More than four decades after they first stormed the Pop and R&B charts in the winter of 1968 with “Dance To the Music” – a groundbreaking jam that has the distinction of being chosen for the Grammy Hall Of Fame, the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame’s "500 Songs That Shaped Rock," and Rolling Stone magazine’s "500 Greatest Songs Of All Time" – the music of Sly and the Family Stone is more vital than ever.
The band's catalog (every single composition penned by Sylvester Stewart aka Sly Stone) includes their three career-defining RIAA gold Billboard #1 Pop/ #1 R&B smashes, “Everyday People,” “Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Again)” and “Family Affair,” and their signature Top 40 hits that began with “Dance To the Music” and went on to include “Stand!,” “Hot Fun In the Summertime,” “Runnin’ Away,” “If You Want Me To Stay,” “Time For Livin’," and more.
Those songs not only inspired an era of youthful rebellion and independence, but also had a potent effect on the course of modern music in general. A dazzling fusion of psychedelic rock, soul, gospel, jazz, and Latin flavors, Sly’s music brought the next step – funk – to a disparate populace of hip artists. From Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, to the halls of Motown and George Clinton’s P-Funk, from Michael Jackson and Curtis Mayfield, down the line to Bob Marley, the Isley Brothers, Prince, Public Enemy, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Arrested Development, the Black Eyed Peas, the Roots, OutKast and on and on, Sly’s DNA is traceable to every cell of the musical stratosphere.
It is never enough to reiterate that they were the first hitmaking interracial, mixed-gender band. “Sly and the Family Stone’s music was immensely liberating,” wrote Harry Weinger on the occasion of the group's Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction in 1993. “A tight, riotous funk, it was precisely A Whole New Thing. And they were a beautiful sight: rock’s first integrated band, black, white, women, men. Hair, skin. Fringe and sweat. Extraordinary vibes for extraordinary times.” If 1968 was indeed the year that changed the world, then Sly and the Family Stone provided the soundtrack for that change. They would continue to lay out a sound that is truly eternal.
Sylvester Stewart was born the second of five children (Loretta, Sylvester, Freddie, Rose, and Vaetta, known as Vet) in Denton, Texas, on March 15, 1944. His devout African-American family was affiliated with the Church Of God In Christ (COGC) and took their beliefs with them when they moved to Vallejo, California, a northwest suburb of San Francisco. Reared on church music, Sylvester was eight years old when he and three of his siblings (sans Loretta) recorded a 78 rpm gospel single for local release as the Stewart Four.
A musical prodigy, he became known as Sly in early grade school, the result of a friend misspelling ‘Sylvester.’ He was adept at keyboards, guitar, bass, and drums by age eleven, and went on to perform in several high school bands. One of these groups, the Viscaynes, boasted an integrated lineup, a fact that did not go unnoticed in the late 1950s. The group cut a few singles, and Sly also released a few singles as well during that period, working with his younger brother Freddie.
Into the early ’60s, Sly’s musical education continued at Vallejo Junior College, where he added trumpet to his mixed bag, and mastered composition and theory as well. Around 1964, he started as a fast-talking disc jockey at R&B radio station KSOL. His eclectic musical tastes made Sly hugely popular, as he became an early proponent of including R&B-flavored white artists (especially British Invasion bands like the Beatles, the Animals, and the Rolling Stones) into the station’s soul music format. Sly later brought his show to KDIA, where he deejayed right up through the start of Sly and the Family Stone in 1967.
But as early as 1964, the result of a hookup with legendary disc jockey Tom Donahue, Sly had also been tapped as a producer for the San Francisco-based label, Autumn Records. The small label was known for its successes with first generation Bay Area rock bands the Beau Brummels, the Charlatans, the Great Society, and the Mojo Men, all of whom benefited from Sly’s unerring ear. Sly was paired with black singer Bobby Freeman, who had previously recorded one of the Pop/R&B crossover anthems of an era, 1958’s “Do You Want To Dance” (Josie Records). In 1964, Sly produced Freeman’s bona fide #5 Pop hit, “C’mon And Swim” (Autumn), which ironically never appeared on the R&B charts at all.
