Today on Blogcritics
Home » Sly Stone

Sly Stone

Please Share...Tweet about this on Twitter0Share on Facebook0Share on Google+0Share on LinkedIn0Pin on Pinterest0Share on TumblrShare on StumbleUpon0Share on Reddit0Email this to someone

Special thanks to Dawn Olsen for co-writing this story.

Sly Stone (born Sylvester Stewart in March, 15, 1944 in Dallas, Texas) personifies a music legend’s fall from grace. The late-’60s and early-’70s was a time of highest hope and deepest betrayal in America as the nation seemed open to the possibilities of peace, love and understanding; yet war, hatred and fear refused to be conquered and the truest believers became victims of their own disillusionment.

Stone lived the drama to the fullest as he made some of the most buoyant and thoughtful music of the era, transforming black and white music; yet, he collapsed under the weight of his ideals as the promise gave way to realities he couldn’t bear and the drugs turned on him.

Sly’s career in music began early, as the prodigy recorded a gospel song at age four. The Stewarts moved to the working class suburb of Vallejo, CA., in 1953 and Sly continued to blossom. He mastered guitar and drums, among many instruments, and played in several high school bands where he met sax player Jerry Martini and trumpeter Cynthia Robinson.

After Stone took courses from Vallejo Junior College in music theory, he met pioneering radio DJ Tom Donahue in 1964, who asked Sly to record and produce for his Autumn Records.

Stone’s vision already cut across musical and racial barriers. He produced the Mojo Men (at one time called Sly and the Mojo Men), the Vejtables, the Beau Brummels, Grace Slick and the Great Society, and Bobby Freeman, as well as recording some singles of his own. Freeman’s “Swim” is jumping rock ‘n’ roll, carrying on the noble dance-theme tradition of the Twist and the Watusi. The Brummels had a notable run of three Top 40 hits in 1965 in a pleasant British Invasion-style of pop rock. “Laugh Laugh,” with its mournful harmonica, jiggling tambourines and jangling guitars, is the standout.

Seeking the spotlight, of sorts, for himself, Stone went to broadcast school and began DJing at the newly established black music station, KSOL, in 1966. Sly was energetic and innovative, rumbling witticisms and street slang, and expanding the black music format to include the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Lord Buckley. In the back of Sly’s mind, a germ was planted that these disparate musical styles could live together in a single group.

Sly’s germ blossomed into his colorful, freaky, musical creation, Sly and the Family Stone. Sly wrote the songs, created the arrangements and handled the production, but allowed each member to express his/her individual identity. The Family’s mixture of blacks, whites, men and women blended brother Freddie Stewart on electric guitar, sister Rose on electric piano; along with Robinson, Martini, and Martini’s cousin Gregg Errico (the two white guys) on drums.

The outside recruit was bass player Larry Graham (later of Graham Central Station), solid founder of street funk bass playing. His percussive popping and thumping bass sound put the thunk into funk before Bootsy Collins took up the technique.

With the elements in place, the first single by Sly and Family Stone, “I Ain’t Got Nobody/I Can’t Turn You Loose” had enough energy to interest Epic Records, but their first LP, 1967’s A Whole New Thing, never caught on or up with the feel and excitement of their live shows. It wasn’t until their next LP, Dance To The Music that the band began to catch fire.

The title song was a perfect representation of the live Family sound: a vibrant amalgam of positivity, fuzz bass, doo wop, rock guitar and horns (alternately blasting the melody and commenting upon it with elegant filigrees) in the context of a traditional R&B revue. Only a few months later, Motown’s Norman Whitfield was taking the Temptations into Sly-land with “Cloud Nine.”

The summer of ’69 found Sly and the Family Stone rising to the heights of popularity and critical acclaim on the wings of their phenomenal LP Stand!. The album gave birth to the band’s first No. 1 hit, “Everyday People,” a song that defined the band’s social ideals in the way that “Dance” defined its musical thoughts.

