Sly and the Family Stone: Everybody Is a Star - Rolling Stone
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Sly and the Family Stone: Everybody Is a Star

The travels of Sylvester Stewart, San Francisco’s first rock star, as he founds a production company, perfects his sound and makes a move on TV

Psychedelic soul group, Sly & Family Stone, human dancing train, Sly Stone, Cynthia Robinson, Freddie Stone, Rosie Stone, Jerry Martini, Larry GrahamPsychedelic soul group, Sly & Family Stone, human dancing train, Sly Stone, Cynthia Robinson, Freddie Stone, Rosie Stone, Jerry Martini, Larry Graham

Psychedelic soul group 'Sly & Family Stone' make a human dancing train; (L-R) Sly Stone, Cynthia Robinson, Freddie Stone, Rosie Stone, Jerry Martini, Larry Graham in circa 1970.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Sly is dressed up nice tonight — in a royal violet dinnercoat length leather jacket with collars big enough to be a cape. A violet silk shirt. Violet leather pants. Fur-fringed boots. Walking tall.

But tonight here’s no concert, no TV show, no family reunion in Daly City. No Family Stone. Sly’s at the Johnny On the Spot rehearsal studios out on the 5400 block of Santa Monica Boulevard, near Beverly Hills. He’s here, with friend Buddy Miles and secretary Stephanie in tow, to look over prospects for a band he’s putting together for his new record label, Stone Flower. He’s advertised that he’s looking for a guitar, a bass, and keyboard.

The first arrivals, a dozen or so young men, are standing around the foyer while Sly checks out the available amps and speakers. The proprietor’s not here, but the manager — his mother — is attending to business tonight, and she is telling the gathering how she thought up such a neat name for the place. “It’s just so simple,” she is laughing, sitting by the coffee percolator, looking like a double of Ringo’s fat Auntie Jessie from the Magical Mystery Tour. “My boy got this place just this year and he says what can I call it and I says ‘Well, what you’re offering is a place convenient for musicians whenever they need a place to practice. You’re like a Johnny on the spot.’ ” No one says anything.

Sly calls the first guy into the small practice room, furnished with chairs, a huge speaker and an electric organ. He sets the pattern, showing right away not just who, but what he is.

“Okay, man,” he says, his bassy, radio-schooled voice smooth and soothing: “This is like not an audition, you know; just play some stuff and let me hear you. Just do what you want and we’ll join in and see how you sound. Know what I mean?”

If the auditioner is an organist, Sly listens for a few bars, then slides in with a layer of bass, and if things get moving, Buddy will pick up a guitar. If it’s a guitarist, or a bassist, Sly will jump behind the organ, pumping easily, happily behind the player.

And after each one finishes, he’ll have Stephanie take down his phone number, and he’ll say: “Okay, we’ll call you tomorrow; Friday latest. And I mean that. You know. Whatever happens, we’ll be in touch, man.”

Sly runs across some good musicians tonight. He’s exchanged only a couple of thumbs-down looks with Buddy, quiet like a Buddha in a corner chair. But he’s happiest with a straight-looking, night-clubbish youth with a Wayne Newton haircut and a country manner. The kid mumbles “I sing” while adjusting his guitar, then moves, feet tapping lightly, into the first chords of “Proud Mary.” Sly perks up, big smile, listens a bit, and joins in, clapping his hands, rocking his purple body back and forth on his chair, singing out a harmony line on the chorus. “Aw, yeah!” he says at the end. “Hey, man, that’s great. Can you play another number?” Sly will take his phone number down, and Stephanie will have to call him and say he’s not right for the group Sly’s got in mind. But for the moment, it’s Sly’s kind of music.

It’s getting smokier outside, in the lobby, but it’s getting cooler, too. People sitting along the hallway, scrunched up like school kids doing an air raid drill. The word is getting out: Sly Stone, this famous cat, this high school gangleader-turned-whiz-kid record producer-turned-number-one DJ-turned gold-record rock and roll star — he’s in there just joking and playing and having a good time — and he’s wanting all of us to do the same.

It’s 1:15 in the morning now, at the ABC-TV studios in Hollywood, in Studio C, two buildings past where the middle-American freaks were screeching their way through a taping that evening of Let’s Make a Deal, the ultimate realization of The Committee’s skit on TV giveaway shows, “Greed.” At the top of the stairway to the balcony of Studio C, Ken Fritz, producer of Music Scene, is still shaking his head, telling Sly’s manager how of all the shows he’d done that season (the show’s first and last), the one just finished was the finest. In his words: “This was a moment.” A few feet away, behind his dressing-room door, Sly is looking exhausted, letting his costume/clothes fall off him. But the rest of his family, the rest of his band, is already regaining their breath, and their energy revitalizes Sly. So now a quick ride in his low-slung yellow-and-black ’36 Cord back to the offices of his Stone Flower Productions on Vine Street across from the circular tower that houses Capitol Records. The Cord is a one-seater, with one huge fluffy pillow serving as seating for any passengers. It’s a beauty, spitting out the sounds of street-proud power in idle, invariably making other drivers at intersections roll down their windows to yell at Sly how much they dig his automobile.

