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    Sly and The Family Stone
    by Jeff Kaliss

    "Different strokes for different folks"

    When Sly Stone set these words to music in "Everyday People," a landmark 1969 song about acceptance, the visionary bandleader Sly Stone captured the spirit of those heady times, and maybe foresaw his own dissapearance into idiosyncracy. The song evoked the particular idealistic sensibilities of the San Francisco Bay Area, where Sly where The Family Stone's unique combination of musical and spiritual forces germinated. The band exemplified racial harmony, ethnic diversity and a voice for women in its lineup. The Family's communal affirmation of massed voices and adept blending of gospel anthemics, r&b jive, and funk innovations led by Larry Graham's supercharged plucked bass had lasting impact.

    Music came early to Sylvester Stewart, who at age four recorded his first side as a gospel singer with his nuclear family group, the Stewart Four. By high school, in Vallejo, California, he'd taken on the nickname Sly and played rock 'n' roll with Joey Piazza and the Continentals. He graduated to music theory at Vallejo Junior College and radio dj basics at the Chris Borden School of Modern Broadcasting, and went on to expand the playlist at KSOL to include tracks by Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Lord Buckley. Sly was to ingest all of these influences making a study of artists near and far to create new collages of sound.

    Already a multi-instrumentalist, Sly quickly added experience as a producer to his resume after hooking up with another dj and future alternative rock radio pioneer Tom "Big Daddy" Donahue. Sly's credits at Donahue's Autumn Records included several early San Francisco Sound tracks: the Beau Brummels' "Laugh, Laugh" and "Just A Little" and "Somebody to Love" as performed by the Great Society. Sly's offer to sit in on the latter was turned down, the song did not become a smash until it was reworked a couple of years later by the Jefferson Airplane with Slick on vocals.

    After another, popular on-the-air stint at KDIA, Sly recruited siblings Freddie and Rosie, cousin Graham, white high school buddy Jerry Martini and his cousin Greg Errico, and former high school horn player Cynthia Robinson to form the Family Stone. After paying dues in the suburbs and showcasing a knack for making a record sound like its appealing live shows with "Dance to the Music", the group finally struck a chord with the Flower Children on "Everyday People". All the while the group's outlandish live performances featured choreographed onstage movements and fantastic hairdos and costumes which appealed to a rock audience despite the grab bag of musical sources.

    Sly's successful melt-down of formerly segregated genres and audiences with the above tunes and such positive power cuts as "Stand", "Everybody Is A Star" and "I Want to Take You Higher" helped pave the way for the funk, glam and disco of future decades. For the time being, the body-bending, sing-along impact of his hits got him booked at the Woodstock and Monterey festivals and at Bill Graham's Fillmores East and West.

    As a writer, Sylvester Stewart (he used his given name in that context) exhibited a breadth of approach which latter day soul groups like Earth, Wind, & Fire would later try to equal. Sly's "Hot Fun in the Summertime", for example, lays back on a slow, slick, funky groove sharply contrasting with the anthemic drive of most of the Family's hits.

    Sly's image appeal helped to bring black youth over to rock, and may have encouraged black militants to try and make him an agent of their cause. Under their pressure and internal group friction, Sly began to exhibit signs of a bleeding ulcer, and sought relief through drugs. After developing a reputation for missed and delayed concerts, a comeback with another number one hit, "Thank You (Falettin Me Be Mice Elf Agin)" in 1970 seemed to indicate a return to form.

    But racial rage and inner turmoil resurfaced late in 1971 with the release of the disturbing but compelling album, "There's a Riot Goin' On", which featured guitar work by Bobby Womack. It brought the Family its last number one hit, "Family Affair" and Sly became more overindulgent in drugs making records at less frequent intervals. Sly's/Sylvester's seductive talent was still evident, though, as they were a couple of years later on his last hit, "If You Want Me to Stay".

    In 1979, Sly once again put out signals of reform with the release of "Back on the Right Track", featuring several Family members in a disco-friendly mood. But Womack felt it necessary five years later to help Sly into drug treatment, afterwards honoring his mentor by taking him on tour. Rumors of isolation and eccentricity but little else have followed Sly's legend over the past decade.

    However rock history may judge Sly's "different strokes" in making his way through his own career, his twin achievements of helping to herald an age of enlightenment and providing a model of synthesis in production and composition are unassailable and difficult to equal. His legacy remains audible and visible in the stylings of Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Prince (formerly?), the B-52's, and so on, and so on, and scoobie-doobie-doo.

    Selected Discography-- Sly and The Family Stone

    Life (Epic)
    Stand (Epic)
    There's A Riot Goin' On (Epic)
    Fresh (Epic)
    Dance To the Music (Epic)
    Greatest Hits (Epic)
    Anthology (Epic)
    Back On The Right Track (Epic)



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