Sly And The Family Stone

Sly Stone – circa 1971

 “You can’t take me for granted and smile / Because I promise I’ll be gone for a while” – ’If You Want Me To Stay’ (Sylvester Stewart)

Will he turn up?  That’s the question on the minds of the audience at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. on 15 February 1970.  Sly Stone, the leader of Sly And The Family Stone, is beginning to develop a reputation for failing to turn up for his own concerts.  Generally, he just seems…flaky.  At an earlier stage of his career, Sly was an endearing oddball, but not it seems he is testing the patience of his fans and supporters.  As it happens, the star of the show arrives five hours late on this evening.  The ‘disquieted’ audience inflicts one thousand dollars’ worth of damage on the venue and eighteen audience members are arrested.  How did things get to this point?

Sly Stone is born Sylvester Stewart on 15 March 1943 in Denton, Texas, U.S.A.  He is the second child of K.C. Stewart and his wife, Alpha Stewart.  Sylvester has an older sister, Loretta.  He is born into a ‘deeply religious middle-class household.’  His parents are parishioners at the Church of God in Christ.

Sylvester Stewart is still a small child when his parents leave Texas with their two kids.  The Stewart family relocates to Vallejo, California, ‘a factory town on the wrong side of San Francisco Bay.’  K.C. Stewart, Sly’s father, runs a janitorial business in Vallejo and is a Deacon in the local Pentecostal Church.

The Stewart family expands with three more children born to K.C. and Alpha Stewart in Vallejo.  The three younger children are: a daughter, Rose (born Rosemary Stewart, 21 March 1945), a son, Freddie (born Frederick Jerome Stewart, 5 June 1947), and another daughter, Vet (born Vaetta Stewart, 2 May 1950).

At grade school, young Sylvester Stewart gains the nickname ‘Sly’.  A friend misspells Sylvester as ‘Slyvester’ and this is jokingly cut down to ‘Sly’.   In any case, ‘Sly’ is a common nickname for people named Sylvester.

The four younger children in the Stewart family – Sly, Rose, Freddie and Vet – begin performing as The Stewart Four in various churches around the San Francisco Bay area.  Their elder sister, Loretta, provides piano accompaniment to the youngsters’ vocal harmonies.  (Loretta bows out of music after this; she is the only one of the five Stewart children not to go on to a career in music.)  Vet Stewart recalls, “We travelled around from church to church, all over California, performing concerts.  We thought we were just like any other family.  We had no idea.”  In 1952, when Sly is 8 years old, The Stewart Four records a 78 R.P.M. single, ‘On The Battlefield’ (a.k.a. ‘On The Battlefield For My Lord’) backed with ‘Walking In Jesus’ Name’.  “I just remember the [recording] studio,” claims Sly.  “I just enjoyed singing in the choir…I remember I wanted to become a preacher at the time.”  This single is the only recorded work by The Stewart Four and the act quietly fades out as the kids grow older.

Although all the Stewart children display some musical aptitude, it is Sly who is considered a ‘musical prodigy.’  He learns to play piano by the time he is 7 years old and can also play guitar, bass and drums by the time he is 11.  Despite his multi-instrumental ability, during his high school years Sly mostly plays guitar.

When he is 16 Sylvester Stewart forms a vocal group, The Webs.  Late in 1959, The Webs merge with another Vallejo High School vocal group, The Viscounts.  The latter outfit includes Frank Arellano and Charlene Imhoff.  The new act carries on the name of The Viscounts and its new line-up is Frank Arellano, Charlene Imhoff, Sly Stewart, Maria ‘Ria’ Boldway and the brothers Charles and Vern Gebhardt.  A rather more professional act called The Viscounts had a hit in 1958 with a song called ‘Harlem Nocturne’.  To avoid confusion with these Viscounts, the teenagers change the name of their act to The Viscaynes.  The name is inspired by the Biscayne, a model of Chevy motor vehicle.  The ‘B’ is changed to ‘V’ to emphasise their Vallejo roots.  The 1961 edition of The Viscaynes consists of Frank Arellano, Charlene Imhoff, Sly Stewart, Ria Boldway, Charlie Gebhardt and Mike Stevens.  In 1961 they record the single ‘Yellow Moon’ b/w ‘Uncle Sam’.  It becomes ‘a regional hit’ in November 1961.  Another single is recorded, ‘Stop What You Are Doing’ b/w ‘I Guess I’ll Be’, which is credited to The Viscaynes And The Ramblers.  A second pressing changes the credit to Sly Stewart & The Viscaynes.  The second single is less successful.  By then, the kids are out of school and the act breaks up.

The interesting thing about The Viscaynes is that, with the benefit of hindsight, it can be seen to prefigure Sly And The Family Stone in some ways.  Firstly, the act has both male and female members.  Secondly, they are multi-racial.  Although most of the members of The Viscaynes are white kids, Sly Stewart is African-American and Frank Arellano is Filipino.

‘At Vallejo Junior College, Sly Stone majors in music for three semesters, with an emphasis on theory and composition, and sings in the college choir.’

Sylvester Stewart ‘puts various bar bands together for weekend dates.’  These outfits include the ‘short-lived’ Stewart Bros. with his sibling, Freddie.

A three-month course at the Chris Borden School of Modern Broadcasting gives Sylvester Stewart enough technical know-how to score a job as a disc jockey at radio station KSOL in 1964.  Using the name Sly Stone, Stewart plays ‘super soul.’  At this time, ‘soul’ is virtually a code word for ‘music made by African-Americans.’  With good humour, Sly recalls that, “I played [Bob] Dylan, the Beatles and The [Rolling] Stones.”  That means he played music by white recording artists as well as black recording artists.  “’But you’re not allowed to play white people, not at this radio station’, that’s what they said,” Sly reports.  “I said, ‘Okay’, and then I played what I want to play anyway.”  ‘Employing request lines and such stunts as flushing toilet sounds after [laxative product] Ex-Lax commercials and live piano renditions of “Happy Birthday” for listeners, he builds a solid following.’  Sly claims, “I used to sing all the time anyway.  I brought a piano in there [to the radio station].  Y’know some commercials, I made ‘em up myself.”