“People” displays a calm rationality driven home by the steady beat and repeated piano figure. Sly reasons about the dignity of the individual in the face of mindless categorization. The charm of the nursery rhyme refrain cuts through centuries of cultural bias and reminds us of the simple truth that “we got to live together,” or die separately.

Also on the album are the racially ambidextrous “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey,” and the anthemic, orgasmic “I Want To Take You Higher.”

That same summer, Sly and Family Stone stormed the stage at Woodstock in rainbow get-ups, flashing of sequins and electricity and came away superstars. If the attendees weren’t high enough, when Sly cried out “I Want To Take You Higher” at the end of the band’s set, many feel the festival, and an era, reached its frenzied peak.

The band capitalized on this momentum with Greatest Hits in 1970, which featured three recent singles as well as work from earlier albums. The vocal trading of “Everybody Is a Star” created a familial atmosphere that touched people in the ghetto, Haight Ashbury and Mainstreet, U.S.A. The 45 flip side offered the booty-womping funk of “Thank You (Falettin Me Be Mice Elf Agin).” Together they reached No. 1.

If James Brown is the father of funk, then Sly is the multi/culti ambassador who brought it to all of the people. Chanted unison vocals, Freddie’s whiplash guitar and, most of all, Larry Graham’s gut-stretching bass propel “Thank You” into the realm of the sublime. The languid slow jam, “Hot Fun In the Summertime” brought a refreshing tonic of much-needed innocence to the era of Vietnam.

Unfortunately, Sly took his obsession with “highness” literally (note the frequency of the word “high” in titles and lyrics), and came to confuse the easy high of drugs with the more difficult, more satisfying highs of music, love and the simple joy of existence. With the drugs came increasing paranoia and self-absorption that were expressed first and best on 1971’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On.

Riot lacks the spunk and positivity of his previous work, but Sly’s incredible talent still shines through the murk. Drummer Greg Errico left during the production, disillusioned with Sly’s own disillusionment and unreliability. Sly further damaged the family feel by playing most of the instruments on the album and isolating himself from the other band members in a cocaine cocoon.
Ironically, Riot was the band’s only No. 1 album.

The most impressive track is the quietly funky, disturbing “Family Affair.” “Affair” chronicles the divergent paths of two sons, one good – one bad, but both are good to Mom “because blood is thicker than the mud.” Perhaps these two characters represent Sly’s own internal dichotomy. The soulful bass burbles along quietly, Graham’s happy thump but a memory. Freddie’s guitar is transmogrified into moody wah-wah bleeps. “(You Caught Me) Smilin'” is twisted jazzy soul that finds Sly nearly blowing out his microphone with vocal outbursts.

The bizarre “Spaced Cowboy” is an entertaining blend of clip-clop beats, funk bass, and Sly’s delirious yodeling, and “Thank You For Talkin’ To Me Africa” regresses the urban funk of the original “Thank You” into a languid tour of the heart of darkness. “Runnin’ Away” displays a classic simple melody in the “Everyday People” vein, played by Cynthia on her noble red trumpet and sung by sister Rose (shadowed by Sly’s subterranean double) on such painfully self-aware lines as, “The deeper in debt, the harder you bet.” The last great Family Stone song.

After There’s A Riot Goin’ On, Larry Graham left the band to pursue other interests, but also to escape Sly. Thereafter, Sly’s music took a back seat to multiple drug and weapons violations. His almost unlimited talent squeezed two more hits, the ironic “If You Want Me To Stay,” and the self-instructive “Time For Livin’.”

Though Sly has attempted several comebacks, he has never recaptured the public’s attention. The spirit of the Family Stone lives in the blatant imitation of Prince; the funk of George Clinton; the psychedelic soul of Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield and Norman Whitfield; and the jazzy, rocking soul of Earth, Wind & Fire, Kool & the Gang, and War.

