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To Sell More Albums, Sweet Relief Charity Takes a Sly Turn

September 03, 2000|STEVE HOCHMAN

Just about everyone in the music business is upfront about wanting a hit record. So why shouldn't a charity be the same?

After being associated with two moderate-selling benefit albums honoring the music of low-profile singer-songwriters Victoria Williams and Vic Chesnutt, Sweet Relief, which gives financial aid to musicians who need medical care, is raising its aim.

The musical subject of the next Sweet Relief project: funk-rock pioneer Sly Stone.

Stone, whose Sly and the Family Stone were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, wrote and recorded some of the essential hits of the late '60s and early '70s, with such songs as "Everyday People," "Hot Fun in the Summertime" and "Dance to the Music" remaining part of pop consciousness for three decades.

Sweet Relief--which was founded in 1993 by Williams, who has multiple sclerosis--has given about $200,000 in grants annually. That represents more than 75% of its income, which comes from the albums and various other fund-raising activities. Managing director Jo Ann Klabin says that it doesn't come close to filling the needs in the music community,

"I make no bones about wanting to sell a lot of records here," says Bob Bortnick, who is handling A&R duties for the album along with Tim Sommer. "And I can do it without seeming like a shameless record company whore--everybody's working for free."

Bortnick, who signed Garbage as an A&R executive at the now-shuttered Almo Sounds label, and Sommer, also a veteran A&R executive who signed Hootie & the Blowfish at Atlantic Records, were brought into the project by Williams, Klabin and attorneys Jill Berliner and Rosemary Carroll specifically to broaden the album approach.

"Even though the majority of people we help are by no means singer-songwriter types, Sweet Relief is associated with that genre," Klabin says. "We wanted to get out of that box."

Bortnick says it took just a little brainstorming.

"Our initial list was the usual suspects--Nick Drake, Fred Neil, people like that," he says. "But I really fought hard for Sly."

Says Sommer, "Victoria and Vic are great artists, but they're cult artists of great quality. You're dealing with a mainstream artist of great quality with Sly."

Equally important as the popular appeal of Stone's music is the appeal to artists. The Williams and Chesnutt tributes each featured a few prominent acts (Pearl Jam, Lou Reed and Soul Asylum on the former, Garbage and R.E.M. on the latter) along with rosters of respected but lesser-known acts. Sales for the two were 270,000 and 53,000, respectively.

Bortnick and Sommer believe Stone's song catalog will draw an album full of A-list acts crossing the pop spectrum from rock to hip-hop to R&B to pop. Although the projects is in the early stages and no acts have been formally approached yet, it's easy to draw up a list of likely candidates, including the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Macy Gray and Lenny Kravitz--all artists whose music touches on Sly and the Family Stone's blueprints. And Bortnick points out that many hip-hop albums have sampled or virtually re-created bass lines of original Family Stone member Larry Graham.

"If we can get a Chili Peppers or a Kid Rock, that's not much of a musical stretch," says Sommer. "What would also be interesting would be to hear what a Tori Amos or a Foo Fighters--acts not immediately thought of in connection with Sly--could do."

PEARL DIVING: Even the most serious Pearl Jam fans may have trouble dealing with the band's release of its "Bootleg Series"--25 two-CD sets of complete recordings from the band's recent European tour, which will be available for preorders Tuesday via the band's http://www.tenclub.net Web site. Although budget-priced at $10.98 each, the whole series will be too much for all but the hard-core fanatics.

Fortunately, the band has been publishing complete set lists of the shows on Sony Music's related site (http://www.sonymusic.com/artists/PearlJam/fanscene/set2000.html). Also on the site are "fanviews"--comments e-mailed by concert-goers, although those are hardly objective analyses.

One item of interest may be the outside material the band performed. In several shows, for example, Pearl Jam segued from its own "Better Man" to the English Beat's "Save It for Later," which used the same chord pattern. Others included encore performances of Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World," a song PJ's been doing for years.

And there are a few oddball entries: The June 16 date at Katowice, Poland, included not only something titled "Sto Lat" (described as a "Polish traditional song usually sung at birthdays, weddings, etc. and meaning 'Long Life to You' performed by the audience"), but an encore of "Soon Forget" done solo by Eddie Vedder accompanying himself on ukulele. And then there's the June 20 show in Verona, Italy, with a round of "O Sole Mio" and encores of songs by Tom Waits and Split Enz.

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