While working as a disc jockey, Sylvester Stewart continues to play in bands.  Even with this extra-curricular activity, money is still a problem.  “I was making thirty-five dollars a week.  [When the opportunity arose to act as a record producer] I had to produce…or steal.”

Two former disc jockeys, Tom ‘Big Daddy’ Donohue and Bob Mitchell, form Autumn Records and hire Sylvester Stewart to produce recording sessions for them.  Under the name of Danny Stewart, Sly is his own first customer.  But after two singles – ‘I Just Learned To Swim’ and ‘Buttermilk, Parts 1 & 2’ – prove ‘undistinguished’, he is encouraged to produce sessions for some other acts.  Sly produces recordings for The Beau Brummels, The Mojo Men, Bobby Freeman and Great Society.  The most successful of these efforts may be ‘C’mon and Swim’, which is a hit (US no. 5) in 1965 for Bobby Freeman.  The most significant though is Great Society, a band that includes singer Grace Slick who goes on to join Jefferson Airplane.  Sly puts the group through two hundred takes of a song called ‘Free Advice’…which winds up on the B side of ‘Somebody To Love’ (the latter song is more famously recorded soon after by Jefferson Airplane).

Sylvester Stewart’s youngest sister, Vet Stewart, begins a recording career of her own in 1966.  More accurately, the vocal group she forms begins a recording career.  The Heavenly Tones is a vocal group consisting of four African-American teenage girls: Vet Stewart, Mary McCreary, Elva ‘Tiny’ Morton and Tramaine Hawkins.  The Heavenly Tones issue an album, ‘I Love The Lord’ (1966) on the Gospel label, and a single, ‘He’s Alright’ b/w ‘Precious Lord’, on the Music City label.

While Sylvester Stewart works as a producer for Autumn Records, his alter ego Sly Stone continues to work as a disc jockey but moves from KSOL to KDIA in Oakland, California.  By 1966 he is also playing gigs with his own group, The Stoners – though the act ‘doesn’t last long.’  One of the members of The Stoners is Cynthia Robinson (born 12 January 1946 in Sacramento, California).  She is an African-American trumpet player.  Cynthia claims to have been unaware that the Sylvester Stewart she knows in The Stoners is also the Sly Stone she listens to on the radio.

Sly Stone’s brother, Freddie Stewart, has his own band: Freddie And The Stone Souls.  Sly plays with this act sometimes.  Freddie’s band has a white drummer, Greg Errico (born 1 September 1948 in San Francisco, California).  Greg has a cousin, Jerry Martini (born 1 October 1943 in Denver, Colorado).  Jerry is responsible for the next stage in the history of Sly And The Family Stone.  “I said [to Sly], ‘You’re a great disc jockey, but imagine what a great band leader you could be’,” recalls Jerry Martini.  Sly Stone acknowledges this important moment.  “Jerry Martini is the guy who really started it.  This guy plays saxophone in the group now…So we started looking around for everybody other than my brother [Freddie Stewart] and my sister [Rose Stewart] ‘cos they were automatically in if I said so.”

Sly And The Family Stone is founded in 1967.  The group’s first – and best – line-up is: Sly Stone (vocals, organ, guitar, bass, piano, horn and more), Freddie Stone (guitar, vocals), Rose Stone (piano, vocals), Jerry Martini (saxophone), Cynthia Robinson (trumpet, vocal ad libs), Larry Graham (bass, vocals) and Greg Errico (drums).  This is basically a merger of The Stoners (Sly and Cynthia) and The Stone Souls (Freddie and Greg).  Freddie Stewart and Rose Stewart both use the stage name Stone to match their brother, Sly.  Although Sly usually played guitar in The Stoners, in Sly And The Family Stone he most often plays organ.  Sometimes Sly plays guitar instead, depending on the needs of the song.  Sometimes he just sings.  Sometimes his multi-instrumental capabilities are put to use as a kind of utility musician.  The ‘vocal ad libs’ with which Cynthia Robinson is credited are not really backing vocals.  They are more like a bark or shout.  She often sounds like the master of ceremonies or the ringmaster of a circus…though it is, of course, Sly Stone who really occupies that role.

Larry Graham, Jr. is born 14 August 1946 in Beaumont, Texas, but grows up in Oakland, California.  He is the cousin of Sly, Freddie and Rose.  Larry’s parents were both professional musicians.  Alternating between bass and organ, Larry accompanies his mother, a professional pianist, for four years in local clubs before he is recruited to Sly And The Family Stone.

Sly Stone’s youngest sister, Vet Stewart, is never officially a member of Sly And The Family Stone.  Her vocal group, The Heavenly Tones, undergoes a shake-up in 1967.  Tramaine Hawkins leaves the act and, sticking with gospel music, she becomes quite successful as a solo act.  The other three girls – Vet Stewart, Mary McCreary and Elva ‘Tiny’ Morton – take on the new group name of Little Sister.  From the start, they provide backing vocals for Sly And The Family Stone.

The music played by Sly And The Family Stone is described as psychedelic soul or funk.  Soul is a genre that is almost exclusively the province of African-American acts.  The difference between soul and rhythm and blues – the other dominant style for African-American musicians of the era – is that soul has a greater gospel influence, borrowing vocal stylings and song structures from the music played in excitable, highly passionate black churches.  Psychedelic music evokes the experience of mind-altering drugs, usually by employing whimsical lyrical images and eccentric instrumentation and arrangements.  Psychedelic soul – taking the two genres in combination – is a heady, ecstatic brew that appeals to black hipsters of the late 1960s.  Funk has elements of rhythm and blues and soul but is marked out by its rhythmic power.  Funk is dance music.  It is sharply staccato with each instrument considered a drum, keeping an emphasis on the beat rather than longer notes.