Up the back stairs from the garage, and the troupe — Sly, manager/partner David Kapralik, secretary Stephanie, a couple of girl friends — slides into the back office — Sly’s quarters. Upright tape recorder in an ornate wooden cabinet; electric piano set up nearby; guitar against part of the refrigerator. And the desk — the desk covered by a full-length stretch of violet fur. But that’s Sly, the Mr. Flash of rock and roll. For the Music Scene shot, he had on a gold velvet shirt cut off at midriff, with long black fringes brushing against leopard-skin pants. Tall black fur boots. And masked against that head bursting with hair, those huge violet-tinted goggle/shades he wears in the Woodstock film.

And Sly’s Family — all six of them every bit as done up as Sly himself, sister Rose in yellow satin pantsuit, gold chain cap and silver hair; brother Freddy in a light violet shirt and black coveralls; bass man Larry Graham regal in a black musketeer outfit — cavalier hat, flowing cape, brushed velvet pants. Sly, the host, puts a long wooden pipe in motion around the warm, darkened office, and now he lets out a low, bassy laugh about that television show. Accustomed to working for concert crowds of anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000 (and 400,000 in the Woodstock mud), Sly & the Family Stone found themselves facing a tired gathering of maybe 100 diehard kids in the studio by the time they got the call, at half past midnight. Even Leslie Uggams and Merv Griffin gave him bigger crowds to work with.

The tapings had been going on, on and off, since around 8, and 250 people, maybe a quarter of them blacks, had been there at the beginning. But after four hours of harsh Kleig lights, repeated takes of lame comedy sketches, and some music from Buffy Sainte-Marie and Bo Diddley, but mostly technical stops and starts, people began to trickle out. So there are maybe 100 left, and Ken Fritz is worried that Sly won’t be able to come across, and Sly comes onto the mike and right out tells the kids that the instrumental track they’re going to use has already been recorded, done the night before over at Columbia, so that the TV show doesn’t have to worry about mixing, and the kids let out a groan, not hearing what Sly had just said, anticipating a lip-sync trip, so they turn their attention to the clothes. “Well, they gonna lip-sync, but would you check out Sly’s outasite threads?”

And Sly, a vision in black and pink and fringes, sits at his organ, looks around, groggy/alert, a boxer in his corner ready for the bell. And lined up behind him, the Family, fussing over a piano, sax, trumpet, bass, guitar, and drums that won’t be recorded. All of a sudden, four stomps on the black fur boots and Sly & the Family Stone are into “Higher” — Cynthia, pale, with her high, rouged Indian cheekbones, holding her horn high, away from her, screeching her clarion call; her cousin Larry Graham crooning his melodic bass reply, as he always does, then Freddy, the middleman between Larry’s bottom and Sly’s elephant roar, carrying it down the line to his brother Sly. Sister Rosie is counterpointing him, a serious musician at work on the piano. By now they’re all stomping, saxophonist Jerry Martini pumping his hips along with his instrument; his cousin Greg Errico flailing away at drums above and behind him. Sly is itching to leave his chair, and he jumps out, laughing, clapping hands, roaring coarsely, stamping the stage floor like a tribal chief, thoroughly digging the music he’d spent four hours putting together, in at least two dozen takes, the night before.

And that’s just the first minute of the medley. Short count even as the first tune ends, and Sly is wah-wahing: “Don’t call me Nigger, Whitey; don’t call me Whitey, Nigger!” This is the tune Kapralik has been nervous and excited about all day; he’d heard that execs at ABC had heard about plans to include the song in the medley and were ready to come down on it, and Kapralik, the elfish little dropout from Columbia Records’ executive ranks, was rubbing his hands together, spoiling for a fight.

To give ABC no chance to get at the group before taping time, Kapralik stalled from giving Music Scene the lyrics for the tunes Sly’d do until the day of the show; then Sly showed up as late as he could, missing the 3:30 rehearsal call with the explanation that he had to see an ear doctor. Now he’s singing the words out, and black kids in the audience are doing the lip-syncing, singing along with a tune that had made the soul charts last summer. The Family Stone shifts gears and coasts into “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” a lazy essay about how they spent their vacation, repetitive horn riffs and chorus, Freddy, Larry and Sly again taking a line apiece.

Then screech — this time it’s Rose, crying from behind the piano: “Say! Get on out — and dance to the music!” The ultimate message for affirmation and togetherness, one of Sly & the Family Stone’s trademarks. Make good music and shake your body. The song that did it for this band, and the small, bouncing audience is straining to get it on. But this is TV; Sly’s done a perfect take, and the mikes fall silent.

But Sly doesn’t like to see an audience restrained; at concerts he hates to see the uniformed rent-a-cops forming a badged, armed bridge between his Family and the audience. He even has a clause in his concert contracts now prohibiting armed cops. Both his songs and his between songs raps are filled with exhortations for people to get out of their skins, their seats, and move. “I don’t care if they rush the stage,” he had said before the Music Scene taping. “We love it. Even on TV, if they rush us and they can’t see us on camera, I don’t care.”

