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Spaced cowboys

Thank Sly Stone and Guitar Watson for Africa talkin' to you

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Y'all wanna fuckin' knuckle 'bout it, fine, but Sly Stone is a genius, perhaps the most important musical icon of the postwar era. I don't care that such statements coming from rock critics are annoying at best, treated as suspect. Were it not for a dynamic duo of Southern genius -- Texas transplant Sly Stone and Allman Brother Duane -- you'd not be reading this column from me. Sure, the new, long overdue tribute compilation Different Strokes By Different Folks (Epic; Rating: **) might fall short of the glory. And yes, the significant catalyst for Sly Stone's two decades of reclusiveness is the debilitating cocaine addiction he's sustained since the early 1970s ... but don't bring that mess here.

Stone, long overshadowed by lesser lights, was one of the 1960s' leading artist-mavericks, along with fellow black rock pioneers Curtis Mayfield, Arthur Lee of Love and Jimi Hendrix. Stone is not a mere funk icon; his sublime string of anthems during the sunset of the Woodstock Nation -- "Dance to the Music," "I Want to Take You Higher," "Hot Fun in the Summertime," "Family Affair" and "Everyday People" -- are timeless and fresh, and they permanently revolutionized pop music, influencing even today's rapidly proliferating microgenres.

If you don't trust me, ask the following artists (if only via séance) about Stone's significance: Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, P-Funk, the Temptations, the Jackson 5, Prince, the Human League, Fishbone, Public Enemy, World Party's Karl Wallinger, the Family Stand, Black Crowes and OutKast. One also rather suspects Lenny Kravitz would acknowledge a debt if pressed, along with his good mate Mick Jagger (I theorize a transfer of influence between There's A Riot Goin' On and Exile On Main Street, if solely in tone).

Then there's lately acclaimed British singer-songwriter Lewis Taylor. As Taylor's live American debut a couple weeks ago in New York City made plain, his peculiar synthesis of rock and soul would not be possible without the titanic template of the Family Stone. Taylor's Stoned seems to trumpet this in name and deed. We all are permanently indebted to Stone for his unique blend of psychedelic rock, funk, gospel and urgent social commentary.

The notion of a Sly Stone renaissance is intriguing if bittersweet. Filmmaker Greg Zola is producing and directing On the Sly: In Search of the Family Stone, a documentary about the elusive musician and his erstwhile sonic kin. Different Strokes was released in sync with last week's Grammy Awards ceremony. The buzz began shortly before the show that Sly himself would grace the stage for a tribute to him featuring several of the comp's artists and possibly reunite with the Family Stone as well.

After a woefully lackluster Grammy segment full of bum notes and tepid performances -- even from a guitar army of Aerosmith's Joe Perry, Robert Randolph, Nile Rodgers and American Idol judge/hitman Randy Jackson -- Sly did appear, marking his first live performance since 1987, and his first major public appearance since the Family Stone's Rock Hall induction on Jan. 12, 1993. Grammy ads promised a "loud, live, unpredictable" event. However, most of the wide array of talent were not up to the task. A fine backing band including such stalwarts as keyboardist Patrice Rushen and assorted Family Stoners -- they were never introduced and mostly invisible, and Larry Graham's absence was conspicuous -- was not able to catch fire, but the shock of Sly emerging with the tallest platinum Mohawk ever, platform boots, ghetto-fab Dior shades, one of his vintage "Sly" belts and a silver leather coat with a fringed fin disguising his hunchback was must-see TV. Nothing -- not Joss Stone's posturing through "Family Affair," former LFO teenybopper Devin Lima butchering "If You Want Me To Stay" nor Steven Tyler yowling on "I Want To Take You Higher" -- could lessen the historic miracle of Sly surfacing.

It's a pity then that the Different Strokes tribute mostly amounts to prestige karaoke. Sadly, it seems Lewis Taylor did not come to the producers' attention. Even the somewhat novel approach of having guests perform against original Family Stone master tapes, under Stone's own supervision (!), yields mixed results. Covers from Joss Stone (done in big mama-face, of course) and Lima are particularly poor neo-soul-by-the-numbers, and Isaac Hayes and D'Angelo cannot return from their respective pop nadirs on "Sing A Simple Song." Most interesting, and perhaps most successful, are tracks by rockers known (Tyler) and relatively unknown (Bay Area bro Martin Luther).