“When we started doing our own thing, it really was our own thing, and we threw all the other things out the window,” reports Freddie Stone.  Sly Stone points out that, “The people in the group were R & B [rhythm and blues] and pop.  There were not only black people in the group or guys in the group.  There were guys and girls and black and white so you get all that input.  You get all that sound…In my mind…I thought if everybody could be represented on one stage and having fun it would psych the audience into havin’ fun.  Y’know what I mean?”  The music of Sly And The Family Stone proves attractive to a white audience as well as black listeners.  Sly offers this theory on why this multi-racial audience exists for his act: “I think it has to do with songs that involve everybody and a message that involves everybody.  Everybody wants to be happy and the songs that we do are songs that, I feel, should make everybody happy and I think that’s basically it.”  The group is ‘fitted in costumes that skirt the outer limits of hippie psychedelia, thrift shop chic, and eye-popping one-of-a-kind patterns.’  Rose Stone usually sports a platinum wig.  Sly Stone is perhaps the biggest dandy of the bunch, resembling nothing so much as the pimp behind a stable of ladies-of-the-night.  Bassist Larry Graham sums up the image of the group in these words: “It was very deliberate: men and women, different races, dressing different!…We were allowed to use our creativity, to have freedom of expression in how we played.”

It is perhaps Larry Graham who makes the greatest use of that ‘freedom of expression.’  He is ‘credited with the invention of the slapping technique’, though he calls it ‘thumpin’ and pluckin’.’  Larry developed the slap bass technique ‘in an earlier band to compensate for that band’s lack of a drummer.’  Rock music bass players sometimes use a plectrum in the same fashion as guitarists; in other instances, the thick bass strings are twanged with the fingertips.  Larry Graham virtually uses his thumb as a plectrum, ‘slapping’ at the face of the instrument.  Traditionally, bass is the most subtle and ‘invisible’ instrument in a rock band.  Graham’s style pushes the bass to the fore, threatening to snap strings through the aggressive playing.  The resultant flat and fat sound becomes synonymous with funk because it heightens the lower end of the mix and improves the ‘danceability’ of the groove and melody.

Virtually all of the songs recorded by Sly And The Family Stone are written by Sly Stone.  He also acts as the producer of their recording sessions.  As lead singer and multi-instrumentalist, he shapes the sound of the band.  There is a reason why the band is called ‘Sly And The Family Stone’, rather than just ‘The Family Stone.’  Sly Stone (Sylvester Stewart) is the architect of the act’s music in all ways.

The first single by Sly And The Family Stone is 1967’s ‘I Ain’t Got Nobody’.  It is released on a local label, Loadstone, and is a ‘regional hit.’  David Kapralik becomes the band’s manager and is later aided by Bubba Banks.  The act moves to Epic Records, a major U.S. label, which issues almost all of the subsequent recordings by Sly And The Family Stone.

Sly And The Family Stone issue their debut album, ‘A Whole New Thing’ (1967), in October.  ‘Underdog’ is the chosen single from the album.  It is assertive and brassy, championing the battlers…but it is not a hit.  Also present on this album is the robust and muscular ‘I Cannot Make It’.  ‘A Whole New Thing’ is described as the ‘most conventionally soul-like album’ by the group and ‘a wake-up call’ but, commercially, ‘the record stiffs.’

Late in 1967, Sly And The Family Stone enjoy their first real hit single.  ‘Dance To The Music’ (US no. 8, UK no. 7) is a whirling and joyous thing.  It blends doo wop harmonies with a funky groove.  The vocal is passed around the group.  It begins with trumpeter Cynthia Robinson commanding, “Get up and dance to the music!”  After some doo wop harmonising, guitarist Freddie Stone calls, “Hey Greg!”  “What?” responds drummer Greg Errico.  Freddie continues, “All we need is a drummer / For people who only need a beat, yeah / I’m gonna add a little guitar / And make it easy to move your feet.”  Bassist Larry Graham chimes in with a deep voice, “I’m gonna add some bottom / So that dancers just won’t hide.”  Sly Stone completes the round with the words, “You might like to hear my organ / I said, ‘Ride, Sally, ride’,” referencing ‘Mustang Sally’, the 1966 soul song made famous by Wilson Pickett.  ‘Dance To The Music’ (1968) (US no. 142) becomes the title track of the second album by Sly And The Family Stone, released in April.  This disc also includes the call-and-response stylings of ‘Are You Ready?’  Another track, ‘Higher’, goes unrecognised at the time but will be revisited later.

The group’s third album, ‘Life’ (1968) (US no. 195), follows five months later in September.  This ‘wildly experimental’ effort features the fairground funk of ‘Fun’, in which Sly Stone advises, “When I party, I party hearty / Fun is on my mind.”  Almost cartoonish, ‘M’Lady’ (US no. 93, UK no. 32) has bassist Larry Graham rumbling, “A pretty face, a pretty face / Oh what a gorgeous mind.”  The title track, ‘Life’ (US no. 93, UK no. 37), is carnival candy corn whose lyrics urge, “Life, life / Tell it like it is / You don’t have to die before you live.”  Another notable track on this set, ‘Love City’, is offset by blaring horns.

On 11 September 1968 Sly And The Family Stone arrive in London for a tour of the United Kingdom.  However bassist Larry Graham is charged with possession of cannabis.  Consequently, a BBC television appearance is cancelled and a London hotel refuses to honour the reservations of the group.  A week later, Sly And The Family Stone return to the U.S.A. without having given any British performances.

