1966, Sly Stone was already producing some sessions for Billy Preston, playing in San Francisco with his band The Stoners, and cutting demos with his brother Freddie's band, which already show the fusion of rock and funk.
(Soundbite of recording)
(Soundbite of laughter)
Unidentified Man #1: Is that (unintelligible)...
Unidentified Man #2: Wait, wait, wait, wait.
Unidentified Man #3: (Unintelligible).
Unidentified Man #4: "You Really Got Me" take four.
Unidentified Man #5: Three, four...
(Soundbite of song, "You Really Got Me")
SLY & THE FAMILY STONE (Rock, funk, and soul band): (Singing) Girl, you really got me going. You got me so I don't know what I'm doing, now. Girl, you really got me going. You got me so I can't sleep at night.
Yeah, you really got me going. You got me so I don't know what I'm doing, now. Girl, you really got me going. You got me so I don't know what I'm doing. You really got me. You really got me. Yeah.
TUCKER: By late 1967, the personnel of The Family Stone had jelled, and they were on their way to million-sellers, Woodstock, and crossover success. In 1969, Sly and his manager Dave Kapralik incorporated Stone Flower Productions, and soon they were approached by Atlantic Records, offering them a label on which to place Sly's productions. Sly's first two signings for the label were an old friend, Joe Hicks, and a trio called Little Sister - which did indeed have his little sister Vaetta, known as Vet, and two of her friends. Little Sister had been a gospel outfit, but like Vet's big brother, they liked to experiment, and they didn't get many bookings. So Sly Stone signed them.
(Soundbite of song, "You're the One")
LITTLE SISTER (Music Group): (Singing) I'm the one who wants to be ahead. I stand in line and I'm behind instead. What is happening, let me look around, not a thing trying to hold me down. Now I know I got to look at me. Some things a little hard to see. Ahh. Ahhh.
WARD: There was no doubt who was backing them up, of course, and "You're the One" made it to 22 on the pop charts. The follow-up didn't do as well, but it did give a bit of insight into the new sound Sly was playing with.
(Soundbite of song, "Somebody's Watching You")
SLY & THE FAMILY STONES: (Singing) Pretty, pretty, pretty as a picture. Witty, witty, witty as you can be. Blind 'cause your eyes see only glitter, closed to the things that make you free.
Ever stop to think about a downfall, happens at the end of every line. Just when you think you've pulled a fast one, happens to the foolish all the time.
Somebody's watching you. Somebody's watching you.
WARD: The last Stone Flower single, by Joe Hicks, remains one of the most disturbing records I've ever heard.
(Soundbite of song, "Life and Death in G and A")
SLY & THE FAMILY STONES: (Singing) Good and bad. Big and small. In and out. None at all. If it feels good, it's all right. If it feels good, it's all right. Tell me when you feel it. Front and back.
WARD: The extreme compression, the minimalist backing dominated by the Ace Tone Rhythm Ace machine, and the lack of chord progression makes "Life and Death in G and A" a claustrophobic, paranoid experience. Sly Stone was on to something else now, about to release "There's a Riot Goin' On" and then disappear for two years.
DAVIES: Ed Ward lives in France. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the film "Mysteries of Lisbon."
This is FRESH AIR.