The cameo of Black Eyed-Peas' Will.I.Am on "Dance To the Music" is unsurprising. What does shock is that the contributions of OutKast's Big Boi never ignite. Of the cuts he's involved in, "You Caught Me Smilin'" fares best but doesn't significantly improve on the original. Then, the Sleepy Brown-happy "Runnin' Away" is glorified lounge Muzak for the iPod era, as is Moby's "Love City" (figures this first sold at Starbucks). The sole cross-generational collabo with anything to offer is The Roots' take on "Everybody Is A Star." Ultimately, Different Strokes raises the dire question of whether the product is poor because of Sly's miscalculation or the canned inferiority of most "modern" urban sounds. Apparently, the times have still not caught up with Sly Stone.

The best recent reissue of Sly Stone may be the live footage from Dick Cavett's Rock Icons DVD (reviewed in this section last autumn by John Grooms). The Family's loose, stanky performance of "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" is all the way live, chilling -- and not just because trumpeter Cynthia Robinson is the hottest bitch to ever walk the earth. From the palpable discomfort he gives host Cavett to the fleur-de-lis brooch on his hat evoking one of the planet's key ancient deities, Ea, Stone is a stone badass.

The late Johnny "Guitar" Watson, a Texan singer-songwriter like Stone, obviously recognized that potency, as he pondered his next move from an early-1970s career crossroads. Houston may be hot now for its hip-hop and Beyoncé's ass, but the city was never so vital to pop music as when Watson was born there on Feb. 3, 1935. Watson began his career in Houston as a teenager in the early 1950s, playing with blues legends, including Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland.

Watson, who died in 1996, became more widely recognized for a salacious-but-brilliant series of funk albums and popularizing swathes of witty language in 1970s black English vernacular, including "gangsta." Playing everything from lead to triangle, Watson effortlessly adapted the one-man band approach of Stone on the recent slate of Shout! Factory reissues culminating in the releases of Love Jones (Rating: *** 1/2), What The Hell Is This (Rating: *** 1/2) and obvious Sly tribute Johnny "Guitar" Watson and the Family Clone (Rating: ****).

He also shares lots of other personal parallels with Stone: a church upbringing, musical precocity (Watson moved from Texas to LA at 15 to pursue his career) and futuristic vision. Songs Watson recorded after moving to the coast include "Motorhead Baby" (1952) and "Space Guitar" (1953), using reverb and feedback atypical of the period (perhaps My Morning Jacket's Jim James will take note and cover it), and 1957's "Gangster of Love" (later adapted by Steve Miller). Watson also recorded with classic rock musicians as varied as Frank Zappa and Jefferson Airplane member Papa John Creach.

A key place where Watson and Stone differ is that Watson seems not to have been eternally tortured by his choice to play the Devil's music. Watson inherited his preacher grandfather's guitar on condition he not play blues but promptly disobeyed, whereas Sly's demons can partly be attributed to his schizophrenia between the spiritual and the street life ("Grinnin' at the Devil, grinnin' at his gun ...").

Aside from Watson's Superfly look of big pimpin' suits and shades on album covers, he actually looks like he could be a cousin of Stone's and sports uncannily similar vocal phrasing on such great tracks as "Forget The Joneses." Watson even goes to West Africa on "Asante Sana," referring to the famous Ghanaian nation of Kushite descent, his voice seamlessly assaying the nasal sonorities of Western Sudanese harmonic singing and playing polyrhythms that eventually spawned funk. He echoes the twang jones of Sly's "Spaced Cowboy" on "Lone Ranger," complete with a variant of the earlier song's soul yodel, and featuring a complex mix of Revolutionary Era fife-and-drum, jazz, church organ and blues. Where Watson does Sly one better is on Love Jones' outright country tune "Children of the Universe." Such songs make the mighty continuum between prewar black string tradition and postwar black rock indelible.

Funk may be remembered as an electric torch passed between James Brown, Sly and George Clinton but the genre's 1970s heyday yielded other, less heralded geniuses. And Watson was a grandmaster amongst this latter category whose music and aesthetic influence (sartorial, lingual) had great currency in urban communities and a profound effect on the late-1980s genesis of gangsta rap.

Without Sly Stone and his brave band's heroic example of racial and gender harmony that worked (however briefly), I would not have understood the real world nor would I have been able to survive America. Together, Watson and Stone provided a provocative template for Afro-futurism at a crucial pop moment.

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