Sly calls for a re-take, this time inviting the people to dance to “Dance to the Music.” His staff and other friends, unabashed yell-leaders at the sidelines just outside the camera cables, scurty around the outer edges of the crowd, trying to find people to start the dancing when the time comes. Their efforts are wasted energy. When the time comes, everyone’s up, sending the camera on the crane swooping back and up, filling all three camera monitors with bobbing heads and bodies.

There was about the same size crowd around when Sly & the Family Stone first surfaced, back just a couple of years, in early 1967. The scene was the Winchester Cathedral, a teen and after-hours club in Redwood City, down the Peninsula an hour from San Francisco. This isn’t exactly the big time. The Cathedral is one of a number of those all-night pubs serving blue-collar suburb towns like Hayward, San Jose, and, in the heart of the electronics industry in the Peninsula, Redwood City. Freddy recalls, “We’d play places like Frenchy’s in Hayward and the Losers’ in San Jose six nights a week, then on weekends drive to the Winchester to play all night.” Three months into the gestation, they began to pick up believers. One, a college student named Bill Lacy. began to offer himself as a chauffeur to Sly, picking him up from his radio station gig at KDIA in Oakland, then driving him to North Beach or to whichever bar the band was playing that night, then back to Sly’s place on Ocean Avenue in the residential Sunset District. It was just a thing to do, Lacy said, once you got to know the music and Sly.

At this moment, in 1967, there’s a San Francisco scene going, with the first Family Dog and the original Fillmore Auditorium thriving. Actually, two scenes — the hip/dope/rock/ballroom scene, and the East Bay teen/dragstrip/beer/bike scene, with dances, featuring combos, at clubhouses and memorial halls. A night in the big town meant a sojourn to North Beach to mingle with the illiterati. You heard about one scene on KMPX-FM, the other on KYA.

Sly, his own man, worked the suburb scene — and North Beach, where he became a regular at the Condor, near Carol Doda and her twin peaks. There, he would sweat and structure a total act. Set up residence and ground it out. Later he’d play the Fillmore, and in New York, the Fillmore East and the Electric Circus. But, for now, he settled for Winchester Cathedral, 2 to 5 A.M. every weekend for five months. And besides, almost three years before the “San Francisco Sound,” Sly had produced the very first rock and roll hits out of the city, a city then known for little more than Johnny Mathis and Vince Guaraldi. At the age of 19, Sly Stone produced the Beau Brummels’ string of hits — “Laugh Laugh,” “Just a Little,” and “Still in Love With You Baby” for Tom Donahue’s Autumn Records.

And soul music is a hot commodity in the music industry now, in 1967. Aretha Franklin has shot out of nowhere and become Lady Soul to Otis the prince, Ray Charles the genius, and James Brown the king. Memphis is having a banner year, led by Otis, Sam and Dave, Booker T., and Carla Thomas. And Motown is as commercial and prosperous as ever.

Sly is not a part of this, either. But the arrangements he is working out, in front of the white crowds, will eventually win out, and when Atlantic and Stax cool, it’ll be Sly & the Family Stone up front, putting out sounds that the Temptations, among many others, will imitate outright. But the Temptations, among many others, can’t play with their voices, with instruments, with studios, and with musical theories the way Sly does. For seven or eight years, now, the Tempts have had one of the best bassos around in Melvin Franklin — but he’s only come out strong since Sly made high (Rosie)/low (Larry) contrasts part of his trademark.

Sly & the Family Stone are finishing up “Sex Machine” now; the studio is darkened, and only Greg “Hand Feet” Errico, the drummer, is at work, pounding out the final drum solo. With a headset strapped on and eyes closed, Greg has finished piledriving and slowed down to a plod. Slowly, a heavy door is pushed open, and in sneak all the other members of the Family, up behind Greg. And just as he lets the sticks fall for the last time, Freddy yanks his headphones off and the brothers chant: “Time . . .”

Sly’s music will drive “acid rock” critics running for their record collections, so that they can draw comparisons between him and Jelly Roll Morton, and John Coltrane and Otis Redding. That Lambert/Hendricks/Ross scat; that horn section — that’s jazz; that singalong, dancealong melody and beat — that’s Top 40, soul; that polish, that production, that arrangement. Here’s all those San Francisco bands talking about going to Marin County and gettin’ it together, and here’s Sly taking care of business, whipping through the back door and beating them all up the charts.

And that showmanship — that on-stage flash of colors: choreographed spontaneity and spontaneous choreography. Two things have become standard at Sly & the Family Stone concerts: After one song — or, on a slow night, after two or three numbers — the audience is up off their seats, often on top of their seats, dancing. Last fall, Kapralik took out full-page ads in the trades apologizing to a Cleveland auditorium manager for thousands of stuffed seats stomped nearly to shreds. It was a timely — and needed — warning for all future bookers of the band.

And when Sly introduces “I Want to Take You Higher” with a request for the audience to flash the peace sign at the word “higher!” he sets the stage for one of those moments in time when an audience becomes a community. And the cops lined up in front of the stage can’t close their eyes to it.

And Sly’s words: messages that take cliches and make them work, stated viewpoints that will serve as vanguards for the Impressions, for Gladys Knight and the Pips, and for all the others now singing out for the black man’s freedom.

