I Want to Take You Higher
By Mark Anthony Neal--SeeingBlack.com Contributing Editor
Jun 15, 2007, 16:14

Much has been made about the role of Soul artists like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke in the mainstreaming of the black church aesthetic. Surely when The Edwin Hawkins singers logged a major cross-over hit with “Oh Happy Day” in 1969, they could point to the aforementioned artists as well as Mahalia Jackson’s historic appearance at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival as laying the groundwork for their success.

Less talked about is the role of Sly & the Family Stone in introducing the Black church aesthetic to pop music audiences. When the group debuted in 1967 with A Whole New Thing, the title could have been a reference to range of things, including the interracial and cross-gendered makeup of the band. But I’d like to suggest that Sly and the Family Stone not only helped introduce the world to the power of the Black church, but that the group more specifically, introduced American audiences to what the legendary James Cleveland, once called the “sanctified church”. The recently released Sly & the Family Stone: The Collection provides an opportunity to revisit the era when Sly Stone might have been the most popular Black Pentecostal mystic in the country.

As children, Sylvester Stewart and his siblings, Rose and Freddie, were part of a post-World-War II migration that brought masses of Black folk from Texas and Louisiana out west to California. Sly Stone, as Stewart would come to be known, came of age in the San Francisco Bay Area, just as the Civil Right Movement began raging in the American South. The spirituals and work songs that provided the soundtrack for many of the Civil Rights marches in the South were far removed from the burgeoning “free love” scene developing in Haight-Ashbury and other parts of Northern California. The Stewart family though, was not unlike many Black migrants from the South, who simply reproduced Southern comforts in anyplace they chose to lay their heads. Often those comforts were related to the music of the churches and after-hours spaces that formed part of the social network—the chitlin’ circuit, if you will—that helped sustain folk during the Jim Crow era. As the leading riffs of the Psychedelic sound began to waft in the streets, Sly Stone—a church boy if there ever was one—had little choice but to allow those riffs to coexist with the Blues and Gospel that he had always heard in his head. Sly & the Family Stone was the embodiment of a music that critic Rickey Vincent describes as “too hot and too black to be rock, too positive to be the blues, and too wild to be soul.” (Funk, 94).

Sly Stone initially made his mark as a popular deejay at KSOL and KDIA in the Bay Area. It was in this capacity that Stone brought together the group of musicians that ultimately became Sly & the Family Stone, including soon-to-be legendary bassist Larry Graham, trumpeter Cynthia Robinson and White session musicians Jerry Martini and Greg Errico. The Family Stone was among a number of groups that were breaking down racial barriers in the late 1960s with Booker T and the MGs, Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers and Rotary Connection being among them. Unlike the aforementioned groups, Sly and company had the support of a major label in Epic, who literally willed into public consciousness the idea that the band’s makeup was revolutionary. More revolutionary though was the way that Sly & the Family Stone featured women musicians like Robinson and keyboardist Rose Stone, who didn’t simply function as background-singing eye candy or fronting female leads as was the case with contemporaries Minnie Riperton (Rotary Connection) and Chaka Khan (Rufus).

From the vantage of 40 years later, Sly & the Family Stone’s debut A Whole New Thing (1967) is more oddity than compelling. Created by a young band still finding their sound and honing their ability to communicate with each other (and Sly), A Whole New Thing is interesting, though forgettable late 60s pop. It is arguable that if Dance to the Music (1968) hadn’t provided the group with that breakthrough single (the title track), Sly & the Family Stone would have remained as part of Bay Area music lore. As critic Greg Tate notes in the liner notes that accompany the new collection, Dance to the Music “makes abundantly clear that yes, Sly had a dynamic, well versed and unflaggingly rehearsed band…but, what he didn’t yet have was the body of definitive songs that would shortly render him and his group household names.” Those songs would finally appear, not on the follow-up Life (1968), but on Stand, which was recorded in late 1968 and early 1969.

