The story of Sylvester Stewart — we call him — is that of a great urban engineer who launched out of the Bay Area in 1967 with a series of bridge-making hits: fusing rock to rhythm and blues, bringing jazz and funk into the mainstream with a band that was black and white, male and female. The story takes a weird corner and ends (or at least peaks) with some chattery scary masterpieces, isolated midnight moanings, fear and dread as universal in the '70s as love had been a few years before.
Here was a guy who "fell apart," the legend goes, and underscoring it are recent tales of Stone living in a van, addicted to substances. But the genius of this selection from a four-disc box set titled Higher! (out August 27) is how you can sense that side by side with the pop anthems came songs like "Underdog" and the startling unreleased "What's That Got to Do With Me?" — art doo-wop with whispering voices, cartoon laughs and a man who doesn't recognize the guy in the mirror. It was 1967 and his career was just starting.
Higher! packs live rarities and should-have-been hits along with the pop-out classics, and the effect is to give you a full picture of a fitful man desperate to rally the masses into a pop utopia, fearful (or is it knowing?) that he was really headed to the shadows. The band is astonishing, especially in the live cuts assembled here; its members rehearsed fanatically and were game for taking the songs new places on a given night. You can hear Stone calling out to them musically and verbally, and them responding to his emotional temperature; the constant, perhaps, is the insistent thrum of Larry Graham's bass. Stone has long settled in the shadows, but this collection shows the torture and the mastery bound together, and equally inspiring to the man.