Inter-racial. Inter-gender. Into drugs. What is it… this thing called Sly & The Family Stone?
It’s about time. It’s about space. It’s about the ups and downs of Funk, Psychedelic Soul and R&B. But more than anything else, it’s about music and it’s about people who are obsessed by music.
In the first-ever full-length biography of Sylvester ‘Sly Stone’ Stewart, music-writer Andrew Darlington (‘I Was Elvis Presley’s Bastard Love-Child’) exhaustively details the story, while adding new slants. Relating the hits – “Dance To The Music”, “Stand”, “Family Affair” and the seismic album ‘There’s A Riot Goin’ On’, to the Civil Rights protests, the Black Power radicals and the insurrectionary counter-culture politics of their turbulent time. This is the true story of a music legend and the events that shaped the music.
Sylvester Stewart was an outrageously talented musical prodigy who started out as part of a mixed-race high-school doo-wop group called the Viscaynes. But consider this, what if they’d scored a massive hit with one of their catchy 1962 singles – “Heavenly Angel” or “Long Time Alone”? By the mid-seventies the man who became Sly Stone might have been touring the Golden Oldie circuit, still performing that same old song. But wait – there are other possibilities to speculate about.
After the Viscaynes, Sylvester – as he still was, became a radio DJ for KSOL, playing ‘integration records’, everything from the Beatles, Ray Charles, and the Rolling Stones, to the Kinks. ‘I was into everyone’s records’ he explained, ‘I’d play Dylan, Hendrix, James Brown, back-to-back, so I didn’t get stuck in any one groove. Every night I tried something else. Everything was just on instinct’. Around the same time, he was acting as songwriter/producer, creating R&B dance hits for Bobby Freeman, as well as white psychedelic chart-Pop for the Beau Brummels, the Mojo Men and Grace Slick’s pre-Jefferson Airplane group Great Society. If Sly Stone’s own chart career had happened then – say, the early years of the sixties rather than the decade’s second half, it’s not difficult to imagine him churning out simple catchy Bobby Freeman-style Disco hits. Are you with me so far?
Instead, we all know the real story. The arc of Sly’s career happened when racial issues in America were becoming increasingly polarised and forced into extremes. Sly & The Family Stone’s contagious breakthrough single “Dance To The Music” (1967) led to even greater success with four straight US no.1’s – “Everyday People” (1968), “Hot Fun In The Summertime” (1969), “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” (1970) and “Family Affair” (1971). On “Everyday People” he is singing ‘I am no better and neither are you, we are the same whatever we do’, but there were those on both sides of the racial divide who found such a simplification unacceptable. White rednecks who felt threatened by its uppity ideas of egalitarianism, to whom the integrated black/white male/female Family Stone membership constituted a full-bodied all-singing all-dancing provocation. And black militants who considered Sly wasn’t taking it far enough. The Panthers had already called into question the Family Stone’s racial ‘compromise’, demanding Sly replace white band-members Gregg Errico and Jerry Martini with black musicians, and urged him to drop their white Jewish manager David Kapralik too – ‘get rid of whitey, get rid of the devil.’ Sly stood out against them all.
He never allowed colour to dictate his friendships, or define his music. To have to deal with it was an annoying downside. Sure, ‘in order to get to it, you’ve got to go through it’ Sly told TV chat-show host Dick Cavett, ‘that’s really the truth.’ At first he dealt by example. Look – this works. This is good. How can something this much fun be threatening? ‘I can understand frustration’ he explained, ‘I can understand how confusion creates back illusion.’ How could it be any other way? ‘I understand the proclamation, we dig emancipation.’ And his songs treat the centrality of racial oppression – and how it was provoking mass radicalisation, head-on with ridiculing humour and sharp intelligence. Less as weapons of struggle, more as personal expressions created in response to the times. He was comfortable in his own skin. Racism was a hindrance. An irritation. A distraction.