‘Everyday People’ (US no. 1, UK no. 36) is the first of three U.S. no. 1 singles by Sly And The Family Stone.  It has the longest reign as a chart-topper of the trio, holding that position from 15 February to 8 March 1969.  “The butcher, the banker, the drummer and then / Makes no difference what group I’m in,” runs the lyric, glorifying individuality and ignoring categorisation.  Rose Stone sings the refrain, “Different strokes for different folks,” the simple yet clear plea for racial harmony embodied by the band’s own multi-coloured membership.  The appeal of ‘Everyday People’ is only enhanced by its high quality flipside, the supple and percussive ‘Sing A Simple Song’ (US no. 89, UK no. 36).  Trumpeter Cynthia Robinson urges in her distinctive roar, “Sing a simple song / Try a little do re mi fah so la ti do.”  Or, as Sly Stone’s lead vocal puts it, “A simple song might make it better for a little while.”

‘Everyday People’ and ‘Sing A Simple Song’ are both included on ‘Stand’ (1969) (US no. 13, AUS no. 9), released in May.  This is the best album by Sly And The Family Stone.  The next single consists of two more songs from this set: ‘Stand’ b/w ‘I Want To Take You Higher’.  ‘Stand’ (US no. 22) is a rhythm and blues infused request for affirmative action: “Stand! / You’ve been sitting much too long / There’s a permanent crease in your right and wrong / Stand!”  Some see this song as a ‘Black Power anthem.’  ‘I Want To Take You Higher’ (US no. 60) is a reworking of ‘Higher’ from the group’s second album.  Against a chanting and pulsing backdrop, the lead vocal is passed around the group in this fashion: “(Freddie) Feeling’s gettin’ stronger / (Larry) Music’s gettin’ longer too / (Rose) Music is flashin’ me / (Sly) I want to take you higher.”  The incendiary funk of ‘Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey’ is ‘an ironic, humorous commentary on race relations.’  ‘Somebody’s Watching You’ features some throaty organ playing by Sly Stone.  ‘You Can Make It If You Try’ is group therapy in a groovy way – or a ‘motivational soul-sermon.’  ‘Stand’ is the ‘break-through success’ for Sly And The Family Stone.  It is ‘party politics at its most inclusive and exciting.’  This album is the act’s best because it balances utopian optimism with clear-eyed realism and pop melodies with relentless funk.  It is the quintessential work in their catalogue.

The Woodstock Music and Art Fair is held over 15-17 August 1969 at Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, New York.  A star studded line-up of bands makes this the ultimate 1960s concert.  Sly And The Family Stone contribute an iconic performance.  ‘I Want To Take You Higher’ is ‘the high point’ and ‘seals their status as one of the most fashionable groups on the rock circuit.’  Sly Stone later muses, “The 1960s for me was Woodstock.  When I think about Woodstock, I think about hippies.”

Sly And The Family Stone release one more single in 1969, the deliciously lazy ‘Hot Fun In The Summertime’ (US no. 2).  Over a staccato piano figure, the lyrics nostalgically evoke, “Them summer days / Those summer days / That’s when I had most of my fun back.”

All seems sunny and triumphant for Sly And The Family Stone.  But darker clouds are on the horizon.  It is in 1969 that they become ‘heavy users of illegal drugs, primarily cocaine and P.C.P.’

Sly And The Family Stone enter 1970 with their second US no. 1 single.  ‘Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin)’ (US no. 1) b/w ‘Everybody Is A Star’ tops the chart from 14 February to 21 February 1970.  ‘Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin)’ is the best individual song by Sly And The Family Stone.  With Larry Graham’s popping bass, this is the ultimate funk song and remains virtually timeless.  The kooky phonetic spelling of the subtitle is just evidence of Sly Stone clowning about…but the lyrics, on closer examination, reveal an increasing level of darkness.  Sly chants, “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.”  This is ‘slinky, hip dance music’ and an ‘amazing funk meditation.’  Although Sly may have the upper hand over ‘the devil’ at this point, the omens are in the lyrics as to the temporary nature of such a triumph: “Thank you for the party / I could never stay / Many thangs is on my mind / Words get in the way.”  Almost as good is the flipside, ‘Everybody Is A Star’.  Replete with doo wop harmonies, this song finds Rose Stone cooing, “Everybody is a star / I can feel it when you shine on me.”  Her brother Sly supplies the gorgeous sentiment, “I love you for who you are / Not the one you feel you have to be.”

On 15 February 1970 Sly And The Family Stone are late for a gig in Washington, D.C., and their tardiness provokes mayhem.  This is a harbinger of things to come.  Over the course of 1970, twenty-six of the group’s eighty gigs are cancelled because Sly is ‘a frequent no-show.’  Trumpeter Cynthia Robinson loyally defends the band’s leader, saying the late starts are often due to Sly waiting for other parties to get their act together.  Sly himself sees an underlying conspiracy to delay the band so late insurance fees can be collected.  Could this be true?  Or is it just paranoia?

The only other single from Sly And The Family Stone in 1970 is a rerelease of a 1969 single with the A and B sides reversed.  To honour its prominence at Woodstock in the previous year, ‘I Want To Take You Higher’ (US no. 38) is now backed with ‘Stand’.

Part of Sly Stone’s time in 1970 is occupied with Little Sister.  He produces two singles for the trio of backing vocalists for Sly And The Family Stone.  Little Sister (Vet Stone, Mary McCreary and Elva ‘Tiny’ Morton) issue their recordings on Sly’s own imprint, Stone Flower, through Atlantic Records.  The 1970 singles by Little Sister are ‘You’re The One (Pt. 1)’ (US no. 22) b/w ‘You’re The One (Pt. 2)’ and their version of ‘Somebody’s Watching You’ (US no. 32) b/w ‘Stanga’.  ‘Somebody’s Watching You’ is notable for being the ‘first major record to have a rhythm track created with a drum machine’, an automated percussion program.  Little Sister release one more single, ‘Stanga’, in 1972, which was already the B side of ‘Somebody’s Watching You’.  In 1972 Mary McCreary is replaced by Lucy Hambrick, but the act is all but finished by that time anyway.

