"Dance To The Music" was written by Sylvester Stewart (better known as Sly Stone). It was their first charting single, coming from their second album. It foretold the future success of Stand!, their fourth album, which became their breakout album and gave them their first #1 hit. "Dance To The Music" has since been ranked #223 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
In spite of the success of this breakout hit, none of the group members particularly liked the song, with saxophonist Jerry Martini dismissing it as "glorified Motown beats" and said that the song was an "unhip" thing for them to do.
Sly & the Family Stone drummer Greg Errico recalled the story of the song to Uncut: "Most of our stuff in those days came together over time. It wasn't a preconceived thing. Cutting the track, we got the strong beat that everyone could log onto, then it came together in layers. The different parts came together over time. One thing inspired the next thing, which inspired the next thing."
Erroco added: "It had some unusual elements in it. You had the groove, but it was very intricate when it came to the voices. You had Freddie, Larry and Sly all talking versus, and addressing everybody in the band. Then you had this breakdown, when it was just the vocals doing this three-part counter-harmonic vocal interlude which court your ear. Then it comes back in with the drum lead, and 'Dance to the music!' I mean you could not turn away from it. It had everything."
This song and album helped launch the "psychedelic soul" sound of the early '70s. The Temptations, The Impressions, The Four Tops, The Jackson 5 and The Undisputed Truth all would later show tremendous influence from Dance To The Music.
In For the Record: Sly & the Family Stone: An Oral History, by Joel Selvin, Joel said of the group: "There are two types of black music: black music before Sly Stone, and black music after Sly Stone."
Originally, Sly Stone wanted to go in more of a psychedelic rock direction. CBS Record's executive Clive Davis urged him to make his second album more pop-friendly. Stone would waver between the two for many albums after, displaying skills at various styles and genres, while keeping true to his message of peace, brotherly love, and racial harmony.
Saxophonist Jerry Martini played a 1958 Beauvais clarinet that he had first used back in high school. Errico recalled how they usually recorded the horns last.
"Sometimes the horns would be there, but usually that would be developed and opened up later on. On 'Dance to the Music, there's a little part that Jerry does with the soprano sax. It came right at the final stages. We were playing the track back over the studio speakers in the control room, really loud, and Jerry grabs his soprano and starts playing that line. He was marching around like the Pied Piper. Sly stops the tape and says, 'Get back in the Booth, man, you're recording that!'"
The band performed this in their set at Woodstock in 1969. They didn't take the stage until 3:30 a.m. on Day 2, but they were worth staying up for, as their performance was hailed as one of the best - "Dance To The Music" and two other songs from their set were included on the official soundtrack.
Jerry Martini claimed to Rolling Stone that Sly did this song just to satisfy CBS executives' desire for a hit. "He hated it," Martini said. "It was so unhip to us."