Yet his music couldn’t help but be exactly synchronised to the escalating tensions of the moment it was produced – for those issues demanded his response. And it was at the precise moment that race-riots were tearing American cities apart, caught up in its unique configuration of optimisms and betrayals, hopes and dreams, that Sly creating his most edgy, relevant and dangerous work. Issued on the 20th November 1971, ‘There’s A Riot Goin’ On’ was a landmark album – as violent and disturbing as the world it was created in. The ghouls he released helped him create great music. But they also conspired to destroy him. Without the forceful provocation of extreme incidents things would have been different. Or they might not have happened at all.
He’d started out with the Viscaynes, as DJ and studio mixer, then he had huge hit singles, played Woodstock, and sold millions of albums, but by the late-seventies, following a string of disappointing solo albums, this driven once-genius succumbed to his addictions, and there was only a long day’s journey into night ahead. That the same pressures that made him excel were the same that pressured him intolerably into extremes of excess, were part of the deal. Caught up in an immaculate cliché, he gained the world, only to lose his soul. Where there’d been joy and rebellion, there was resignation. He’d hit the pinnacle, and was free-falling, retreating further into a cocoon of cocaine and brooding introspection. But if it seems that the story ends there, it doesn’t. Sly was still only in his early thirties. As many decades of his life would follow as had already elapsed. It’s just that they would not be as well-documented. When you live out your life like fiction, some amount of imprecision can be anticipated, to bedevil those attempting to chart its details.
Choosing the ‘Soundtrack Of My Life’ Boy George chose Sly’s “If You Want Me To Stay” (1973), commenting ‘it’s just a great song, fantastic falsetto vocals. It’s got the best bass line ever, and it’s Sly Stone at his peak; it’s just a great, emotional piece of music’ (in ‘The Observer’ 26 January 2014). And during his lost decades Sly’s songs were sampled and reinterpreted across the evolution of hip-hop, Rap and Urban. Yet for their creator, the music still itches…
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After the final fateful break-up of the Family Stone in 1975, Sly’s guitarist brother Freddie Stewart ordained as a minister and found a new niche as Pastor of the Vallejo, California ‘Evangelist Temple Fellowship Center’. Sister Rose Stone immediately commenced a solo career, cutting an eponymous album under her married name ‘Rose Banks’ for Motown in 1976. But by the time of the Family Stone’s induction to the 1993 ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame’ Sly himself had totally disappeared from public view. On that occasion he amazed everyone by turning up to receive his award. He delivered a hasty speech – promising ‘see you soon’, before vanishing back to wherever he’d come from. At the time, few took the promise seriously. They were wrong.
Sly’s parents, Daddy KC and Momma Alpha, died within eighteen months of each other, he in 2001, she following in 2003. Sly was at the funeral. Sly’s ‘Little Sister’ Vet Stewart was there too, ‘they both died in my arms’ she recalls, but before they died she promised them ‘that she would once again make the rest of the world a safe place for her big brother to function in.’ Her resolve to fulfil that promise never wavered, or for one moment weakened. ‘I was persistent. I prayed a lot.’ And at Vet’s instigation, there was more to come. With her unstinting motivating efforts providing the momentum, the ‘Phunk Phamily Affair’ was launched across the Easter weekend 2004 at the Frisco Broadway Studios. They soon renamed themselves ‘Sly’s Family Stone’ – at Sly’s instigation, and by 2005 there were excited internet rumours that they were working on tracks for an album with Sly himself. He was even said to be contributing new material.
Meanwhile, Sly-sightings persisted… and became mythic, the subject of internet-driven debate and analysis. One example, on Monday 15th August 2005 Sly was positively identified driving Vet from Beverly Hills on his custom four-wheel Harley motorcycle to the LA ‘Knitting Factory’, a club at 7021 Hollywood Blvd, where the ten-piece Phunk Phamily were performing a benefit. Advertised as an evening of ‘Songs And Original Members Of Sly & The Family Stone’, Sly declined to participate, but he did hang around on the balcony long enough to watch the set. He was described as sporting an extravagantly-braided Bootsy Collins-esque blonde Mohawk. But the ‘Soul-Patrol’ website disagreed, arguing he was wearing a white outfit, with hat and dark shades. Others insisted he’d kept his shiny biker helmet firmly in place throughout, like an astronaut. No-one provided absolute confirmation.