In the absence of any new product, Epic issues Sly And The Family Stone’s ‘Greatest Hits’ (1970) (US no. 2) in November.  The album is revered by many not only for packaging the group’s best bits, but for many years it is the only album to include Sly And The Family Stone classics like ‘Hot Fun In The Summertime’, ‘Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin)’ and ‘Everybody Is A Star’, songs that were previously available only on singles.

The ‘bad craziness’ really begins when Sly Stone leaves the San Francisco Bay area to make his place of residence in southern California.  In 1971 he buys a mansion in Bel Air that was once the home of wholesome film star Jeanette McDonald.  More recently, it has been home to John Phillips of folk rock act The Mamas And The Papas.  The neighbours are initially pleased to be rid of Phillips and his hippie hangers-on and feel more hopeful about the respectable sounding Sylvester Stewart moving in.  They quickly change their minds when Sly’s home becomes notorious for drugs, guns and guard dogs.  “The vibes were very dark at that point,” says saxophone player Jerry Martini with some understatement.

Sly Stone’s concert attendance record in 1971 remains questionable.  He misses twelve of his forty shows.

Sly And The Family Stone resurface with ‘There’s A Riot Goin’ On’ (1971) (US no. 1, UK no. 31) in November.  This is a ‘dark, hazy and paranoid’ set.  It turns out ‘brilliantly, if darkly [and is] nothing like the chirpy albums that preceded it.’  The disc’s best known song is the third and final US no. 1 single for Sly And The Family Stone.  ‘Family Affair’ (US no. 1, UK no. 15) makes it to the top from 4 December to 18 December 1971.  This is a cantering funk song that avers, “Blood is thicker than mud.”  Sly Stone’s vocal is a sleepy drawl as he observes, “Newlywed a year ago / But you’re still checking each other out / Yeahh, hey.”  As with ‘Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin)’, there is a darker underside to the lyrics in ‘Family Affair’.  For example, consider these words: “You can’t cry, ‘coz you’ll look broke down / But you’re cryin’ anyway, ‘coz you’re all broke down.”  ‘Family Affair’ is described as ‘pure bile’ – but that seems a bit excessive.  It is more accessible than many other tracks on this album.  Haight-Ashbury is the street corner epicentre of the 1960s hippie culture, but Sly’s ‘Luv N’ Haight’ is a hazy freeform sketch framed by wah-wah guitar in which he numbly says, “Feel so good inside myself / Don’t want to move.”  ‘Poet’ is slow-motion funk (“I’m a songwriter, a poet”).  ‘Brave & Strong’ is a brassy motivational piece.  ‘Just Like A Baby’ is a swaying, soulful tune.  Aside from ‘Family Affair’, the album boasts two other hits.  One of these is ‘(You Caught Me) Smilin’’ (US no. 42), which sounds happy but is haunted by hungover horns.  Sly says he is, “Hangin’ loose / ‘Cause you ain’t used to seein’ me turnin’ on.”  ‘Runnin’ Away’ (US no. 23, UK no. 17) is a contradiction.  It is smooth, but has a choppy funk guitar and is threaded through with horns.  Sly Stone deploys a helium high vocal, squealing, “Ha ha, ha ha / You’re wearing out your shoes / Look at you, fooling you.”  The album closes with a slowed-down reimagining of ‘Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin)’, now titled ‘Thank You For Talkin’ To Me, Africa’.  It sounds bruised and sapped of energy.  The Family Stone are less involved in the recording sessions for this disc.  Sly Stone makes use of a drum machine and overdubbing to realise his more personal vision.  For some, ‘There’s A Riot Goin’ On’ is Sly And The Family Stone’s masterwork, but it is undeniably ‘spare and bleak [if] fiercely compelling in its anguish over the unfulfilled promises of civil rights and the hippie counterculture.’

The cracks are beginning to show in The Family Stone.  In 1971, drummer Greg Errico is the first to quit.  Errico plays on some tracks on ‘There’s A Riot Goin’ On’; some tracks use a drum machine; and some tracks feature Errico’s temporary replacement, Gerry Gibson (1971-1972).

Bassist Larry Graham leaves Sly And The Family Stone in 1972.  Max Kerr fills in for a while in 1972 before Rustee Allen (born 13 March 1953 in Monroe, Louisiana) signs on as bassist in 1972.  A seventh member, Pat Rizzo (saxophone), joins in 1972.  Completing the overhaul is new drummer Andy Newmark (born 14 July 1950 in Port Chester, New York), who joins the group in 1973.  A veteran session musician, Newmark is white (like Greg Errico) and so also maintains the band’s racial balance.

During 1972-1973 Sly Stone has regular run-ins with the police.  In July 1972 he is arrested for possession of two vials of narcotics and two pounds of marijuana – but the charges are dropped when a judge decides there is insufficient evidence to prosecute.  Next, while sitting in a car in a friend’s driveway, he is busted for disturbing the peace.  After leaving a sickle cell anaemia telethon in Los Angeles, Sly is stopped and searched by police.  Before a concert at Madison Square Garden in New York, he is accused of threatening an old lady with a cap pistol.  In December 1972 police attend the singer’s Bel Air mansion after reports of a robbery and a dead body on the premises.  They find no such things, but handcuff Sly Stone and lead him away – for having no proof of identification.  Towards the end of winter, in early 1973 Sly’s L. A. home is raided again and he is charged with possession of cocaine, cannabis and dangerous drugs – and offering the latter for sale.  Sly gets probation for a year.  Questioned about his chances of jail time, Sly responds, “No more chance of going to jail than you think.  I don’t have those kinds of things to take care of.  I write songs.”

