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Sly & the Family Stone

Biography

Sly & the Family Stone
Michael Ochs Archive/Getty

In the late Sixties and early Seventies, Sly & the Family Stone fused R&B rhythms, radio-ready hooks and psychedelia to create a new pop/soul/rock hybrid. The band's bright, catchy songs artfully took on racism and other political issues and influenced pop artists like Prince to Rick James. From the Nineties forward, legions of artists — including Public Enemy, Fatboy Slim, Beck and many others — mined Sly's catalogue for samples.

Sylvester Stewart's family moved from Texas to the San Francisco area in the 1950s. At age four, he began singing gospel music and at age 16 made a local hit, "Long Time Away." Stewart studied trumpet, music theory, and composition at Vallejo Junior College and while in school became active on the Bay Area music scene. With his brother, Fred, he formed several short-lived groups, like the Stewart Bros. He was a disc jockey at soul station KSOL, and at Autumn Records he produced records by the Beau Brummels, Bobby Freeman, the Mojo Men, and Grace Slick's first band, the Great Society. He later worked for KDIA.

In 1966 Sly formed a short-lived group called the Stoners, which included female trumpeter Cynthia Robinson. With her he started his next band, Sly and the Family Stone. Sly, Robinson, and Fred Stewart were joined by Larry Graham [see separate entry], Greg Errico, and Jerry Martini, all of whom had studied music and worked in numerous amateur groups. Rosie Stone joined the group soon after. Working around the Bay Area in 1967, this multiracial band made a strong impression. They recorded their debut single, "I Ain't Got Nobody" b/w "I Can't Turn You Loose," on the local Loadstone label.

The Family Stone's debut LP, A Whole New Thing, flopped. Its follow-up, Dance to the Music, included the hit title cut (Number Eight Pop, Number Nine R&B). Life sold fewer copies than their previous albums, but their next release, a double-sided single, "Everyday People" b/w "Sing a Simple Song," was Number One on both the R&B and Pop charts. 1969's Stand! mixed hard-edged politics with the Family's ecstatic dance music. It rose to Number 13 on the Pop Chart and contained Sly standards like the title song, "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey," "Sex Machine," "Somebody's Watching You," and "I Want to Take You Higher" (Number Three Pop, Number 24 R&B). Fiery versions of "Dance to the Music" and "Higher," heard on Woodstock soundtrack (Cotillion), established the Family Stone as one of the finest live bands of the late 1960s.

Singles like "Hot Fun in the Summertime" (Number Two Pop, Number 3 R&B) and "Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin" b/w "Everybody Is a Star" (Number One Pop and R&B), saw the band hit a commercial peak, and the success of Greatest Hits (Number Two Pop) reflected their immense popularity. The smooth post-doo-wop/pop/soul of "Hot Fun" and the eerie funk of "Thank You" demonstrated the band's considerable range. By this time, Stand! had been on the charts for more than 80 weeks, and most of the Family's Top Ten singles had gone gold, as had most of their post-Dance to the Music LPs. Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, who'd been flummoxing critics with electrified "fusion" albums, did it again when he named Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix as his favorite musicians.

After 1970 Sly became notorious for arriving late for or missing concerts, and it was generally known that he was suffering from drug problems. The group's turning point came in 1971, when There's a Riot Goin' On went to Number One. Its darkly understated sound and pessimistic lyrics (the album's first words are, "I'm gonna tell you something: Feels so good inside myself, don't wanna move") contrasted sharply with the optimism of earlier albums, and instead of the flamboyant group interplay that had been a Family Stone hallmark, most of the album featured Sly overdubbing multiple vocal and instrumental parts, exploring the possibilities of electronic rhythm (Riot is one of the first major albums to feature a drum machine), and utilizing the services of guitarist/arranger and R&B veteran Bobby Womack. The result was the most powerful depiction of the bitter aftermath of the hippie dream; "Family Affair," about dissolution and breakdown, went Number One Pop and R&B, Sly's last chart-topping hit.

By 1972, the Family Stone was growing restless. Key members Larry Graham and drummer Greg Errico, both well on their way out during Riot's recording, left, to be replaced by Rusty Allen and Andy Newmark. From Fresh (Number Seven pop, 1973), "If You Want Me to Stay" (Number 12 pop, Number Three R&B) did fairly well, and a blues version of "Que Sera Sera" got some airplay, particularly when (untrue) rumors of a romance between Sly and Doris Day emerged. Small Talk fared moderately well. It took advertising of Sly's public wedding ceremony to Kathy Silva at Madison Square Garden in 1974 to sell it out. "I Get High on You" (Number Three R&B) did respectably, but subsequent albums failed.

Meanwhile, disco had emerged, and in 1979 Epic issued Ten Years Too Soon, a compilation album on which the quirky original rhythm tracks were erased and a disco beat dubbed in. By the mid 1970s, stories of drug problems and arrests were part of the Sly Stone legacy. By 1979, he was with Warner Bros., attempting to make the comeback many observers felt would be as natural as James Brown's, given the current interest in and popularity of funk. In 1981, having been cited as a major influence by George Clinton, he appeared on Funkadelic's Electric Spanking of War Babies. He toured with Clinton's P-Funk All-Stars, on his own, and with Bobby Womack in the early 1980s. In 1983 Sly released Ain't But the One Way, which was roundly ignored; that year he was arrested for cocaine possession and entered a rehabilitation program a year later.

In 1986 Stone guested on ex-Time guitarist Jesse Johnson's minor hit "Crazay," which led to a deal with A&M Records. That year a single, "Eek-a-Bo-Static," failed to chart; Stone also duetted with ex-Motel Martha Davis on "Love & Affection," for the soundtrack of the movie Soul Man, in 1986, but the A&M contract fell through. In 1989, Stone was arrested, serving his fourteen-month sentence in a rehab center. In 1993 Sly and the Family Stone was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; a subdued Stone appeared to accept the honor.

That would presumptively have been it, but in February 2006, for the 48th Annual Grammy Awards, rumors began that Stone would appear. And appear he did, wearing a silver lamé trench coat and sporting a giant blonde Mohawk. The performance was a mixed-bag, however – owing to a very busy audio mix, Stone was virtually inaudible, and his appearance was remembered for being as bizarre as it was unexpected. An exceedingly rare interview with the notoriously reclusive Sly appeared in Vanity Fair in 2007 that portrayed the musician as both an eccentric and relatively lucid. In the interview he said he had been working on music for a couple of decades, waiting for the right moment to spring it on the world. A handful of live performance followed in Europe in 2007 and the U.S. in 2008, with Stone's performances as erratic as ever. His festival dates – among them the prestigious North Sea Jazz Festival and Montreaux Jazz Festival – were largely considered disappointments, with Sly appearing onstage for only a handful of minutes. His shows at the New York's B.B. King's five months later, were similarly a mess; Sly shuffled on stage for only a few minutes to answer questions, deliver new rap verses (ostensibly from a song called "We're Sick Like That") before wandering off again.

On Memorial Day 2009, Stone appeared on Seattle's KCRW show "Morning Becomes Eclectic," talking about his life and career. He confirmed that the song "If You Want Me to Stay" was written as a question to his fans, but gave no indication as to his future plans. That same year, he signed with the small L.A. independent label Cleopatra, planning to release an album that was a combination of new material and re-recorded greatest hits in 2010. In June of 2009, a recording of the group's legendary performance at the Woodstock Festival was released. In January of 2010, Sly & the Family Stone were announced as performers in that year's Coachella festival.

Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Mark Kemp contributed to this article.

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