Yet fan diligence was rewarded when ‘Reclusive legend Sly Stone’ made a surprise showing at the ‘48th Grammy Awards’ in LA on Wednesday 8th February 2006 – his first genuinely authenticated public performance since the brief ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame’ debacle. Assembled as a full Family Stone reunion by Nile Rodgers – with five of the original six members, and Rusty Allen filling in for original bassist Larry Graham – and, hope-against-hope, Sly himself, the appearance was preceded by weeks of conjecture. Would Sly show? it didn’t matter what he played, just for him to show up was enough. ‘Rolling Stone’ circulated amusing gossip about security turning away this figure ‘in a sort of Unabomber camouflage get-up that hid his face’ because they assumed he was a homeless vagrant. So swaddled, layered, shaded, hatted and scarved as to be unrecognisable. In fact, when Sly did turn up, his right hand was encased in a cast, his damaged tendon the result of a motorcycle mishap. But the fact that he showed up at all for off-site rehearsals augured well. Sure, his attire – a tattered hoodie entirely obscuring his face, was the cause for some concern – as did the damaged infirmity of his rehearsal performance, the old swagger replaced by a fumbling vulnerability so vague that Rodgers decided to ‘pre-record’ a version of “I Want To Take You Higher” to cover anticipated imperfections.
On the night there was much talk of severe stage-fright, and of Sly’s nervous vomiting. Ken Ehrlich elaborated to the ‘Chicago Sun-Times’ about how he ‘refused to leave his hotel room until he was given a police escort to the show and then waited in his car until the performance began.’ Then, the cameras zoned in, and yes, Sly was there in an extravagant blonde Mohawk, opaque oversize Dior shades, a purple-lined silver lamé greatcoat, and pants cinched with the signature ‘S-L-Y’ belt-buckle. But he appeared stooped, head bowed, as though in pain. He barely managed eye contact with the celebrity audience. But yes, against all expectations, his impressionistic vagueness still proved mesmerising. Just as they powered into the climax of “I Want To Take You Higher”, Sly got up and sauntered to the front of the stage, rasped a verse, waved in the general direction of the audience, then wandered off-set before the last chorus was over.
He kept walking, not stopping until he was outside the building, where ‘he went up the ramp, got on a motorcycle and took off’, scorching tyre-rubber in his haste to escape. Nile was reportedly ‘disappointed’, he’d hoped for more. But Sly had shown up, and aged 62, proved that some of the magic remained. Nile did everything he could to hold it together. But people had been trying to hold Sly Stone together for four decades, and what the Grammys got was probably all they were going to get… for now.
Then, on Sunday 13th January 2007 ‘Sly’s Family Stone’ appeared at the Anaheim CA ‘House Of Blues’ – adjacent to Disneyland, starting off the year with a celebration of Dr Martin Luther King’s birthday. And it proved to be a wonderfully surprising show, all the way from the opening blasts of “Dance To The Music”. Vet took a commanding lead in a white leather outfit, alongside Lisa (Rose Stone’s daughter), and original horn-players Cynthia Robinson and saxophonist Pat Rizzo. Eventually Sly himself briefly took the stage, at first a fragile and slouched figure, but smiling like a doting father at a school concert as he introduced his daughters Phunne and Novi, then niece Toddy – Vet’s daughter. They all closed by rolling out “Thank You (Faletinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”, Sly flashing peace-signs while stabbing keyboards, before a “I Want To Take You Higher” encore.