So in early 1967, Sly is not a part of the soul scene. But his only concern now is to make that comeback. He’d been playing since — well, since he was four, 21 years ago with the rest of the Stewart family in Vallejo — but professionally since the early Sixties, mostly with a group called Joe Piazza and the Continentals. Sometimes he’d have a band of his own, and they’d play in the go-go clubs that then dominated North Beach. Often Sly’d be playing rock and roll dances, at places like the American Legion Hall. That’s where he met Tom Donahue, in 1964.

“I told him I had some songs,” Sly said; and Donahue, just departed, along with partner Bob Mitchell, from a DJ role as “Big Daddy” Donahue at KYA, told Sly he had a record company.

“He was very obviously a talented musician,” Donahue recalled, “and he had some good ideas on arranging.” Donahue and partner Mitchell, on the other hand, knew nothing about arranging or producing, let alone running a record company. “So we all tried to learn together.”

Sly became staff producer for Autumn Records. One of his first compositions, with Donahue pitching in on lyrics, was “C’mon and Swim” for Bobby Freeman. Having successfully covered the dance-trend fad still washing the country in the wake of Chubby Checker, Autumn and Sly hit the British invasion next. They found a five-man band beating around in San Mateo, another Peninsula town. They were called the Beau Brummels. One of the lads was named Dec Mulligan, just off the boat, still smelling of shamrocks. Another, Ron Meagher, was from Oakland High School. But they were good musicians and had uncommonly long hair for a bunch of Bay Area guys in 1964. With Ron Elliot and Sal Valentino writing the songs and young Sly working the controls of the three-track machine and board at Coast Recorders, the Brummels made it.

Sly went on to produce about 90 percent of Autumn’s entire output, which included sizable hits by such groups as the Vejtables, the Tikis, and the Mojo Men. Sly tried to cut a few records under his own name — “Sly and the Mojo Men” — but didn’t like them enough to release them.

Despite the successes, Donahue and Mitchell soon suffered the consequences of being the first hit factory in San Francisco. Without predecessors or history to lean on, they became easy suckers in the record industry’s rough game of hide-the-profits. Autumn had the numbers on the charts, but somehow a lot of the money got lost on the way from the record shops back to the record company. Sly would soon be back on the streets.

One more shot, however: An Autumn subsidiary (a subsidiary, yet!) had reached out to one of the first of the head bands in town — a scraggly group led by an ex-model with the improbable name of Grace Slick. For Autumn, the Great Society would record one single (“Somebody to Love” b/w “Free Advice”). Producer, of course, was Sly Stone. But Sly didn’t get along at all with the Great Society, Donahue said. It took something like 286 takes to get one single hit. Golden State Recorders was the studio, the scene of the chasm between Sly, as hip and heady as they come, and the whitehip bands.

“There was a sense of paranoia on the part of the Great Society about the level of their musicianship,” Donahue said. “But they also had a hippier-than-thou sort of thing.” Except for Grace, who seemed to Donahue “too far ahead of the others,” the Society crumbled soon afterward, and it seemed like the end for Sly, too.

Sly is sitting at a table in his temporary apartment in Hollywood . . . he’ll soon be settling into a new home in Coldwater Canyon . . . and it’s coming onto 2 AM and he finally wants to talk, really talk. He’s restless, nodding almost perfunctorily while Kapralik tells him how earlier that day he’d said no to an appearance on the Playboy After Dark TV show, “for the same reason we’ll never do a ‘Greatest Hits’ album,” and for the same reason we’ll never hear Sly singing for Coca-Cola. And Sly puts out a typical Sly statement, a kind of philosophy that reveals better than almost anything else, what Sly is all about.

“We just want to do the right things. Not for money . . . if it’s the money that will satisfy you more than not doing something you don’t want to do, then do it. But we will never sell out. For any reason. To death. Anything like that. Anything like that, man.

“Anything like that.”

Sly can look animalistic sometimes. When he put out his first LP, he looked no farther-out than, say Arthur Lee. Pretty flashy, but not uncommonly so. Rather Northern Californian, if you’d known he was from Vallejo. Hair still close to the roots. Since his hits, and concerts and TV shows, he’s looked by turn ferocious, babyish, pompous, joyous. Sometimes handsome, devilishly; on stage on the rampage, he can look moonfaced, crinkly eyes, outsized shades, muttonchops, nose and mouth all blended into a voodoo mask, topped with over flowing hair, attacking you, with song, through white walls of teeth.

This morning he’s just mellow, mellowed by the work on the TV show that had ended just an hour and a half before; mellowed by a stop at his office for a celebratory peace pipe; mellowed by his manager, his Jewish, over — 40 show-biz veteran counterpart; by his beautiful woman Debbie. Kapralik is his mirror, working like a magic prism to bring out all sides of Sly’s reflections. Debbie rounds out, punctuates, his points. Sly is sometimes so simple, so absolutely crystal-clear, so final, that Debbie is needed to smooth out the abruptness.

See, all Sly wants, all that makes him happy, is what’s right. He cannot define what’s right. He’s said it through songs: Dancing is right. Togetherness is right. Getting higher is right. Family is right. Music is right.