The stage was set for a quantum leap in 1966. Sly was leading a band called Sly And the Stoners, featuring African-American trumpeter Cynthia Robinson. Freddie was also leading a band, Freddie And the Stone Souls, featuring white drummer Gregg Errico. It was white saxophonist Jerry Martini who urged Sly and Freddie to combine the best of both bands, leading to the birth of Sly and the Family Stone in March 1967. Freddie took over on guitar as Sly quickly mastered the organ. Their sister Rose joined on keyboards and vocals, and bassist/vocalist Larry Graham completed the lineup.
Every band’s story includes their “discovery gig,” and for Sly and the Family Stone it was at a club called Winchester Cathedral in Redwood City, where they frequently played until dawn. They mixed cover tunes with original material, until the originals took over altogether. “When we started doing our own thing,” Freddie told rock writer Bud Scoppa, “it really was our own thing, and we threw all those other things out of the window.” A local CBS Records promotion man caught their act and alerted A&R executive David Kapralik in New York. He flew to the West Coast and wasted no time signing the band to Epic Records and becoming their manager.
Sly and the Family Stone upset the Las Vegas status quo when they were booked into a three-month, six-nights-a-week gig at the Pussycat a' Go Go, an engagement that was attended by everyone from James Brown to Bobby Darin. On their night off every Monday, they flew to Los Angeles for their debut album recording sessions at CBS Studios, stretching from June until August 1967. Adding heft were the gospel-soaked backing vocals of sister Vet’s trio, Little Sister (aka the Heavenly Tones).
The resulting album, A Whole New Thing, released at the very end of the year, was a wake-up call that resounded as forcefully as Freak Out, the iconoclastic debut of Frank Zappa and the Mothers Of Invention (which many a rock critic referenced in attempting to analyze Sly). Scoppa cites A Whole New Thing’s “hot-potato trading off of lead vocals, the staccato horn riffs, the archetypal popping attack of Larry Graham’s bass lines, the celebratory lyrics, which espoused community and diversity, the acid-rock flourishes and the racing rhythms.”
On top of their sonic explosion, the band’s onstage appearance was a visual feast, fitted in costumes that skirted the outer limits of hippie psychedelia, thrift-shop chic, and eye-popping one-of-a-kind patterns. Sly himself was attired “like the wildest pimp on the block,” as Barney Hoskyns wrote decades later. If Sly’s funky music rendered Motown’s mannered orchestrations passé virtually overnight, then those mind-blowing outfits sent many a Motor City tuxedo and nightgown into mothballs.
Like Freak Out, however, A Whole New Thing pushed too many boundaries. It was too hip for the room, nor could radio (AM and FM) find a place for Sly’s debut single, the LP’s opening track, “Underdog.” Despite testimonials from the likes of Miles Davis, Tony Bennett and Mose Allison, and liner notes written by KDIA supporter John Hardy, A Whole New Thing did not hit the album charts. That all changed just a few weeks later.
Advised to simplify his approach, Sly gave his instincts free rein. Without sacrificing any of the momentum they had achieved with A Whole New Thing, Epic Records rush released the new single, “Dance To The Music.” The sure-fire hit signaled a new LP, whose tracks (including the single) had mostly been recorded back in September 1967, with a couple dating back to May. So the advent of a catchy, hook-laden single, which vaulted inside the Top 10 on both the Pop and R&B sides, had the effect of sending people back to the music that was waiting under their noses all along. The new LP, titled after its hit Dance To The Music, rose to #11 on the R&B chart but only reached #142 on the Pop chart.