The only thing harder than quitting the limelight, is venturing back out into its glare. But, after staring so perilously into the abyss for so long, it seems Sly was in the process of using this ‘Family Stone’ vehicle as a kind of Trojan Virus to incrementally infiltrate gradual awareness of his renewed musical involvements. 31st March 2007 saw the group playing Las Vegas, and – although deliberately low-key, the ‘Flamingo Hotel Showroom’ date was significant in that Sly himself was included as a named part of the package. Around midnight stand-up comedian George Wallace introduced the set with the ironic quip ‘April Fools! Sly Stone showed up!’ But after the band led in with a four-song medley, Sly himself sauntered on stage to join them on Korg synth for a thirty-minute sequence of “Stand!”, “Family Affair”, “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again)”, “If You Want Me To Stay” and the usual climax of “I Want To Take You Higher”, during which he moved out to the edge of the stage to greet fans and shake hands. The spectacle was repeated when the band headlined the San Jose Arena Park’s ‘Back In The Day Summerfest’ – a non-profit ‘Benefit for Orphans’, held late on the sunny Saturday of 7th July (7/7/07!), with huge video-screens streaming original ‘Woodstock’ Sly-footage. The band again jammed for some thirty minutes until Sly – head-down in a white-hooded sweat-shirt and radio-mic, baggy pants, gold chains and a baseball cap, positioned himself hunched behind the keyboard. Although initially flawed with unforgivable sound-problems, the event proved a success, and it tied in with Sly’s first major published interview in over twenty years.
For the prestigious spread in ‘Vanity Fair’ (cover-dated August), Sly was photographed riding his three-wheeled chopper in the extensive grounds of an impressive home in the country sparseness of Napa Valley. With an appointment to meet Sly at ‘Chopper Guys Biker Products Inc’, a Vallejo custom-motorcycle specialist, journalist David Kamp endured all the usual doubts about it ever taking place. Yet against the odds, Sly arrives a mere ten minutes late, on a flamboyantly customised banana-yellow trike, and in good shape, for ‘a 64-year-old man’. Warily, elusively, he claims to have got serious about ‘cleaning up’ some fifteen years earlier. ‘I just looked around one day, and it was cleaned up. Just hardly was nothing there. Just… certain people were not around’. And now ‘I’m pretty cool. I drink now and then, a little bit – beer. And I smoke butts sometimes’. Is he indestructible? – no, only ‘washable and rinseable’.
When asked why he’d chosen to return now, he merely grins, ‘cause it’s kind of boring at home sometimes.’ There’s not, in truth, a great deal of dialogue. What little there is of it is generously inflated with exposition and recapitulated history. Kamp concludes that ‘Sly relishes this sort of opaqueness – letting people in just enough to intrigue and confound them.’ Yet it closes on an upbeat note. Throughout their face-to-facing, Sly had worn shades. Kamp asks ‘can I see your eyes, Sly?’ ‘Yeah,’ he says, pulling down the sunglasses, revealing healthily white whites and a remarkably unlined face, the same face from ‘Woodstock’, ‘Cavett’, and the cover of ‘Fresh’. It really is Sly Stone’. The interview also marked the kick-off point for a full ten-date European tour, including British dates – all performed under the full ‘Sly & The Family Stone’ heading.
Can it really be said to be Sly & The Family Stone? Of course it can never be exactly what it was. People change, times change, fracturing and disrupting meanings and relevancies. As John Mulvey of ‘Uncut’ magazine points out, ‘the edge of those old records is missing, that precarious mix of tension and euphoria,’ instead, the pleasures of seeing Sly & The Family Stone now ‘are less complicated, those of a party band, not a blazing collective with a revolutionary subtext.’
The tour commenced at the open-air ‘Arena Santa Giuliana’ in Perugia, Italy (Thursday, 12th July) following a full-on Solomon Burke set. They crossed to the sold-out Montreaux Jazz Festival (13th), the Belgian ‘Blue Note Jazz Festival’ (14th), the ‘North Sea Jazz Festival’ in Rotterdam (15th), the ‘Nice Jazz Festival’ (19th), and the Finnish ‘Pori Jazz Festival’ (20th). Headlining at London’s drizzling inner-city ‘Love Box Weekender’ (21st), the Family followed Blondie on-stage at around 21:50, with Sly wandering on to contribute two songs, then getting up for two more. Later – with Sly in an Afro and headband, they played what was reportedly the finest set of the tour at the Paris ‘Olympia’ (23rd), then the ‘Jazz Aldea’ in Spain (27th), before finally climaxing at the modest Bournemouth ‘Opera House’ (28th July).