Now he’s telling you school is wrong, or at least it was wrong for him. “Black” or “soul” or “R&B” radio is wrong. But it’s all very personal, and definitions can only come out of anecdotes and recollections.

“Like, high school was terrible. It was boring for me ’cause either I was too smart, or too dumb to realize what I could learn. I was in race riots when I was in high school in Vallejo, 500 people in the student body carrying on, and that was more exciting than anything else.

“There wasn’t enough challenge. In English 1-A, it was such a drag that by the end of the semester I forgot what I learned.”

But the one high point about his schooling remains a high point in his life. This happened at a junior college in his hometown, Solano College.

“My theory instructor — I’d learn more from him than from listening to anybody. David Froelich was his name. I don’t know a whole lot about him, but I know he’s right . . . He was the kind of person who never washed his hair, but it was always clean. White and beautiful and long and healthy. He was cool. He had a crazy walk. Now that I look back, he was — whew! I gotta find him and pull some more of that out of him.”

Froelich was a local jazz pianist and pulled pop, jazz, and classical music together for his lectures.

Froelich is now head of the music department at Solano and it’s been oh, four years now since Sly Stone — Sylvester Stewart, by real name — sat in his Music Theory 1A & 1B classes, learning how to read notes, how to build chords, training the ear for music.

The professor would like to see Sly again, too. “He couldn’t understand how school could be relevant,” he remembered. “But he had a good attitude on life. He never thought he wouldn’t make it.”

Sly was at Solano (then called Vallejo Junior College) for three semesters, on and off. While there, he sang in the college choir; away from school, he’d spent three months at the Chris Borden School of Modern Broadcasting (plush, red-carpeted studios across from Union Square on Post Street; three turntables, UPI wire machine — for $350 a course, everything but the public air). He got a job at KSOL (“Super Soul,” with an echo, of course), and on weekends he was getting his Family together.

By now it was becoming obvious how much Family meant to Sly. With his royalties from Autumn Records, he’d purchased a house in Daly City for his parents. His father, who now serves as road manager for the Family Stone, would go to Sly’s school to attend any musical program Sly was on.

“There are two aspects to Sly that you have to consider,” says Donahue, one of the true sages of the San Francisco scene. “First there’s that tight relationship with the Family. And second — well, there are a lot of musicians who are dummies. But Sly — he’s got it all covered. About the only self-destructive thing about him that I could recall was a Don Quixote thing — you know, he was riding off in all directions.”

Turn on the car radio, and you hear the big voice: “Hi; Sly . . .” And the little voice: “Hi-i, Sly . . . I wanna dedicate to my sister Velma, to all the queens of soul in room 1-oh-4, and to you and yours.” “All right, sister,” punch, “Hi-i, Sly . . .” And all the time there’s a tape loop, boop boop, Aretha chugging “Chain of Fools,” and Sly does three solid minutes of dedications, as musical, as tight, as produced as anything he’d air.

In his first radio job, at KSOL, he brought in a piano and sang happy birthday to listeners. “Just radio,” he’d say. “I played Dylan, Lord Buckley, the Beatles. Every night I tried something else. I really didn’t know what was going on. Everything was just on instinct. You know, if there was an Ex-Lax commercial, I’d play the sound of a toilet flushing. It would’ve been boring otherwise.”

People used to dig listening to Sly from 6 to 9 PM on KDIA, then switch to KYA for Tommy Saunders, then being called “the Terry Southern of radio” by Ralph J. Gleason in the Chronicle. Then they’d hang on for Russ “The Moose” Syracuse and his all-night flight, where he bombed records, destroyed supermarket commercials, imitated trom-bones, and accompanied hire-the-handicapped spots with grunts and groans. AM radio never sounded better.

“But Sly was always itching to move,” said Bill Doubleday, KDIA general manager and program director in Sly’s days there. “He didn’t want a full-time job; he wanted time for his band. Finally, around Christmas of ’67 he went to Las Vegas, and that did it.

“The Family Stone always had a showmanship most other local bands couldn’t muster,” Doubleday said. “On the air, Sly was the same. You know how most DJs put on a whole style when they’re on. Sly didn’t create an air personality; that was Sly Stone.”

Sly was itching — but not because of hyperactivity with his band.

“In radio,” he says, “I found out about a lot of things I don’t like. Like, I think there shouldn’t be ‘black radio.’ Just radio. Everybody be a part of everything. I didn’t look at my job in terms of black.”

Still, Sly was getting such high ratings that station managers simply couldn’t hassle him about the revolutionary things he was doing. He started at KSOL, then took off to tour with Sly & the Family Stone. Then a return to radio, to the bigger black station, KDIA in Oakland, when the band didn’t jell immediately. It was rough. Sly writes about it, relives it, on his first album. There was no positiveness, no affirmation then. Even with the Epic Records contract, and with star-maker David Kapralik by his side, Sly was unsure.

As Kapralik points out, “I’ve been trying to put together a biography of Sly, a chronicle of his life — and it suddenly flashed on me: His music, the progression of his albums, is his autobiography.

