"The Two Underdogs", Pt. VI


Columbia gave him access to the wider national context, as Autumn had a few years earlier, but at first no one at Columbia knew how to market Sly. He “fell through the cracks.” Although A Whole New Thing was a critical success and their live shows won over New York audiences, both the single and the album for Columbia (Epic) were commercial failures. The mistake: Sly took the “utopian” notions of underground FM free format at their word as more open to the “progressive” elements of the first album, as well as honest lyrics of social protest. Clive Davis, then President of Columbia Records, told Sly: “I’m concerned that the serious radio stations [the underground FM stations that his former colleague and boss Tom Donahue had bolted toward], that might be willing to play you, will be put off by the costuming, the hairstyles.”  “Underdog” may have been a hit had Columbia pushed it more to soul & R&B stations. Sly, however, was determined not to make this “mistake” next time.

Given Sly’s willingness to “change the sound,” the radio & recording studio were ways to integrate and still maintain autonomy, as the live shows, the bigger they got, were not. In moments of musical introspection, Sly was as far away from “black” as from “white.” That far away place was the key, the weapon even, the divining rod--for any real integration, especially since the possibility of this happening at home was being destroyed. Columbia was originally trying to get Sly Stone to fit in with the AM-singles-oriented (and more ‘black music friendly’) format, like Fifth Dimension or Peaches and Herb, which may have come closer to Sly’s “costuming” but no closer to his sound than The Grateful Dead were. [47]

Krapalik, who had a close bond with Sly, however, and understood what he had achieved at Autumn more than Donahue did, gave better advice: “Sly, you gotta make a hit single. And you have to have a dum-dum-repeat lyric. And in between all those dum-dum repeats, you put all your schticklach.” (53) Sly remembers Krapalik telling him the first album was ‘too funky:’ “He didn’t know what funky was, but I knew what he meant: that it was too complex. [48] I had tried to make sure, I didn’t want any feeling to get away. But, because I had to sell records, he said ‘Make it simple, you know how to do it.’ OK, what’s simple? Dance to the music...just dance...to the music. If you think about it, that’s the simplest thing in the world. I didn’t believe ‘Dance To The Music’ was funky at all. To this day I don’t think it’s funky, but I know what it is. I know people can understand it, quickly, and they can dance to it.”

The result was the international top ten smash. Sly broke nationally on the AM-format that his former mentor had declared dead less than a year earlier. In 1965, Greil Marcus noted, “Top 40 radio was a mystery; it was up to the artist to solve it;” [49] Sly proved this could still be done in 1968, and without “selling out.” Despite Bill Graham, Sly and The Family Stone, by leaving San Francisco, ended up selling much more than any of the “San Francisco Sound” bands (with the possible exception of the Jefferson Airplane Conglomerate). Krapalik and Epic’s Al De Marino proved themselves much more open to Sly’s populist, integrative, band, than the locals did. No wonder Sly didn’t really want to return, and, for awhile at least, thrived on the increased pressure (and opportunity) his new bosses demanded; at least they wouldn’t flake.

The radio could still reach “everyday people” more than overpriced arena shows. In songs like “Everyday People” and “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey” he even went so far as to bite his own (angry) tongue in a way by pointing out that “reverse racism” might be a problem too. In the process, ushering in a new heyday (68-72) of black music on top 40 radio in part because of the white flight away to “serious” and underground FM, while kids of all races could still buy cheaper singles. [50] When they took many of the brightest whiteys along with them to FM, for a little while there it opened up AM to more expansively experimental (and “raw”) black music (even Sun Ra’s Arkestra had a top 40 hit!). You couldn’t kill AM, at least as quickly as you could the Fillmore.

By the time Bill Graham was finally persuaded to put Sly on a double-bill with Jimi Hendrix (who also had to leave his home town, and the United States, to break big) in 1968, he had moved from the building at 1805 Geary Blvd in The Fillmore neighborhood after only two years, citing the “deteriorating neighborhood and the modest capacity of the Hall (1199 capacity).” Leaving in his wake a community he helped devastate, Graham relocated to the Carousel Ballroom at 10 South Van Ness, at the corner of market.” Now outside of the black neighborhood, and very close to the spot where Charles Sullivan was murdered, literally and symbolically; as a final insult he kept the name “Fillmore” for the new venue.

As Sly’s hits became anthems on the AM radio the new Culture Tzars hated, Sly and the Family Stone influenced everybody from Stevie Wonder, Norman Whitfield at Motown to Miles Davis and Prince. [51] Yet, just beneath the workaholic surface, and the freedom of the studio, is the hurt expressed in the two “underdogs” about what San Francisco could have been. [52]  It’s a common mass-culture arena-rock story; the bigger you get, the more isolated. [53] Meanwhile, Bill Graham, revealing the extent of his deep-rooted love and commitment to “the San Francisco sound” and its musical culture, closed the Van Ness Fillmore in 1971, going to “find himself” in a Greek Island. Like many, Graham blamed Woodstock for destroying the promise of the 1960s:

A couple of years ago, a couple of geniuses put on something called the Woodstock Festival. It was a tragedy. Groups recognized that they could go into larger cattle markets, play less time and make more dollars. What they’ve done is to destroy the rock industry.”

But Graham had set the ball rolling in this direction to begin with. [54] By 1974, the centralization of mass culture in LA effected the transition to the era of the FM/LP/Arena Mega Star. If you were a music listener, the album seemed a better deal, just as FM’s AOR Format was an advance from AM’s more sustainable culture. FM was more like the malls in the suburbs [55] and offered a sprawling place in the country, but the arena show quickly became less bang for more buck, and both FM and the LP were taking their lead from the “shock and awe” of arenification.

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