In a famed 1971 Rolling Stone profile by Ben Fong-Torres, Sly Stone (né Sylvester Stewart) explained the concept behind he and the Family Stone: “If there was anything to be happy about, then everybody’d be happy about it. If there were a lot of songs to sing, then everybody got to sing. If we have something to suffer or a cross to bear – we bear it together.” Those words – a rare, lucid moment for Stone in that era – encapsulated the group’s arc up until that point: from the rosy optimism of their Summer of Love debut through their hit song era and into the cynicism of that early Seventies moment. The band would bear it together, until they couldn’t anymore.
Sly and the Family Stone became the poster children for a particularly San Francisco sensibility of the late Sixties: integrated, progressive, indomitably idealistic. Their music, a combustible mix of psychedelic rock, funky soul and sunshine pop, placed them at a nexus of convergent cultural movements, and in turn, they collected a string of chart-topping hits. Just as they seemed on the cusp of even greater success, Stone made a social and psychological retreat, only to reemerge in 1971 with the sonic equivalent of a repudiation: dark, brilliant and bracing. The band wouldn’t survive intact much longer, but in that short span, they redefined the possibilities of pop music. Was Sly and the Family Stone one of the great American funk bands? Rock bands? Pop bands? All of the above.