“His first single was ‘Underdog.’ His first LP, A Whole New Thing, was very down. You know, ‘How Can I Make It ‘Til Tomorrow.’ And the album bombed, and we rapped about it. I told him, ” ‘Start being a pro; start writing more simply.’ The next thing was ‘Dance to the Music.’ “

Nowadays, when Sly is asked to pin-point a watershed in his life, for a particular time when his creative forces felt free enough to really be unleashed, he says: “When I started to become successful.”

“Dance to the Music” earned Sly Stone a platform.

His third album was Life. Now he was experimenting. The LP, Dance to the Music, was the theme, and the theme restated, directly and indirectly, through most of the other tracks. In Life, Sly was talking. “You Don’t Have to Die Before You Live.” A little Sly humor with “Jane Is a Groupee.” A vision of the future, in “Love City.” Songs like “Fun” and “Into My Own Thing.”

“There was more affirmation,” Kapralik says, “a growing consolidation of his image as a winner.”

And, finally, Stand, and “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” an instant number-one single, and, currently, the four-minute “Thank You.” The official title, in Stone/ ghetto vernacular, is “Thank You Fa Lettinme Be Miceself Again.” Saying thanks for letting him be creatively free again, for accepting him on his own terms.

Musically taking the listener back to the early hits — Sly breathing “I Want To Take You Higher” all into one syllable; stroking different folks between lines. Lyrically reliving the toughest times, when he led high school gang-fights in Vallejo.

Lookin’ at the devil
Grinnin’ at his gun
Fingers start shakin’
I begin to run
Bullets start chasin’
I begin to stop
We begin to wrestle
I was on the top.

So thank you for the party, but Sly could never stay.

Now he’s finishing up an album, the most optimistic of all, with Sly Stone having gauged his power around the country. He’ll call it The Incredible and Unpredictable Sly & the Family Stone. It’s a line out of one of Epic’s publicity releases last year.

At the same time that he personally flies up and over various levels, he keeps the message intact, through the other groups he’s producing for Stone Flower. Like his younger sister, 19-year-old Vaetta, whose gospel group is putting out a Sly Stone composition, “You’re The One.”

You’re the one,
Don’t blame the neighborhood
You’re the one
Your mama didn’t make you good
You’re the one . . .

You must remember that Sly Stone, writing songs about blacks and whites, isn’t just using rhetoric he learned in the schools. The only thing he learned in school — outside of music theory from David Froelich — was that you learn your stuff in the streets. Sly and his family went to church together, sang in the choir together, lived in Vallejo, which Sly calls “like a Watts, only with more whites,” for 20 years together. But Sly was also a street cat, a fighting man wrestling his way through his teens.

“There are a lot of black people who understand reality,” he says, “but the ones who do all the talking are usually the people like Leslie Uggams, who seems like kind of a white/black person — or H. Rap Brown, a black black person — and all the people between — you never hear about them. I don’t know what to call them. Either everything’s fair or nothing’s fair. Either everybody gets a chance to do what he wants, or . . . you know what I mean?

“You can’t scream that because you are a color you are anything. You are black — you are black, that’s all. You are among people who’ve been mistreated a lot. But it doesn’t necessarily mean a white person next door is responsible. His grandfather may have killed yours, but he himself may love you. It’s simple. The majority — maybe they’re not advertising themselves; maybe they’re not saying anything interesting.”

Sly and the Family Stone are what the metropolitan press insist on calling “an interracial band.” The idea that Jerry Martini and cousin Greg Errico are white somehow delights them.

“Jerry’s white because he’s not any other color; Larry’s black because he’s not white. You know what I mean?”

He’d known Martini since high school days, and Jerry, who plays accordion, piano, and clarinet in addition to the saxophone, was having about as much luck with Bay Area bands as Sly when he dropped by to KDIA to visit. He hooked up with the Family Stone soon after. Errico had picked up a job with a band called the VIP’s in 1966 when the VIP drummer was sick. Freddy Stone had just joined that band, and six months later, when Freddy got the call from brother Sly, Errico simply fitted in.

Sly discovered Larry, who sings bass as well as he plays it, in a club. Graham had his own family scene going, with his mother being a pianist. Her band, with son Larry on bass and organ, played jazz and standards in clubs on the Peninsula and around the Bay Area.

Cynthia Robinson, the stylish horn player, also knew Sly from high school days. “I was in an inspirational all-faith church choir in Sacramento,” she said, and played brass instruments in the school marching band. “We just ran into each other again when I came to Oakland and he was a DJ.”

So Sly’s Family Stone, as well as his family, is firmly rooted in California, in the church, and in church music.

“The concept behind Sly and the Stone,” Sly is saying. “I wanted to be able for everyone to get a chance to sweat. By that I mean . . . if there was anything to be happy about, then everybody’d be happy about it. If there was a lot of money to be made, for anyone to make a lot of money. If there were a lot of songs to sing, then everybody got to sing. That’s the way it is now. Then, if we have something to suffer or a cross to bear — we bear it together.”

That’s simple Sly idealism. But he had proven those words a year before, when Cynthia underwent an emergency gall bladder operation. With his group at a new peak, with “Everyday People” getting a gold record, Sly cancelled out three months of bookings, including an Ed Sullivan appearance — to await Cynthia’s return.

