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The Last Coherent Statement of a Genius

Sly Stone's legacy often gets condensed and cheapened, but he's been a brilliant pop revolutionary.
Sly Stone's legacy often gets condensed and cheapened, but he's been a brilliant pop revolutionary.

Has it really been a year since the Sly Stone "comeback" began in earnest, with that bizarre appearance on the Grammy Awards? Stone's fans greeted the return with great hope: This is, after all, the architect of the most revolutionary black pop of all time. But it didn't take long, maybe 30 seconds of stumbling around, for Stone and his huge mohawk to dispose of that goodwill. And though he's been semi-active since — a recent Rolling Stone article suggests that he's been sitting in with a cover band featuring his younger sister Vet and Family Stone trumpeter Cynthia Robinson — Stone's spinout ranks among the most dismaying in the history of rock 'n' roll second comings, the rare case of national exposure serving to cheapen and dissipate a legacy.

Of course, as often happens with oldies acts, that legacy has already been condensed into a YouTube-friendly highlight reel: To most of America, Sly & The Family Stone is Stand! and the hits collection and maybe There's a Riot Goin' On. The truly inspired first album, A Whole New Thing, doesn't get much love, and neither does Fresh, a streamlined masterpiece Stone made in 1973, after Larry Graham (the bassist and bedrock) and several others left the band. Fresh, which will be reissued March 20, represents Stone gone home-studio: Rather than trying to re-create the whiplash-inducing full-band intensity of Riot, he pares everything down, seeking a minimal, almost terse attack driven by isolated shards of rhythm guitar. The single "If You Want Me To Stay" (audio) signals this change of direction: A revolving-door vamp built on a steady thumping bassline, it's worlds away from showy early anthems like "Dance to the Music." Every element, from the verses to the syncopated horn-section stabs to Stone's cynical yet life-affirming ad-libs, appears on an as-needed basis, and disappears so that the elemental groove can take the spotlight.

The other tracks sound equally lean: "Thankful N' Thoughtful" (audio) links a bright churchgoing message to lewdly grinding funk, while "Que Sera Sera," the Doris Day hit, is re-imagined as a fervent gospel waltz. Stone might have been struggling with addiction throughout this period, but he wasn't gone: His vocal on "Let Me Have It All" (audio) exhibits fearless master-of-the-universe determination, a willfulness that soon left him for good. That alone qualifies as a reason to check out Fresh — it's the last coherent artistic statement of a genius — but it's not the only reason. The intimate sound Stone got on this record became the blueprint for an entire genre of R&B production, directly influencing Lauryn Hill (The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill), The Roots (The Tipping Point), Dr. Dre (The Chronic) and Prince (Sign O' The Times), among many others.

Listen to last week's 'Shadow Classic.'

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Moon has been writing about pop, rock, jazz, blues, hip-hop and the music of the world since 1983.