Powered by

About Eric Olsen

  • http://www.foliage.com/~marks Mark Saleski

    great post y’all.

    when i think of sly stone two things come to mind:

    1. I Want To Take You Higher
    2. that freaky jacket that Sly used to wear…the one with the looong fringe hangin’ from the arms.

  • http://www.templestark.com/blog Temple A. Stark

    I’m too stupid to know Prince is imitation. He’s good though.

    Nothing is more depressing though then Frankie Lymon’s long, slow decline (WHY DO FOOLS FALL IN LOVE) . I watched some kind of TV movie a couple of months back. I wanted to slash my wrists. It hit me at a down time and it was just depressing as fuck; Drug habit. Hit his wife. Everybody pitied him. Friends turned their back on him.

    http://www.history-of-rock.com/lymon.htm

  • David

    A lot of rock crickets at the time considered them too commercial. The same cricketism was made about Bitches Brew, hard as that is to believe now. Strange days indeed. In retrospect they were one of the very few bands at Woodstock that didn’t suck.

    “Fresh” is worth mentioning too, I think. Though not one of their masterpieces, it is still an extremely cool record.

  • Eric Olsen

    Thanks guys. At any given time whoever is popular is “too commercial” for a lo of critics. I don’t really remember that about Sly, but I’m sure it’s true.

    Here is someone who just couldn’t handle the responsibility of greatness, and has done everything to keep it at arm’s length for almost 30 years. It’s really too bad, but at least he did put out some timeless music in a short period of time.

    “Fresh” has its moments – thanks for mentioning it.

  • http://macaronies.blogspot.com Mac Diva

    A fine tribute. I’ve forgotten to add my Sly and the Family Stone CD to iTunes, but now I will.

    This also reminds me I want to write something about Rhino and other labels’ CD-ROM compilations, which came out five, six or seven years ago — before the Internet exploded in use. I believe they should be redone and reissued so more people can see and hear the artists. My Rhino ‘Rock Expedition’ is the only material on acts such as the Beau Brummels I have, but it is very thorough. Thanks for the inspiration, Dawn and Eric.

  • Eric Olsen

    Thanks MD, very glad you liked it.

  • Todd

    I think “Fresh” is every bit as good as “Riot.” Two of the best soul/funk lps ever, in my opinion.

  • Eric Olsen

    A lot of people like “Fresh,” I just see it as a step down, but Sly had greatness in him until he finally squeezed it all out.

  • http://www.blogbloke.com BB

    Thanks Eric and Dawn for the trip down memory lane. “Hot Fun In the Summertime” has got to be my all time favorite summer song. Even more so than the Beach Boys (save and except the Young Rascals “It’s A Beautiful Morning”). This is a terrific post and I would say is of Rolling Stone caliber.

  • Eric Olsen

    thanks very much BB!

  • Ronnie

    Sly is a genius, to me the greatest producer/writer/musician that ever lived. The Beatles were four people, Sly was just one person that wrote the lyrics, produced the songs, and played a lot of different instruments. Some people don’t understand or know that sly started recording at four years old. I ask you guys to go all over the net and find out how many other artists that he either produced, wrote for, or played on their material. I think he has contributed greatly to this world through his music. Just check out the lyrics man! Sure I would like to see and hear from the whole group again just to show these wanna be rockers,rappers,and hip-hoppers what a real true artist is all about. Now I want ya to go out and get,”High on you” if ya don`t have it already, because it was really a Sly album. He made the return to the Instrumental song, “Green eyed Monster Girl” something that he had`nt did in a long time. Also don`t forget about the “LiL Sister” songs that he made. Instead of putting him down for all of the negative things that he did, we should be praising & celebrating him for what he offered and gave us to hear/see/feel. There was no better live group than Sly. What someone needs to do is offer him a great deal of mad loot so that we can hear & see him perform again. You don`t think that M. Jackson purchased his catalog just so that he could go to sleep with it in his bed. Do ya!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Michael

    The comment about Prince is a little flippant. Granted he fits into the overall funk narrative, the “Minneappolis Sound” was innovative and Sign O’ The Times is the last great double album.

