The Number Ones

The Number Ones: Sly & The Family Stone’s “Everyday People”

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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Sly & The Family Stone – “Everyday People”

HIT #1: February 15, 1969

STAYED AT #1: 4 weeks

Sly & The Family Stone were a great utopian experiment in pop music. This was a band born out of the cultural chaos of the late-’60s that reflected that chaos back on the world and turned it into something positive. The Family Stone had black members and white members, men and women, everyone playing different roles. Rock ‘n’ roll and R&B had been traveling in different directions for a few years before the Family Stone came along — aided by radio formatting and media that seemed determined to separate white music from black music — but this band brought them back together, turning them into a wild stew where everything bled into everything else.

Sly Stone, born Sylvester Stewart, had been born in Texas but raised in the Bay Area town of Vallejo. He was making gospel records at the age of four, and by high school, he was in a racially integrated doo-wop band called the Viscaynes. When the San Francisco rock scene started blowing up in the mid-’60s, Stone was in there, producing records for garage-rock bands and working as a DJ on R&B radio, where he played rock records alongside soul ones. The Family Stone started out as a bar band called the Stoners, and it eventually came to include Stone’s actual brother and sister. (It also included Larry Graham, Drake’s uncle, who claims that he invented the slap-bass.)

They’d already released four albums and a handful of hits before their Stand! album yielded “Everyday People,” their first #1. “Everyday People” is a curious beast. It’s a thesis statement for Stone’s entire enterprise, a perfect-world vision of people from different races and different walks of life learning how to come together and respect each other’s differences. But it was also a departure from the band’s freaked-out chaos. It’s a two-minute soul heater with clean, pronounced hooks, a bugged-out band’s fairly straightforward idea of pop music at work.

The beat of “Everyday People” is almost machinelike, the bass and drums locked in together rather than going off on their own voyage, as they sometimes were in this band. The horns do a pretty good imitation of the Stax house band, but the vocals stay buried in the mix, a reflection of a Bay Area acid-rock scene where the vocals were almost an afterthought. We hear little bursts of gurgly guitar fuzz or rumbling drums, but this is pretty clearly a band holding back, possibly at the behest of a label that was determined to harness their considerable pop-music power before they spun off into insanity again.

49 years after “Everyday People,” the song’s message feels trite in an after-school-special sort of way — not because things are any better between the races in this country, but because we’ve all had its lessons baked into our heads from years of schooling and cultural conditioning. A single line from “Everyday People,” “different strokes for different folks,” became the basis for a sitcom that ran for eight seasons on NBC. (I don’t know whether the “scooby dooby doo” line inspired the cartoon dog, but I do know that Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! debuted on CBS seven months after “Everyday People” hit #1. So… probably?)

The ideas within “Everyday People” have become such a deeply embedded presence within mainstream American thought that the song itself sounds pat. In 1968, I have to imagine that it was a whole lot more urgent. Civil rights leaders were being gunned down, and racial violence was driving every big news story, so this warm-hearted and gibberish-laced anthem of togetherness struck a chord. Maybe it was revolutionary then. Today, it’s simply a good song.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Atlanta boho-rap crew Arrested Development’s 1992 adaptation of “Everyday People,” which they rechristened “People Everyday”:

“People Everyday” peaked at #8. It’s a 7.

THE NUMBER TWOS: Creedence Clearwater Revival had five different singles that peaked at #2, all in 1969 or 1970. They never hit #1. The first of those singles was “Proud Mary,” which hit #2 behind “Everyday People.” It’s an 8.