Sly and The Family Stone
by Jeff Kaliss
"Different strokes for different folks"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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".
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.
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
There's A Riot Goin' On (Epic)
Dance To the Music (Epic)
Greatest Hits (Epic)
Back On The Right Track (Epic)