Sly Stone’s concerts remain uncertain propositions.  Early in 1973 he cancels a series of shows on the east coast of the U.S. after just two performances.  In his defence, the singer says, “Sometimes you don’t feel your soul at 7.30.  But we’ve been recording, rescheduling, regrouping and recoping on everything we like to do, what we have to do, and things we wish we could do.”

‘Fresh’ (1973) (US no. 7) is released in June.  This album is the first to feature new Family Stone members Rustee Allen, Pat Rizzo and Andy Newmark.  ‘Fresh’ is a ‘relatively lighter’ album than its predecessor; but given how dark was ‘There’s A Riot Goin’ On’, that’s not very surprising.  The best song on ‘Fresh’ is ‘If You Want Me To Stay’ (US no. 12).  Percolating and playful, the funky tune is built around a rubbery bass figure.  “If you want me to stay, I’ll be around today,” offers Sly Stone.  But he warns, “But I am about to go / And then you’ll know / For me to stay here / I got to be me.”  The song is lauded for its ‘sad-sack irony.’  Other songs on the album include the fishbone guitar of ‘In Time’; the sexed-up rhythm and blues of ‘Frisky’ (US no. 79); the skittering self-determination of ‘Skin I’m In’; the goosed-along pop of ‘If It Were Up To Me’ and the sad social commentary of ‘Babies Makin’ Babies’.  Also present is an unlikely cover version of Doris Day’s 1956 song ‘Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)’.

During 1973 Sly Stone begins keeping company with Kathy Silva, a white model and actress.  She not only becomes his girlfriend, Kathy Silva is the mother of his first child, Sylvester Jr. (born late 1973).  On 4 June 1974 Sly and Kathy marry onstage at Madison Square Garden before twenty-one thousand ‘guests’.  It is claimed that the event was dreamed up by Sly, Kathy and the singer’s manager to bolster ticket sales for a concert that wasn’t selling very well.

The cover image for ‘Small Talk’ (1974) (US no. 15), issued in July, is a picture of Sly Stone and new wife Kathy Silva with their son, Sylvester Jr.  The Family Stone has a couple of new members for this album.  Bill Lordan (born 22 May 1947) replaces Andy Newmark on drums and an extra member is added, Sid Page (violin).  This disc is home to ‘Time For Livin’’ (US no. 32), a funk stomp-along with Sid Page’s violin prominently featured.  The berserk ‘Loose Booty’ (US no. 84) has what initially sounds like nonsense doo wop syllables in the introduction, but what is actually being chanted is “Shadrach, Meshack, Abednego.”  According to the Book of Daniel in the Bible, these were three young men from Jerusalem who were condemned to death in a fiery furnace by Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, when they wouldn’t bow to his rule.  The trio were saved from the flames by an angel.

On 30 October 1974 Kathy Silva files for divorce from Sly Stone.  After Sly’s dog mauls their son, Sylvester Jr., in 1976, Kathy is awarded custody of the child.

In 1974 the newest members of The Family Stone, Bill Lordan and Sid Page, both exit the band.  They are replaced by, respectively, Jim Strassburg (drums) and Vicki Blackwell (violin).

Sly And The Family Stone continue to miss shows.  In December 1974 the group fails to appear at a charity concert for muscular dystrophy in Washington, D.C.  The mood gets ugly until the crowd is let in free.  Sly Stone defends his absence by saying he was insulted that he was paid for what was supposed to be a benefit show.  After that, he ‘would have nothing to do with the money or the event.’  On 16 January 1975 Sly And The Family Stone begin an eight-show, six night residency at New York’s Radio City Music Hall.  Average attendance is two thousand per show – but the hall has six thousand seats.  The reason it is a ‘bomb at the box-office’ is attributed to ‘years of missed performances and sliding creativity.’

‘High Energy’ (1975) is just a repackaging of ‘A Whole New Thing’ and ‘Life’ as a double album.

‘High On You’ (1975) (US no. 45) is released in November.  Again, there are a couple of line-up changes in The Family Stone.  Jim Strassburg and Pat Rizzo are gone and Adam Veaner (drums) and Dennis Marcellino (born 17 January 1948 in San Francisco, California) (saxophone) are the newcomers.  The title track, ‘High On You’ (US no. 52), has Sly Stone smirking, “When push comes to shoving / I’d rather make some lovin’.”  The chorus is cried out over a thundering bass line.

For all intents and purposes The Family Stone disbands in 1975.  Some of the members work with Sly Stone again, but the group as a unit is history.  Sly’s albums continue to be credited to Sly And The Family Stone, but the music is provided by Sly’s multi-instrumental abilities or hired session musicians.

Sly Stone’s second child is born in 1976.  Sylvette (a.k.a. Phunne) is the daughter of Sly Stone and Cynthia Robinson, the long-time trumpet player of The Family Stone.  The little girl retains her mother’s surname.

‘Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I’m Back’ (1976) comes out in December – but fails to make the charts.  It is best known for the song ‘Blessing In Disguise’.  Epic Records closes out Sly Stone’s contract with ‘Ten Years Too Soon’ (1979), a collection of old material that was previously unreleased.  Somewhat questionably, ‘the original funky rhythm tracks are replaced with disco beats.’

Sly And The Family Stone move to Warner Bros. for ‘Back On The Right Track’ (1979) (US no. 152) in November.  Mark Davis produces this disc.  ‘Remember Who You Are’ (US no. 104), an ode to individuality, comes from this set.

In August 1981 Sly Stone is arrested on charges of cocaine possession.  Another cocaine possession charge follows in July 1982 – along with a charge for possessing ‘a small handgun.’  This debacle occurs after police intervene in a brawl at a hotel in the Los Angeles suburb of Westwood.  Sly vainly tried to avoid trouble by identifying himself as his brother Freddie.