“See,” Sly continues, “the concept was to be able to conceive all kinds of music. Whatever was contemporary, and not necessarily in terms of being commercial — whatever meant whatever now. Like today, things like censorship, and the black people/white people thing. That’s on my mind. So we just like to perform the things that are on our mind.”

And some other things . . . Like television.

Only a few years older than rock and roll itself, TV treats the music and its followers like unwanted children. TV, just like the shittiest parents: super-moralistic, behind the times to the point of being reactionary. Blind, dictatorial, ignorant — but omnipresent and omnipotent. So rock and roll is making some money — good; let’s let it out for the folks to see. But watch its mouth. Can’t offend, you know. Or TV will use rock and roll — bastardize it and drop it in behind a soft-drink spot.

Sly was talking about his Ex-Lax spots and how dull radio would’ve been without him being able to do a little black magic Christian trick now and then, and it tied in with Music Scene, and with TV in general.

“To even question that what we said can’t be televized is ridiculous,” says Sly.

“The biggest problem with TV and the whole thing right now is the censorship. And as long as it goes on with as much force as it’s got now, it’s going to be hard for anybody to do anything people like us would appreciate.”

Sly isn’t ready to tackle TV all by himself, just yet. His record is good, but he knows it isn’t good enough. Creedence Clearwater Revival is just getting their first special together. Simon & Garfunkel took four years. Jefferson Airplane’s getting on only through educational TV. “I don’t want my own show, anyway,” says Sly. “I just want to be able to go on there and say what’s on my mind.”

He’s in his dressing room at ABC-TV, and throughout his rap, a PA system blares out calls for cast members, breaks, and instructions to Buffy Sainte-Marie and Bo Diddley and their bands. Sly is carefully adjusting an ornate silver bracelet on his wrist, checking, hitching up, checking again his velvet pants, his vest, his boots, his sparse makeup. His talk is abrupt, almost half-hearted, and he squeezes his answer into succinct bites.

“I started playing music, instruments, when I was very young. Everybody else had swimming pools; we had drumsticks.”

“I learned a little in a lot of places.”

“We might do a live LP if the vibes head us in that direction.”

After the TV session, as the clock winds its way past three o’clock, beyond conscious consideration, Sly loosens up. And it is, he will say around five, the first time he’s really talked.

Sly Stone, for one thing, is worried about what comes next. “I mean, what can we do — what that wouldn’t hurt Stone Flower?” he asks, his mouth open, asking for an answer. “The record company wants another LP by February. Well, we could do some good songs — but that would be just another LP. Now you expect a group to come out with another LP and another” (Sly’s head in a rhythmic repetitive circular motion). “There’s got to be more to it. But what else can you do? The only thing that sounds interesting is something that ties in with a play that finishes what an LP starts to say, and the LP will be important on account of the play.

“Dance tracks are just nice, cool — but nothing. Something should be done.”

The soliloquy continues:

“Maybe it’s impossible. What can you put on vinyl or acetate or plastic. Not just something like a funny-shaped LP cover. Gotta be something it says or does. Maybe melt the LP and turn it into something. Like hash you can smoke.”

A scientist reaching for a new formula. And very frustrated, in a way, because he’s not sure he’s got all the ingredients.

“I worry about my not reading. About whether I’m valid.”

Sly doesn’t trust the press; he doesn’t seek publicity of any sort. (His manager and his PR people, of course, are another matter.) But if he’s going to write plays and go far beyond music, he’s got to absorb some of the concepts, the history of theater. So he’s forcing himself through this book, The Art of Writing. But man, he doesn’t know . . .

Sly is still at his table, and now it’s five o’clock in the morning. Surrounded by coffee cups and a healthy amount of current — day unmentionables, he has worked out a little platform for himself this morning. The voice is still booming.

“I will be a part of it, in the near future, something in the written media that will have contact with people. But before that, I’ve got to appreciate the potency of the written media.”

At this point, it’s music, exclusively.

“In music, there’s notes — a C-chord makes you go ‘ahh’ . . . a minor chord makes you sad. A C major implies happiness. Something changes every minute.

“I mean, I’ve never heard of anybody getting their minds blown by written media. You don’t really know where the idea comes from.

“But music, I can pinpoint it, who did it. Right or wrong. But in literature, unless I know the person, you read it once or twice and that’s it. But you can listen to an album over and over until it wears out. It really seems like music and that’s it.”

Kapralik fairly propels himself out of his sofa with a scream, tearing Sly’s logic apart, quoting poets, philosophers, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Socrates, Plato. And Sly answers:

“I read dog books, a book on Africa. I’ve tried to read but the only thing I want to read is on stuff I care about . . . like writing plays. I don’t care about Ramble.

“I used to be ashamed to mention that I didn’t read anything. In school I didn’t read. You know, just spell it like that and there’s a test at the end. I really don’t understand what’s in a book.”

But what about the impact of the written word? The effect of a statement, say, about Sly himself, calling him an Uncle Tom or a black fascist?