By now the general shape of the events were refining into shape. With the band book-ending the set – starting off with “Dance To The Music”, progressing through a varied mix of “Everyday People”, “Hot Fun In The Summertime”, taking in a slow sensual “Somebody’s Watching You”, and Sly joining for four or five mid-point numbers, usually soloing a strongly distinctive “If You Want Me To Stay”, and closing with a rallying “I Want To Take You Higher”. But although persistent promises of a ‘new song’ remained unconfirmed, as the tour progressed the presentation seemed to gain in confidence. Despite Sly’s protestation that ‘when waking up this morning he realised he was old, so he needed to take a break’, the man who began the tour as a ‘broken marionette, barely moving’ was visibly loosening up, rocking to and fro behind keyboards he didn’t actually play, dancing in a kind of shadowboxing slouch around the stage, yet showing more obvious pleasure both in the performance itself, and the reception he was receiving. Venturing out front, and finally – at the closing date in Bournemouth, leaping down off-stage to mingle with the audience as he chanted and danced to “I Want To Take You Higher”.
Is this a postscript, a happy coda… or a new beginning? Whatever, shows continue. During the first week of December (2007) Sly played a series of dates at ‘The BB King Blues Club & Grill’ on New York’s 42nd Street, with audiences stumping up $103.35 per ticket. Before taking the stage the atmosphere was hushed and weirdly nervy, so hushed Sly’s voice could be detected croaking over the sound-system ‘Is the show starting? hold up, hold up’. Then, seemingly to an assistant, ‘I don’t want to fall.’ And when he finally emerged he shuffled to the microphone, although he later managed to throw in some playful choreography. During lulls in the show there was some dialogue. A shouted question from the crowd asked ‘how you doing, Sly?’ provoking the witty response ‘eh…’ Someone else enquired had Mr Stone ever been arrested? ‘I’ve been arrested for armed robbery’ he jibed back. The Family Stone – included Jerry Martini and Cynthia Robinson with Lisa Stone, meticulously ticked-off the roll-call of hits, continuing even when Sly momentarily vanished ‘to take a piss’. He returned to deliver some tantalising unaccompanied rap verses – ‘you can’t face a noun so you’re straight adverbing it, / had an argument at home, and you had to have the last word in it.’ Yet if there were those in the audience ghoulishly anticipating a ‘train-wreck’ performance, it’s fair to say that few others were disappointed.
Sly’s ‘one-world’ concept of music still retains relevance, even if the more specific political references have become dulled. Soon after, Sly, with George Clinton, was re-making another connection, joining the musicians on-stage for a brief and amazing appearance together at California’s ‘Voices Of Latin Rock’ Show in January 2008. They ran through versions of “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again)” and “I Want To Take You Higher” memorable more for their shambling joy than their technical perfection. The pair didn’t stay long. Oddly, Sal Valentino was also there, performing his Beau Brummels’ hit “Laugh Laugh” – which Sly had produced. Another link in the story. But by the time he took to the stage, Sly was gone.
Some bands survive longer than others, it’s counted out in the unique DNA-configuration that brings it all together in the first place. Sly & The Family Stone survive longer, and leave more of enduring value than most. Their legacy remains audible and visible. We should be grateful for that, rather than asking for more. ‘From the womb to the tomb’ joked Sly, ‘and that’s it, baby. I checked it out’.
(This is an edited, re-written revision of excerpts from the book)
‘DON'T CALL ME NIGGER, WHITEY’:
SLY STONE & BLACK POWER
by ANDREW DARLINGTON
(Leaky Boot Press) http://www.leakyboot.com/
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