‘Ain’t But The One Way’ (1982) is another Sly And The Family Stone album that fails to make the charts.  Stewart Levine co-produces this disc with Sly Stone.  The album is ‘critically panned and a commercial failure.’  Warner Bros. gives up on the act subsequently.

Sly Stone’s third child, his daughter Novena (Novi) Carmel (born 1982) is the child of his ‘new wife’, Olinka.

In 1983 Sly Stone is arrested three times.  In February, in Paxton, Illinois, the van in which he is travelling is pulled over because its registration has expired.  A search of the vehicle reveals a sawed-off shotgun and a quantity of ‘white powder.’  In June, in Fort Myers, Florida, Sly is charged with cocaine possession.  In August, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Sly is charged with grand theft.  In an almost comical series of events, Maryanne Magness, part-owner of the hotel where the singer has recently stayed, claims he made off with her five thousand dollar gold ring.  Stone counters that he had tried the jewellery on and then, when Magness became ‘distracted’, he ‘forgot’ the ‘huge’ ring was still on his finger.  He gave it to his baby, Novi, to play with.  Sly is released on bail of ten thousand dollars in September – but only after being scolded by the judge for dozing through his own hearing.

In 1984 Sly Stone does a six-month rehabilitation program at the Lee Mental Clinic in Fort Myers, Florida.

Sly Stone is ‘arrested and imprisoned for cocaine possession by the end of 1987.’

‘I’m Back! Family And Friends’ (2011) is released on the Cleopatra label. This is an album of remixes and rerecordings of old hits by Sly And The Family Stone.  It contains three new songs: ‘Plain Jane’, ‘His Eye Is On The Sparrow’ and ‘Get Away’.

What happens to the rest of The Family Stone?

  • Freddie Stone (guitar) has a short recording contract with Motown Records after the mid-1970s. He fathers six children: Casey, Stacey, Freddie Jr., Simon, Joy and Krist.  In 1994 he becomes Pastor Frederick Stone at the Evangelist Temple Fellowship Center in Vallejo, California.  He records a contemporary gospel music album, ‘Everywhere You Are’ (2000), later reissued as ‘Right Now’.
  • Rose Stone (keyboards) marries Sly Stone’s former manager and co-producer Bubba Banks in 1975. She records an album for Motown, ‘Rose’ (1976), which is credited to Rose Banks.  She becomes part of the musical department at her brother Freddie’s church.  Rose Stone issues another album, ‘Already Motivated’ (2008).  She has a daughter named Lisa.
  • Vet Stone (backing vocals) takes on the unenviable task of trying to wrangle Sly Stone into shape after the departure of Jerry Goldstein (Sly’s manager from 1993 to 2006) and the deaths of K.C. and Alpha Stewart, the parents of the five Stewart children. She forms an act called Phunk Phamily Affair with Cynthia Robinson and Lisa Stone (Rose’s daughter).  This transforms into Family Stone.  Sly Stone attempts to produce some recordings for the act.
  • Cynthia Robinson (trumpet) is the only member of the classic Sly And The Family Stone line-up to regularly keep working with Sly Stone. She is the mother of two daughters: Laura Marie and (Sly’s child) Sylvette Phunne.  Cynthia also works with Graham Central Station circa 1974.  She works with familystoneexperience (2004-2005).  In 2006 Cynthia Robinson participates in a Family Stone reunion.
  • Greg Errico (drums) is part of familystoneexperience (2004-2005) and the 2006 Family Stone reunion.
  • Jerry Martini (saxophone) plays saxophone on ‘High On You’ (1975) by Sly And The Family Stone and ‘Now Do U Wanta Dance’ (1977) by Graham Central Station. Jerry Martini forms a band called Rubicon (1978-1979) with Max Haskett (lead vocals, horns), Brad Gillis (guitar), Jim Pugh (keyboards), Dennis Marcellino (saxophone) [another former member of Sly And The Family Stone], Jack Blades (bass) and Greg Eckler (vocals, drums).  Rubicon release two albums: ‘Rubicon’ (1978) and ‘American Dreams’ (1979).  The first album includes the single ‘I’m Gonna Take Care Of Everything’ (US no. 28).  [After Rubicon, two of that band’s members – Brad Gillis and Jack Blades – form Night Ranger (1982-1989, 1991-present), a ‘hard rock’ band that has a hit with the ‘power ballad’, ‘Sister Christian’ (US no. 5), in 1984.]  Rubicon reforms in the early 1990s as a ‘prog rock band.’  In this version, Jerry Martini is joined by: Greg Eckler (vocals, drums), David Christians (vocals, lead guitar), Randy Newhouse (acoustic guitar), Chuck Crenshaw (keyboards) and J.P. Michaels (vocals, bass).  This edition of the band issues the album ‘Best Of Rubicon’ and the single ‘Whipping Boy’.  Jerry Martini plays in familystoneexperience (2004-2005) with Cynthia Robinson, Greg Errico, Gail Muldrow and others.  After a stint with Prince’s touring band, Martini reunites with The Family Stone in 2006.
  • Larry Graham (bass) is perhaps the most successful former member of the classic Family Stone line-up. He forms Graham Central Station, ‘an exuberant mid-1970s funk group.’  The band’s name is a pun on Grand Central Station, New York’s railway hub.  When he leaves The Family Stone, Larry Graham begins to produce a U.S. group called Hot Chocolate (no relation to the more famous British act Hot Chocolate formed in 1970).  The U.S. Hot Chocolate consists of: Patrice ‘Chocolate’ Banks (vocals), David Vega (guitar), Hershall Kennedy (vocals, keyboards) and Willie Sparks (drums).  Kennedy and Sparks had worked with Little Sister, Vet Stone’s vocal group.  Instead of producing the act, bassist Larry Graham joins them and, with the addition of Robert ‘Butch’ Sam (keyboards), they become Graham Central Station.  Over the years the line-up changes a number of times, chalking up a total of twenty-six members.  The most notable later members may be Gail Muldrow and Gaylord Birch who replace Banks and Sparks from the group’s fifth album.  Family Stone veterans Freddie Stone, Rose Stone, Cynthia Robinson, Jerry Martini and Dennis Marcellino all do stints with Graham Central Station.  The group releases the albums ‘Graham Central Station’ (1974), ‘Release Yourself’ (1974), ‘Ain’t No Bout-A-Doubt It’ (1975), ‘Mirror’ (1976), ‘Now Do U Wanta Dance’ (1977) and ‘My Radio Sure Sounds Good To Me’ (1978) before disbanding in 1979.  Larry Graham has a son, Darric.  In 1975 Larry Graham converts to the Jehovah’s Witness religion.  He later brings pop-funk star Prince into the Jehovah’s Witness fold.  As a solo act, Larry Graham releases the albums ‘Star Walk’ (1979), ‘One In A Million You’ (1980), ‘Just Be My Lady’ (1981), ‘Sooner Or Later’ (1982), ‘Victory’ (1982) and ‘Fired Up’ (1985).  Graham also has a hit in 1980 with the ballad ‘One In A Million You’ (US no. 9).  Other, less successful, singles by Larry Graham include ‘When We Get Married’ (US no. 76) in 1980, ‘Just Be My Lady’ (US no. 67) in 1981 and ‘Don’t Stop When You’re Hot’ (US no. 102) b/w ‘Sooner Or Later’ (US no. 110) in 1982.  Two concert recordings by Graham Central Station, ‘Live In Japan’ (1992) and ‘Live In London’ (1996), and the compilation set ‘The Best Of Larry Graham And Graham Central Station’ (1996), lead to the group reconvening for ‘Back By Popular Demand’ (1998).  The reunion is over by year’s end.  ‘Can You Handle This?’ (2003) is a live album from a 1975 concert.  Graham Central Station try another reunion for ‘Raise Up’ (2012).