  • Eric Olsen

    A bit flippant perhaps – I was not trying to minimize Prince’s value or importance, just saying his approach was blueprint Sly – he has sure done it well and for a much longer period of time.

  • Bill Truran

    I LOVE The Essential Sly & The Family Stone.
    Who has ever made more happy music? What great life affirming music. THANKS Sly & the Family for all you have done. I look forward to what you will be doing.

  • Eric Olsen

    Bill, thanks, I certainly agree about the music. Unless something changes drastically – and it may be too late for that – I don’t foresee much new coming together, but you never know.

  • NICK MARSHALL

    IS SLY STILL ALIVE

  • Eric Olsen

    yes he is

  • Nikisha

    can someone please tell me the name on this particular album cover if you recognize it. I have a pic, but I cant make out the words. I will email it to anyone if you think you can help. Thanks a lot!

  • http://berlinave griff

    Let Sly know that we stll love him and his music and thanks for giving many a happy high.
    Can I email Sly?

  • Eric Olsen

    Maybe he will see this – I do not know how to contact him.

  • HW Saxton Jr.

    Eric,I really dig Sly & The Family Stone
    too.I think that you may be going out on
    a limb a little by their inclusion on
    your Top Ten list of the Greatest R’n’R
    artistes of all time but I’m with you on
    your decision 100 percent.

    I would’ve liked to have seen Mr. James
    Brown & The JB’s on your list as well as
    Sly.I feel they have definitely got more
    of a claim to the throne than does,let’s
    say U2). Only time will bear me out on
    this I suppose.

    The body of music left behind by Sly and
    his group not withstanding,I really do
    think that Sly’s greatest accomplishment
    may be his making Funk,R and B and Soul
    music readily accessible.By way of some
    radio friendly(AM & FM)tunes,a racially
    mixed ensemble and very highly energized
    live performances,a lot of people who
    wouldn’t normally listen to those genres
    did.

    Sly’s mixing of (alongside those of War,
    Santana, Charles Wright & The 103rd St.
    Watts Rhythm Band,Tower Of Power & other
    multi-racial groups of the day)Pop,Rock,
    Soul and Funk helped to lay down the
    foundations for Prince, Michael Jackson
    (post J5) and The Red Hot Chili Peppers
    to name but a few artistes whose music
    reflects the influence of Mr. Sylvester
    Stone.

    It’s too bad the drugs and his personal
    problems got the best of him, depriving
    the world of his many talents. We still
    have his musical legacy though and IMHO
    that’s what counts in the big picture.

  • Eric Olsen

    Thanks HW, I’m glad we generally agree on this. I was debating JB but finally I decided there was more than one James Brown band, that they kind of mutated over time, and that Sly was much closer to the “rock” theme musically and conceptually than James, who was very clearly in the R&B revue tradition.

  • Hope

    One of the greatstes of all times.

  • Eric Olsen

    I agree, Hope, thanks.

  • Nick Graveline

    Sly & the Family Stone is the greatest band ever to grace the world of music. i’m only a freshman in high school, and I had never heard anything by them beyond what the radio played. My uncle lent me their greatest hits, and i couldn’t believe what i was missing. Their Essential cd is amazing. If The Family could reunite with Sly as the frontman, then maybe my generation could experience the musical genius that has been missing for too long.

  • Eric Olsen

    You have excellent taste Nick, but I don’t see the band reuniting behind Sly, who is just too damaged it appears.

    I wouldn’t call them the great band ever, but they are still not fully appreciated by most, as evidenced by the reaction when I picked them as the 10th greatest band.

  • HW Saxton Jr.

    I think that one of Sly’s greatest coups
    was bringing the “FONK” to white America
    without sacrificing musical integrity or
    sanitizing it.His music was also a great
    common denominator.Growing up in So.Cal,
    ALL my friends dug Sly.Black,White,Asian
    Hispanic and so on,we could always agree
    on Sly when we were partying.

