Sly and the Family Stone Get “Back on the Right Track”... or Do They?
“Sly Stone reappears (on Warners) after many moons absent from the scene. ‘Remember Who You Are’ is the name of the first single, which sounds like a pretty good place to start; unfortunately, most people seem to have forgotten who he is…” (From Record World magazine, December 29, 1979)
It was a two-sentence, dismissive statement found in the year-in-review issue of music trade magazine Record World, but a sadly accurate summation of where Sly and the Family Stone found themselves at the end of 1979: just two months after its release, Sly’s first album in three years and first for Warner Brothers Records, Back on the Right Track, was already dead in the water. Two singles had been released, with the second “The Same Thing (Makes You Laugh, Makes You Cry)” having been ignored completely and not charting anywhere. But, how had things got to this point? What could happen to a career where calling your new album Back on the Right Track would even be necessary?
To back up a little: the original Sly & the Family Stone had disbanded in January of 1975 after an under-attended run of concerts at Radio City Music Hall. Later that year, Sly released an excellent solo album called High on You, full of great funk tunes, and a couple of nice ballads. Easily one of his best-ever albums (and one which anyone even remotely interested in his work should check out, which fortunately is easy now thanks to Spotify), it nonetheless failed to produce any top 40 hits, though the title track came close. Pressure from his then label Epic Records could possibly be the main explanation for what happened next: Sly, with ever-present trumpet player (and soon to be mother of his daughter) Cynthia Robinson, formed an all-new lineup of the Family Stone and recorded a very slick and upbeat album called Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I’m Back. The new group made some live performances, including this appearance on Midnight Special:
Sly and the Family Stone "Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I'm Back" live in 1976
But just five years after topping the album charts with There’s A Riot Goin’ On in 1971, the new album failed to even chart on the Billboard Top 200. It probably didn’t help that the song selected as the single, called “Family Again,” was essentially a pale remake of 1968's “Dance To The Music” where Sly introduces the new band by name, coming off more as a rehash rather than an exciting new song. Also, the general sound of the album seems like it was heavily influenced by the upbeat and lush “Philadelphia Soul” sound that was big at the time, which doesn’t sound like a natural fit for Sly. The album did in fact chart on rival music magazine Cashbox’s Top 200 chart at #193, but the writing was on the wall: in 1977, Sly and Epic Records parted ways. Sly promptly dropped out of sight, and research into his activities in 1978 reveals nothing.
But finally, readers of Billboard magazine’s September 15, 1979 issue were greeted with this photo announcing Sly’s new label and upcoming album:
With the previous band lineup jettisoned, several classic-era members returned for the recording, including siblings Freddie and Rose Stone, plus Pat Rizzo on sax, and, as always, Cynthia on trumpet. But one big difference from earlier albums was that Sly himself did not produce it, as Warner Brothers assigned staff producer Mark Davis for the job. The label showed initial enthusiasm for the record, posting this full page ad in Billboard in the October 27, 1979 issue (although visually it’s a badly drawn illustration of the photo from the album’s back cover, and simply using the actual photo would have been far better):
Meanwhile over in Cashbox this positive review was published in the October 20th issue:
“Sly and the gang prove that they are their own band, by avoiding the disco trend and sinking their teeth into some funky R&B meat on the neat comeback album. His ‘everybody is a star’ lyrics and those funky Family Stone arrangements are more low key than in past efforts, but 'Remember Who You Are' is a Sly classic if there ever was one. Other fine cuts on the album include the title cut, ‘It Takes All Kinds’ and the wah-wah wacky ‘The Same Thing.’”
The “Remember Who You Are” single was released in September and wound up “bubbling under” the Billboard Top 100 chart at #104, while slipping into the R&B top 40 at #38. Is it a “Sly classic” as Cashbox said? If not necessarily a classic, it’s a solid opening to the album, with understated verses erupting into louder choruses featuring Rose’s “Remember” vocal hook, and lyrically giving a good overview as to what the album is all about. Give it a listen:
Sly and the Family Stone "Remember Who You Are" 1979
The album itself made its debut on Billboard’s Top 200 album chart in the November 10th issue, entering at #166. The next week it rose to #157, then #152 the week after. It then reversed course and promptly fell off the chart after three weeks. In late November, Warners released the second single “The Same Thing," and Cashbox’s reference to it being “wah wah wacky” was a good description. Basically a one-chord jam set to lyrics, the song features extensive use of the guitar “talkbox” effect (as heard on several Peter Frampton songs, who incidentally was a guest performer on Heard Ya Missed Me, by the way), with all the verses sung through it, surely a first for a pop single (and no doubt the last!).
