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.