“Everyday People” was a perfect pop confection that coyly captured the burgeoning multiculturalist vision that would come to define notions of race in the Post-Civil Rights era. “Everyday People” was also the song that pushed Sly & the Family Stone to the top of the pop charts. The B-side “Sing a Simple Song” was an unreconstructed piece of funk that broke through on the R&B charts, which combined with the follow-up two-sided hit “Stand”/”I Want to Take You Higher” and the straight-talk of “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey” provided America with one-half of the Sly Stone canon. As Rickey Vincent suggests, Stand “seemed to encompass the entire landscape of the Black experience. It was broad in scope, yet intimate. It was joyous, but it had a dead serious sensibility to it….Sly had given birth to the Funk album.

Recorded during the height of Vietnam protest and the escalation of the Black Power Movement, political implications associated with “Stand” are obvious (“Stand! For the things that you know are right/It’s the truth that the truth makes them so uptight”). Writer Miles Marshall Lewis suggests that, musically, “Stand” was the “most sophisticated arrangement Sly had laid on the public as a single up to that point.” (There’s a Riot Goin’ On, 59) But I believe that Stand was also a metaphor for the act of testifyin’, as in that which is integral to the “praise and worship” portion of Black Pentecostal services. Stand frames a moment when Sly Stone had his largest stage (or pulpit, really), including his singular performance at Woodstock in 1969, and, in many ways, he functioned during this period much like a sanctified preacher. As New York Times critic Barbara Campbell wrote on the eve of the band’s first appearance at Madison Square Garden in February of 1970, “Sly—sometimes working himself into a gyrating frenzy—uses his early Pentecostal church-singing style to work his audience into frenzied participation into what resembles a revival meeting.”

Writer Anthony Dalton provides some depth to Campbell’s observations noting that Sly Stone grew up as a member of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC). “At the heart of [COGIC’s] theological foundation was an emphasis on achieving direct access to the divine spirit through the communal and ecstatic production of sound,” Dalton writes. According the Dalton “members of the church believed the Holy Ghost first made its presence known to the disciples of Christ by way of ear. As a result, creating sound became a libratory act, and they went about making noise as if not only their lives but also their very souls depended on it.” (Rip it Up: The Black Experience in Rock ‘n’ Roll, 41-42). Nowhere is Stone’s embrace of the sanctified church more pronounced than on Sly & the Family Stone’s “I Want to Take You Higher”. To hear the band’s performance of the song on Stand! (and live) is to bear witness to the power of the sanctified church—“I Want to Take You Higher” is seemingly taken directly from the Holy Ghost’s most cherished songbook, especially during the song’s final two minutes, which were not surprisingly cut from the single version of the song. As Cynthia Robinson recalled of Stone’s performance of “I Want to Take You Higher” at Woodstock, “It was pouring rain. Freddie (Stone) got shocked. The equipment was crackling. But Sly was like a preacher. He had half-a-million people in the palm of his hand.” (People Weekly, June 1996).

Stand would mark a transitional moment in Stone’s career. It would be another two years before a new Family Stone studio album would appear as Stone battled with drug addition and paranoia. Stone’s label released a greatest hits compilation in the interim which included the definitive singles “Hot Fun in the Summertime”, “Thank You (Fallettineme Be Mice Elf Agin)” and “Everybody Is a Star” (mysteriously left off the new collection). The muted title track of There’s a Riot Going On (1971), given Stone’s Pentecostal beliefs, suggests that the Holy Spirit had left him Stone’s natural instincts were to turn inward and to embrace his inner demons which were requited with the cocaine that swirled freely. Stone’s role as sanctified mystic took him to the crossroads of not only a Black liberation movement being torn asunder by ideological clashes and state surveillance, but to the crossroads of his own soul. Given the political realities of the time, when then FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s counter-intelligence program COINTELPRO was in full swing, it is not far-fetched to believe that there was some connection between Stone addictive behaviors and blatant and documented attempts to silence the political progressives of the era.

Ironically, as the new collection makes apparent, Stone’s move from popular public consciousness fueled some of the most compelling and introspective music of his career. Both Fresh (1974) and Small Talk (1975) are gems of minimalist Funk that are deserving of a wider hearing.

Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African-American Studies at Duke University and the author of four books including the recent New Black Man. He is currently completing The TNI Mixtape, which will be published next year by New York University Press.