“But it’s so easy to say those words. It ain’t nothing. I don’t care. If anybody’s hip at all, they know all you need is a flash to say those things. And so far in my life, anybody that’s together hasn’t said that about me. You could sit down at a typewriter and say the whole world’s fucked up. So what? Or it’s beautiful . . .

“I believe a lot of people are misled by books. People I respect always say ‘Some asshole said this or that. That cat doesn’t know what he’s writing about.’ The press is: if you’re nice to them, they’re nice to you . . . it’s stupid.”

His mirror, Dave Kapralik, leans forward and as always, wraps it up.

“I don’t think Sly Stone has ever or will ever live anything vicariously,” he says. “He is a prime force, a prime mover himself and will never sit back reflectively and experience through print, theater or anything else. He is a penultimate pragmatist. He lives by his sheer own personal experience.”

Debbie punctuates it: “You’re a street person,” winking at Sly. He is nodding, happy again.

Sly Stone was born Sylvester Stewart. In the fifth grade, in Mr. Edwards’ class, a classmate went up to the blackboard to spell out Sylvester’s name. He wrote: “Slyvester Stewart.” His first record was “On the Battlefield for My Lord,” done years before he hit the fifth grade. He and his brothers and sisters were singing as the Stewart Four. Sly was five years old, and he already had good control of both drums and guitar.

By late 1967, when he gathered the Family Stone together for the first time, Sly had mastered more than a dozen instruments and the whole recording process.

In the studio, Sly is the obvious chieftain, the arranger and producer who directs the engineer and conducts the Family Stone. Total control. But he’s never more than an older brother to anyone. Over the control room PA, you can hear him, guiding, explaining: “See if you could put some more bottom on your bass, ’cause when you hit the fuzz without the bottom it’s like a guitar. . .. And Freddy, it sounds like your guitar’s got no middle — [Freddy strums] — See, it sounds too thin.” Talking, Sly drums on a binder nearby. “Greg, are your skins real tight on your snares? You need something heavy on it. Don’t let them go, Stephanie.” Sly’s spotted across the heavy plate glass his secretary pulling the reins on two of the Family Stone’s immense stable of pet dogs.

As far as Sly’s concerned, the dogs are part of the group’s happiness, so he lets a lot of him be dominated by the animals. In the dressing room at ABC, the only reading matter around is The Treasury of Dogs.

Over and over again, Sly runs the group through a track, the backing track they’ll use the next day on Music Scene. On breaks, the Family Stone jumps into conversations about either cars or dogs. Tonight, it’s dogs. At last count, there were about 28 dogs associated with Sly and the Family Stone, Sly accounting for five of them, Freddy and Larry with three each, Jerry, Rose and Cynthia a pair each, and Greg with one.

The Family; dogs; clothes, cars, and bikes. Sly surrounds himself with life, with the things and the people he loves. David Kapralik, his manager and partner in Stone Flower Productions, is one of them.

He looks like a character out of Batman; a bug-eyed gremlin with a track record 12 years long and wide enough to take in Andy Williams, Paul Revere & the Raiders, Peaches & Herb, and Simon & Garfunkel. He was responsible for signing them up for Columbia and Epic Records. Kapralik is also credited with discovering Barbra Streisand as well as Sly Stone. And he was Vice-President in charge of A&R at Epic Records, rounding out a 12-year career that included producing and publishing as well as talent-scouting.

Kapralik is behind, ahead of, and on top of almost anything that has to do with Sly & and Family Stone. As manager, he is on tour with the group and, more enthusiastic than the most devoted mother or flack, he is constantly, constantly talking about what makes Sly the “superterrific” cat he is. In one profile on Sly & the Family Stone that appeared last summer in a national teen magazine, the writer was trapped with the manager and ended up with a story dominated by Kapralik quotes.

But Kapralik is obviously perfect for Sly — a level-headed, knowledgeable businessman who encourages, then holds reins on his Don Quixote.

Stone Flower Productions will be their base of operations. For now, it’s a record label (distributed through Atlantic Records), a publishing firm for Sly’s compositions, a production company for Sly’s A&R ventures with his first groups. Sly is producing 61X (pronounced “six”), the group he was holding auditions for that night at Johnny On the Spot, built around a harmonica player Sly found in Cleveland years ago, a cat who Sly says inspired him and Freddy to take up the harp. Then there’s Little Sister, Sly’s sister’s group.

On the non-business side, with the Family Stone, there’s an African safari in Kenya quite possibly in the future, perhaps sometimes in summer. “We’ll do a lot of shooting,” Sly says. “With cameras.”

But most of the thinking is about the music and the business Sly worked so hard to build, through the liquor-drenched jungles of the Peninsula and the San Francisco Bay Area.

“We started Stone Flower two and a half years ago,” Kapralik says. “But I just recently flashed on what ‘stone flower’ means. A stone flower grows in a garden of truth. It’s something that will grow — richly, productively, because Sly is a fertile, creative individual. So I just don’t know what we’re gonna get into next.”

And, really, Sly can’t add much. “Tonight we’re going into a recording session. That’s right for now. The next night, something else. That’s as far as I can see right now; that’s as far as I need to see.

“But . . . as long as you see that you’re going to do something, then there’s nothing that can’t be done.”


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