Sly and the Family Stone "The Same Thing" 1979
What could have struck listeners’ attentions as a novelty funk song instead barely reached anybody, and failed to appear even on the R&B chart. By the end of the year, Sly’s comeback album was done and dusted. But what of the value of the album itself? For one thing, It’s notable for its brevity, running less than 27 minutes over eight songs, with half of those songs essentially being one-chord jams set to lyrics, like “The Same Thing.” And yet, Sly had shown himself the master of one-chord songs in the past; “Everyday People”, “Thank You” and “I Want To Take You Higher” were all basically one-chord songs, and all were massive hits. But with the album being as short as it was and half the running time being given to songs taking this one-chord, though undeniably funky, approach, it comes off as a bit lazy in the songwriting department.
On the other hand, the album benefits greatly by the presence of Freddie and Rose, particularly Rose who is prominently featured on half the songs, and gets a good portion of side 2 opener “Shine It On” to herself. New bassist Keni Burke lays down some very funky lines throughout the album, though much of it is clearly an imitation of Larry Graham’s groundbreaking bass work from years earlier. Mostly, it’s a very safe album, meaning there’s none of the overt experimentation found on albums like Stand and Riot and no new ground is broken; Mark Davis’ production is competent and it’s all performed and sung well, there’s just not much to make it stand out from his larger body of work. Even the album cover is safe, with a professionally-dressed Sly seated in what looks like the lobby of the Warner Brother Records office. An obvious high-point on the album is the title track, which like “Remember Who You Are” lyrically provides a sort of statement-of-intent from Sly himself, telling listeners that he’s got it together and it’s smooth sailing from now on:
Sly and the Family Stone "Back On The Right Track" 1979
Despite the album under-performing, Warners stuck with Sly and was expecting a second album. When one finally appeared in 1982, under the title Ain’t But The One Way, it was listed as being produced by Sly and big-name producer Stewart Levine. At first glance, that might imply that Sly had teamed up with a hot producer to make a hit-worthy album, but in reality what had happened was that Sly recorded basic tracks and vocals, and then abandoned the album, leaving Warners to hire Levine for essentially a salvage job to complete an album for release. The album didn’t chart, but one avid listener was future Simply Red singer Mick Hucknell, who upon meeting Levine a few years later commented to the producer how much he liked his work on Sly’s album. So began a collaboration resulting in several blockbuster Simply Red albums, including the classic 1991 album Stars, based in part on a mutual admiration for Sly’s music.
But as for Sly himself, he appeared on Late Night with David Letterman in 1983, which featured a very interesting interview, and a performance of a few of his old hits (his then-recent album is not mentioned). Sly talks about how he’d been retired for nine years, which of course wasn’t true, and attempts to give out a private phone number on the air (it gets bleeped out) in an effort to attract new music work.
Sly Stone on Late Night with David Letterman - 1983
But as a successful recording artist, it was basically over for Sly, with one big exception: Sly signed with A&M Records in the mid-80s, and while an album was never released, it did result in him guesting on a track by label-mate Jesse Johnson on his 1986 single “Crazay”, which made it to #53 on the Hot 100.
Jesse Johnson with Sly Stone "Crazay" music video 1986
That was well and truly it for Sly for many years, eventually re-emerging, to a degree, in the late 2000’s for an album of re-recorded hits and some mostly disappointing live performances. Had Back On The Right Track become the big comeback album it was meant to be, things may have turned out differently. As it is, Sly’s catalog has stood the test of time, containing numerous classic hits and many worthwhile deep cuts ripe for rediscovery. This includes Back On The Right Track which, while probably not ranking among his highest achievements, is still an important part of his story and worth hearing by old and new fans alike. “Remember… who you are!”