WHEN ONE interviews Sly Stewart, it's not so much an interview — it's more a case of throwing a question into a computer and coming out with a three word reply that can either be straight to the point or off at a new tangent. At times, it's almost as though he is playing a game but every question is carefully sifted through his brain before the answer does finally come forth.
He differs from anybody I have ever interviewed because he refuses to be drawn into any kind of conversation, choosing to simply answer the question and then remain silent — which can be somewhat bewildering for whoever is sitting opposite him. At times — in fact, at all times, really — he is amusing, both to himself and to the people around him and he never ceases to entertain, whether on stage or not.
The day after his recent London open-air concert, I was one of a bunch of pen-and-pad laden gents who had the opportunity to throw questions at the man. Much of what was said was not really pertinent to our music and that which was of interest was somewhat indirectly aimed in my direction. In fact, you don't so much get a story to follow through — it's more an impression of a story so that you wake up the next morning wondering whether it actually took place.
Thus, this interview will be written in a different style.. Each paragraph will begin with the question we had in mind. It will be followed either with a direct quote of Sly or with a fairly accurate precis of what he meant.
Sly's introduction to the professional world of Soul music was via Autumn Records, where Sly was involved in production on two major hits for Bobby Freeman — "S-W-I-M" and "C'mon And Swim" — plus he made his own recording debut for that company. Sly happily acknowledges those days as 'the good old days' but admits that he never really foresaw in those days what he has since become.
The Bobby Freeman hits were, quite naturally, the first contact that he made with the successful side of the recording industry. Would he like to record Bobby now and does he still retain a warm spot in his heart for Bobby Freeman? The general reaction to the first part of that question was somewhat disinterested, mixed with a bit of non-commitment, which I merged together to form an impression that it wouldn't greatly excite Sly to record Bobby right now. And there seemed to be no real heartfelt attachment, either, although Sly acknowledges that he did get paid for his troubles.
The sudden vanishing act of Little Sister from the recording scene puzzled most folks but there was a general feeling that because Stone Flower Records ceased to exist. Little Sister would have to be shelved and this is almost the situation in a nutshell. Sly is actually in the process of completing a new album on Little Sister for his own and new company. Fresh Record Productions. It further turns out that Epic could well be launching a label called Fresh later in the year and it is Sly's idea that Little Sister will bow the label.
A lot has been written in the general press concerning the "Fresh" album, which was released to the press — as a pre-release to create advance interest in the project — and then, when the actual record was released, it was considerably different. The actual release even had an extra track on it. But the basic differences lay with the existing tracks, some of which sounded very far removed from the original presentation. Whose idea was it and which of the two is the better?
"It was my idea," Sly quite proudly stated. "I wanted it to be re-mixed and it's certainly far better now. Sure. 1 was happy with the first one — I wanted it to be different. If I were to re-mix it again today, it would be completely different again. We cut the added track at a later date and 1 wanted to include it on the album."
The subject of how much material is in the can on Sly brought some confusion to the occasion. Early on, we determined that there was a considerable amount of material unreleased so far. But to determine exactly how much became quite impossible. We got quotes like "Quite a bit." or, when asked how many albums could be released today on existing recordings, we got: "Quite a few!" But I got the impression that 'quite a lot' of material is lying dormant and, thought Sly fervently denies it, that's the way it will stay. But there is sufficient material to make up (at least) one solo album on Sly and. as a project, that is one thing that may well come off.
For a simple answer, all you have to do is ask which of his albums he is most happy with and you'll get the reply:"The latest." And, if you should ask what music he plays for his own enjoyment, the equally simple retort is: "My own!"
For a clever answer, though, the best question was: "Are you influenced by any other artists?" The obvious straightforward answer would be a simple 'No' but Sly continues to suggest that maybe they are swayed by him — which is what we were politely suggesting any way. And if you should continue the train of thought to ask if Sly feels he has made a significant contribution to the progression of music — albeit, in my case. Soul music — he will shyly (or should I say Sly-ly) say merely: "That's what they say!" You ask him to qualify that by telling us what he says and he looks in the opposite direction and murmurs: "What they say!"
The somewhat obvious topic of filmscores comes up because Sly is just about the only chart-topping Soul artist without a movie score t his name. This is obviously a subject that has been premeditated because Sly's eyes lit up when the question was raised. However, the fact is that he would only become involved if he was involved in the film too and I may be speaking out of turn but it occured to me tht something may be already afoot.
Of course, the basic reason for Sly and the Family Stone to be here was to appear at the Rock Festival at London's White City Stadium. For Sly, though, it wasn't a particularly thrilling experience because the show was running so late that his show was clipped by almost half and was finished off by somebody simply throwing the switch on his electrical gadgets — which is bad manners to say the least. The weather for the occasion was foul and so, all-in-all, it's a day that he will probably want to forget, anyway, it's worth noting in passing that there have been only two changes in the Family's line-up since the beginning. The new members are the bass player and drummer.
The audience's response at White City is quite naturally quite different from that at say the Apollo Theatre, where Sly still enjoys playing. In his heart, I suspect he enjoys the latter but he would probably never admit it. He has two definite shows prepared so that he can give each audience what they want.
Something that we may have overlooked in the past, of course, is that Sly & the Family Stone was the first multi-racial soul-oriented group and that Sly was the first to successfully merge our music with Rock. And from that successful merger has come acts such as War, Mandrill, Earth Wind & Fire, and it may have even paved the way for wider acceptance of such acts as Donny Hathaway or Roberta Flack, who would have surely been stifled if they had had to remain within the confines of straight Soul music. That is not a suggestion that any of these acts would not have made it without Sly but he certainly made their happening that much easier.
That really covers all the basic points raised during a one-hour conversation which frequently resulted in prolonged silences whilst we gathered amunition to fire at our target, who repeatedly made short work of what I thought could become leading questions!
I certainly admired his honesty, his easy manner and his sense of fun and humour. I'm only saddened that he didn't follow through on any of the points that were raised but then that is what Sly Stone Stewart is all about. And if he had followed through, then he just wouldn't have been himself.