  • Eric Olsen

    Excellent point HW – that ability to transcend borders is why I rate him/them as highly as I do.

  • Ken

    I saw the band at the New Orleans track & field stadium in 1969.
    I played for a living back then and our band heard rumors about how incredible their show was.
    It took about 100 of New Orlean’s finest to keep the crowd off the stage.
    The band ate us alive..we didn’t stop talking about it for years….hey wait…I’m still talking about it.
    They were HOT!!!
    Ken

  • Eric Olsen

    thanks Ken! sounds amazing – I wish I could have seen them in their full glory.

  • Arcelious “SiSi” Daniels

    Hey Eric and Dawn,

    This was a refreshing bio on Sly and the Family Stone. I happened to be fortunate enough to have played with Sly during one of his comeback attempts as a guitarist in 1980. The opportunity to have worked with such an Icon first hand was awesome to say the least. I wish I could thank him for his willingness to allow my Band to Tour with him. I’m now a Film editor at Savannah College of Art and Design, and M.F.A. candidate in Film School. I am considering doing a Biopic on Sly and my experiences sometime in the future. Keep up the good work. Syl (not Sly), if you read this, SiSi here, from Savannah, GA. Hihowru!!
    I love you, and hope you find freedom, happiness and joy. You can Recover!

  • Eric Olsen

    thanks SiSi, very much appreciated, sounds like you’ve done very well! It’s remarkable how many people we have heard from on this post and others who have nothing but the best wishes for Mr. Stewart and still hold out hope for his future. Where there’s life there’s hope.

  • http://www.livejournal.com/users/oneken/ ken m

    man, when i read the words “noble red trumpet” a smile unfolded across my mind. thanx for that, and a good review.

    surprised to see one james marshall MIA on yer list, but there’s no axe to grind ;-)

  • Eric Olsen

    thanks Ken, but from which list is Jimi missing?

  • Kevin

    Sly and The Family Stone “Hot fun in the Summertime” unbelievable it was no lie he did Open up the roof and let in the lighting.

  • Eric Olsen

    “hiiiigh, high high high, yeah”

  • http://newroots@drizzle.com Julene Weaver

    Is there a list anywhere of all the concerts Sly and the Family Stone performed? I went to eight of his concerts, including the one where he got married, all in NY. I’ve been trying to find their schedule if it is posted anywhere. There is a schedule for Jimi Hendrix, please tell me there is one and the place I can find it. I look forward to hearing back. I used to clap my hands bloody at Sly’s concerts, nothing like them!

    Thanks

  • Eric Olsen

    wow Julene, 8 shows, pretty amazing – I am unaware of a list of Sly’s live shows, but I will keep an eye out. PLease let us know if you find anything!

  • kaoke

    Hi

    Iam presently living in Africa and of all my stay in the United States i failed to see sly and the family stone perform live.
    Please could you recommend taped performances of the band that i could purchase?
    Regards
    oke

  • Frank’s Voice

    GREAT Blog Mr. Olsen. I’ve read much recently on Sly’s new site that he’s returning. Maybe he has if you count producing the recent CD entitled Diff’rent Strokes, it’s strong, which features among other musicians/performers, Isaac Hayes and Chuck D covering “Sing a Simple Song” and Steven Tyler doing MUCH justice to an inspired “I Want To Take You Higher”. Can you tell me if Sly participated on the CD vocally or instrumentally in addition to the samples? Thanks again for providing this great forum to discuss and continue to enjoy this man, his group and their contributions past, present and future. I really look forward to what the future holds for The Family.

  • http://www.phattadatta.com PhattaDatta

    Hi, I am with Phattadatta.com, Sly Stone’s new official website. Just trying to get the word out to Sly fans of his new site. Hope you don’t mind the post, otherwise please check out Sly Stone’s Official Site!

    thank you