But the music of Sly and the Family Stone did not flourish in a vacuum. America was a country that was struggling with its racial identity and like every great artist who was struggling with his craft in the ’60s, Sly was no exception. The spring and summer of 1968 brought great cataclysms and change as the war in Southeast Asia waged on, and the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy reverberated around the globe. Sly was playing year-round to packed audiences in bigger and bigger venues worldwide, and his third album, Life (with its title tune single), released in November 1968, was simply lost in the tidal wave of events. In retrospect, it was getting dark outside, and the fate of Life was the calm before the storm.
Almost as soon as Life had come and gone, in those closing weeks of 1968 and first weeks of 1969, a brand-new song was making waves for Sly and the Family Stone. “Everyday People” was somehow a plea for unity and pride of diversity at the same time, “different strokes for different folks/ And so on and so on and scooby dooby doo-bee/ Oh sha sha – we got to live together.” The song catalyzed and challenged everyone’s feelings about Sly, whose struggles with his success were starting to come into sharper public focus. “Everyday People” finally gave Sly and the Family Stone the RIAA gold Billboard #1 Pop/ #1 R&B hit they were destined for all along.
The Stand! album arrived in April 1969, containing “Everyday People” and its B-side, “Sing A Simple Song.” The follow-up single, “Stand,” while not quite the chart burner as its predecessor (#14 R&B/ #22 Pop), was nevertheless revolutionary in its call to arms: “Stand!/ You’ve been sitting much too long/ There’s a permanent crease in your right and wrong/ Stand!” The single’s B-side took on a life of its own, “I Want To Take You Higher,” a timely re-working of “Higher” from the first LP.
Three hit singles deep (along with several iconic songs, among them “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey” and “Sex Machine”) there was no chart dysfunction this time around. The Stand! album peaked at #3 R&B and #13 Pop, certified on December 1st as Sly’s first RIAA platinum million-seller, on its way to spending a solid two years on the Billboard chart. In the interim, Sly and the Family Stone’s early Sunday morning performance at the Woodstock Music & Arts Fair in August was considered one of the true high points of the festival, as captured in the film and on the soundtrack albums. “Yet for all the utopian euphoria of Stand!,” Hoskyns surmised, “Sly’s position at the intersection of black funk and white hippiedom was problematic and unsustainable.”
A new non-album single was released that same month (August 1969), the infectious, celebratory “Hot Fun In the Summertime” (#2 Pop/ #3 R&B). It was the last new music anyone heard from the group until another new non-album single showed up in late-December ’69, “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” which magically and majestically rose straight to the top. It was “a protracted piece of thunderstruck funk, a one-chord rampage of unprecedented savage power,” as described by longtime Sly observer Joel Selvin of the San Francisco Chronicle. The RIAA gold single (b/w the non-album “Everybody Is a Star”) hit #1 on both sides of the tracks in early February 1970, staying at #1 Pop for a fortnight, and at #1 R&B for a glorious six weeks.
The relentless touring grinded on, as a long respite from formal studio recording sessions erased most of 1970 and ’71. Sly moved the band into the old Jeanette MacDonald mansion in Beverly Hills, and a studio was built in the attic, ostensibly to work on a new album. Instead, tall tales of rampant drug use at home and on the road surfaced in the media. As Selvin wrote, “[Sly] also started showing up late for concerts. Or not showing up at all. Sly cancelled 26 out of 80 shows in 1970, and missed five concerts in a row on a Southern swing in February 1971. He skipped network television appearances. He left the other band members waiting backstage for hours wondering whether he was going to show up or not.”
A Greatest Hits collection was strategically issued for the 1970 pre-Christmas season, gathering earlier hits and the four sides from 1970. The LP hit #1 R&B over Christmas week, and #2 Pop, becoming one of the biggest sellers in the CBS catalog at the time as it moved three million copies. Meanwhile, life at the mansion was becoming the stuff of legend, with visits by everyone from Bobby Womack and Herbie Hancock, to Miles Davis and Billy Preston. Recording was a catch-as-catch-can affair, by all accounts, with surviving tapes and sessions only characterized by Selvin as “dark, simmering grooves and visions from the other side.”
