Sly and the Family Stone: Sing a Simple Song
From Stand (Epic, 1969)

Ike and Tina Turner: Bold Soul Sister
From The Hunter (Blue Thumb, 1970). Also on Bold Soul Sister.

Deadeye: Silly Song
From Gathering at the Depot (Beta, 1970)

Please: Sing a Simple Song
From S/T (Telefunken, 1975)

Of all the pioneering funk tunes Sly and the Family Stone turned out, you’d be hard-pressed to find one more raucous, more alive with energy than “Sing a Simple Song.” For one, the way the song opens is monstrous; it practically climaxes from jump yet rather than declining in intensity, the band keeps hammering away. While folks tend to contrast the thicker sound of Sly with the terse efficiency of the JBs, this is the closest I can think of a meeting point between the two, especially with the styles of changes the song goes through – it’s hard not to hear the infamous bridge at 2:11 as comparable to any number of James Brown compositions, mostly notably Marva Whitney’s “It’s My Thing” or Lyn Collins’ “Think.”

Small aside – but on the second Digital Underground album, in the liner notes, the group jokes about the number of songs that used the “Humpty Break” which, in turn, comes from that same bridge. No doubt, many songs in the late ’80s/early ’90s used this same break but I was curious if DU were, indeed, the first to realize you could pan out the drums on this and just flip that? Any sample/production historians out there confirm this one way or another?

Given that this song was on the B-side of “Everyday People,” it would become one of the best-known Sly songs of all time and as such, has been well, well, well covered. In choosing what songs to include in this post, I wanted to shy away from covers that were good but fairly loyal – sorry Kerrie Biddell! – and instead went with a few off the beaten path.

That has to include a song that is rather obviously a cover-yet-not-a-cover: “Bold Soul Sister” by Ike and Tina Turner who basically take the main riff from Sly but then turn it into a whole ‘nother piece of funky ferocity. I’m rather curious if they ever got into a legal issue with Sly and the Family Stone around that.

Then there’s Deadeye, a local Minneapolis group, with “Silly Song,”…I’m not sure if they were riffing off the fact that “Sing a Simple Song” mostly seems to consist of people going “ya ya ya” though it’s hard to read “Silly Song” as anything but a bit of a diss. Despite that, it’s actually a pretty good cover, and a loyal one at that despite a new, jaunty intro and some interesting contrasts in vocal harmony. What’s particularly notable about their version is that on the bridge, they replace the organ from the original with the vocalizing of the band instead – do do do do do. (Thanks to Young Einstein for introducing me to this LP).

That idea gets taken to the nth degree with one of my favorite versions of this song, by the Filipino band Please (recording for Germany’s Telefunken label). At 2:18, various members of the band get to “sing” a melding of the bridge’s drum break but with the chorus melody. Each of four singers gets two bars to sing (some better than others) and then the entire group comes back for another few turns but what’s cool is that after they’re done, the familiar bridge comes back, this time played by the horn section. Righteous! (Apparently, this version was comped for one of the UBB series though I first heard it at J-Rocc’s crib when I did a story on him a few years back.)