"Family Affair" was the first new song by Sly & the Family Stone in almost two years and their third and final No. 1 single. What it wasn't, however, was a family affair.

In the time since "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" topped the charts in February 1970, Sly Stone had descended into a maze of drugs, missed concerts, paranoia and incessant overdubbing. Sly & the Family Stone canceled about a quarter of their shows over the following year. Lawsuits, fines and management issues inevitably followed.

"I got in fights with promoters, and I had a real attitude then – well, I kind of still do but not the same – so I walked away," Stone told the Los Angeles Times in 2008. "But I forgot the people in the audience, the people who loved the music. The music meant a lot to people, and it comes with a responsibility."

Attempts to get back on track were disheveled and sporadic. Set up at a mobile home studio, the former Sylvester Stewart would work at odd hours amid a group of strange and sometimes dangerous hangers-on. As sessions for the album that would become There's a Riot Goin' On continued, the Family Stone finally began to fracture – and the money started to run out.

Sly asked for a $250,000 advance to catch up on the mortgage of a sprawling Los Angeles home formerly owned by John Phillips of the Mamas & the Papas, and ended up getting evicted when the label refused. Clive Davis, president of the band's record company, had more personal concerns: "He was so far behind schedule that I was getting worried that his contract would expire," Davis said in Clive: Inside the Record Business, "and he'd sign with someone else for the large advance he was seeking."

Manager David Kapralik was forced to defend the drawn-out process in an interview with Rolling Stone: "Sylvester Stewart does not create 'product,'" Kapralik scolded. "Sylvester Stewart is an innovator, a source of new fusions, new concepts. You don't turn them out like you turn out pizzas. They're life statements."

Listen to Sly & the Family Stone's 'Family Affair'

Sly's sister Rose Stone was ultimately the only member of the once tight-knit multicultural group to appear on "Family Affair," a lean dope-sick groover. Asked to confirm which instruments he played in 1971 by Rolling Stone, Sly Stone memorably answered: "I've forgotten, man. Whatever was left."

Billy Preston actually ended up on electric piano, while Bobby Womack played rhythm guitar. Stone did the rest, including the programming of a primitive beat box in the absence of departed drummer Greg Errico. Bassist Larry Graham was the next one out the door, followed by Rose Stone. With each departure, Sly & the Family Stone slid further and further from their late-'60s peak.

Unfortunately, "Family Affair" represented the first steps in that journey of separation, but at this point, Sly Stone could still summon his muse toward greatness.

"The Riot album was for the most part overdubbed," Graham said in Miles Marshall Lewis' 2006 book Sly and the Family Stone's 'There's a Riot Goin' On.' "I would say that generally the others was us playing together with some overdubs. But Riot was recorded a totally different way than we recorded, in that I didn't play anything, to my recollection, with the rest of the band."

In a weird way, however, that was the strength of this song – and, to some degree, There's a Riot Goin' On. Recording take after take after take degraded the master tape quality to the point where everything had a murky mystery, presaging the Rolling Stones' similarly druggy Exile on Main St. But the single's drum-machine rhythms – which engineer Richard Tilles mixed to the level of Preston's keyboards – places the song steps ahead of where R&B would soon go.

A friction in the vocal interplay held everything together, as Rose Stone's soaring optimism was countered by Sly's oaken monotone. Kapralik intimated that Sly was being pulled in several directions by family members, and that worked as a creative impetus for the song. But the lyrics move well beyond the strains of family – or in this case, the Family Stone – to look more deeply into societal ills.

"They may be trying to tear me apart, but I don't feel it," Stone told Rolling Stone. "Song's not about that. Song's about a family affair, whether it's a result of genetic processes or a situation in the environment."

Hear a Multitrack Playback of Sly & the Family Stone's 'Family Affair'

At times, "Family Affair" seemed to be focused squarely on the difficulties of growing up in an unjust society. ("One child grows up to be somebody that just loves to learn," Stone croaks as the song begins, "and another child grows up to be somebody you'd just love to burn.) Other times, it seemed simply heartbroken. Still other times, Stone comes off like a narcotized sphinx: You can't cry 'cause you'll look broke down, but you're cryin' anyway 'cause you're all broke down.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Davis initially refused to issue "Family Affair" as a single, saying Stone sounded "like he's stoned," according to A&R man Stephen Paley in Jeff Kaliss' I Want to Take You Higher. Paley's response: "Clive, it's okay, it won't matter. It's a great record."

That's because "Family Affair" still felt like a sweaty dance number, thanks to all of those dark and disconsolate notions. It starts with Sly Stone's rubber-band bass performance. Using a pick, rather than Graham's legendary thumbed technique, Sly helped point the way for a generation of as-yet-unheard disco singles. Preston's gospel-inflected turn on keyboard provided moments of back-pew ecstasy, while the light from Rose Stone's four-word mantra leaks into every corner.

Ironically, she'd been sound asleep when Sly awakened her, eager to get the vocal collaboration on tape. Rose dutifully recorded her part while thinking to herself, "Ah, we'll do it right tomorrow." But tomorrow never came. "That was the end; that was the recorded version that you heard, what I did that night," Rose later told Goldmine. "But after I heard it later, I thought, 'Oh, this is great. I really like this.'"

Released in October 1971, "Family Affair" became the most successful single of Sly & the Family Stone's faltering career, holding the No. 1 position on the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks. It also topped the R&B charts for five weeks. They never had another Top 10 hit.

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