Sly Stone was notorious for missing shows and ‘slowly succumbing to his addictions, which gradually sapped him of his once prodigious talents.’  Yet these negative aspects should not be why Sly And The Family Stone are remembered.  “I like to do positive things.  I don’t like to bring anybody down,” Sly once claimed.  It is these positive things that should be recalled.  Sly And The Family Stone was a glorious melting pot of men and women, blacks and whites.  The results could have simply been messy but thanks to Sly’s orchestration and vision, it was inspiring.  The lure of a functioning unit of equality and tolerance was intoxicating.  And it didn’t hurt that the positivity spread to their lyrics and their funky-as-can-be pop-dance grooves.  That’s the great achievement of Sly And The Family Stone and the reason why they remain revered.  Sly And The Family Stone ‘harnessed all the disparate musical and social trends of the late 1960s, creating a wild, brilliant fusion of soul, rock, rhythm and blues, psychedelia and funk that broke boundaries down without a second thought.’  Sly Stone was ‘a musical visionary of the highest order.’

Sources:

  1. azlyrics.com as at 11 August 2015
  2. ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 148, 155, 156, 161, 169, 192, 193, 233, 238, 327
  3. ‘Rock Stars’ by Timothy White (Columbus Books, 1984) p. 162, 164, 166, 167
  4. wikipedia.org as at 9 August 2015
  5. ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘Sly And The Family Stone’ by Dave Marsh (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p. 437, 438, 439
  6. ‘Vanity Fair’ (U.S. magazine) ‘Sly Stone’s Higher Power’ by David Kamp (August 2007) (reproduced on vanityfair.com)
  7. freddiestonecisum.com as at 9 August 2015 – ‘Bio’ – no author credited
  8. slystonemusic.com as at 10 August 2015 – ‘Biography’ – no author credited
  9. ‘Sly Stone: Portrait of a Legend’ – Documentary (Part 1 of 2) from the U.S. television program ‘Portrait of a Legend’ (early 1980s), host – James Darren, interviewer – Maria Shriver
  10. whitedoowopcollector.blogspot.com.au (18 April 2008) – no author credited
  11. youtube.com as at 9 August 2015
  12. ‘Sly & The Family Stone – Sly Stone from Radio DJ to Band Leader’ – Video documentary (19 September 2013?)
  13. Sly Stone interview conducted by Cherry Yanahiro (?) of WKPN (?) television (1976)
  14. Internet movie database – imdb.com – as at 12 August 2015
  15. allmusic.com, ‘Sly And The Family Stone’ by Stephen Thomas Erlewine as at 9 August 2015
  16. The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 94, 111, 212
  17. Video interview with Sly Stone conducted by Cori Jacobs (11 April 2012)
  18. ‘The Essential Sly & The Family Stone’ – Sleeve notes by Tom Sinclair (Sony Music Entertainment Inc., 2002) p. 4, 10, 11
  19. ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 48, 50
  20. ‘The New York Times’ (U.S. newspaper) via (3) above p. 166
  21. allmusic.com, ‘Graham Central Station’ by Ron Wynn as at 9 August 2015

Song lyrics copyright Warner/Chappell Music except ‘Everyday People’ (Penjane Music (Australia) Pty Ltd), ‘Sing A Simple Song’ and ‘Loose Booty’ (both Control).

Last revised 19 February 2017

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3 thoughts on “Sly And The Family Stone

  1. True the album is titled Fresh, but there is no track with that title on the album. Perhaps the author is referring to Thankful ‘N Thoughtful.

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    1. You are absolutely right. What the line should have said is ‘the sexed-up rhythm and blues of ‘Frisky’ (US no. 79)’. I have made the necessary correction. Thanks for pointing out the error – and doing so in a polite and respectful manner.

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      1. No man! I’m not a hater or a troller. I respect the research you did and the fact that you cite your sources. I thought as soon as I posted, that you probably meant Frisky, not Thankful ‘N Thoughtful, since Fresh and Frisky both begin with F.

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