One of those dark grooves was the lilting, melodic “Family Affair” which was issued as Sly and the Family Stone’s long-awaited new single in late-October 1971. The month before, one last promoter had been talked into presenting the band at Madison Square Garden for three nights, which promptly sold-out in advance, breaking MSG box office records at the time. “Family Affair” also broke a record for Sly, hitting #1 Pop (for three weeks) and #1 R&B (for six weeks) in just one month on the street, the fastest (and final) #1 of his career.
“Family Affair” was the lynchpin for the band’s first new studio LP in two-and-a-half years, There’s A Riot Goin’ On, which likewise hit #1 Pop/ #1 R&B within a few weeks of its release in November. A transformative masterpiece, the LP was inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame in 1999, and is ranked at #99 on Rolling Stone magazine’s "500 Greatest Albums Of All Time. " The title paraphrased the chorus of Leiber and Stoller’s classic “Riot in Cell Block #9.” But as Selvin points out, “The label lists the title track: ‘There’s A Riot Goin’ On – 0:00.’ It was Sly’s little joke. The riot was going on in his life.”
The turmoil in which Sly and the Family Stone found itself in 1972 and ’73 was merely a bizarro-world refraction of the turmoil of the world around them. In June 1973, more than a year and a half after There’s A Riot Goin’ On, the band returned with a new single, “If You Want Me To Stay” (#3 R&B/ #12 Pop), and a new LP, Fresh, Sly’s final #1 R&B LP. Discussing the turbulence around them, black music scholar Touré invoked the continuing war in Vietnam (a presence throughout much of Sly’s productive career, unfortunately), the Bloody Sunday massacre in Northern Ireland, the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Olympic games in Munich, and the Watergate break-in. The departure of original Family Stone members Larry Graham and Gregg Errico also changed the band’s equilibrium, as heard on There’s A Riot Goin’ On and Fresh.
Just five years into his career, Sly’s new single was preparing his listeners for big changes: “I’m about to go and then you’ll know/ For me to stay here/ I’ve got to be me.” But perhaps more telling was the inclusion of an ‘outside’ song, not written by Sly, for the first time on any of his LPs. In this case it was Doris Day’s pensive 1956 Columbia Records chestnut, “Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be Will Be),” sung by Rose Stone, with its evocative refrain, “The future's not ours to see…”
For all intents and purposes, the 1974 RIAA gold album Small Talk (#15 Pop), and its two single releases, “Time For Livin’” (#10 R&B, #32 Pop, Sly’s last Top 40 career entry) and “Loose Booty” (#22 R&B) marked the end of the road for the Family Stone. Members went their separate ways, most notably Freddie joining Larry Graham’s Graham Central Station, a band that owed much of its sound to Sly Stone.
Staying with Epic Records, Sly recorded High On You in 1975 and Heard You Missed Me, Well I’m Back a year later. An LP on Warner Bros. in 1979, Back On the Right Track, featured contributions from Cynthia. A second Warner Bros. album was abandoned by Sly in 1981 and finished by its producer in 1982, Ain’t But the One Way. Sly slipped into seclusion with but a few historic reappearances over the years.
Most notable was the band’s induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1993, when he suddenly appeared from the wings, made a brief remark to the audience, and disappeared again. Similarly enigmatic was Sly’s brief participation in a multi-artist tribute to the band at the 2006 Grammy Awards®, a grand affair starring John Legend, Fantasia, Adam Levine, Ciara, Steve Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, and others. All were startled when Sly abruptly waved goodbye to the audience in the middle of “I Want To Take You Higher,” exiting the stage and leaving the stars to complete the song as he disappeared into the night.
A musical visionary of the highest order, Sly Stone carved his way into our American cultural fabric and then, his work done, retreated. The music of Sly and the Family Stone, specifically the singles and LPs of that seminal seven-year period from 1968 to 1975, went on to influence generations that Sly could never have foretold.