You’d never know it from his “performance” at the Grammys on Wednesday night, but Sly Stone is one of the great musical innovators of the last 50 years.
During his all-too-brief creative peak — between the mid-1960s and early 1970s — he and his group, the Family Stone, fused soul, rock and funk into a dynamic sound that changed all three genres forever and played a profound role in the creation of hip-hop (his songs have been sampled and covered many, many times).
A young person today might know his songs only from oldies radio or the long-running Toyota commercial that used his 1969 anti-racist hit “Everyday People,” but his influence is so vast, and his sound has been so incorporated into so many different styles, that it’s simply part of today’s musical language. His band’s contribution to funk music is every bit as enduring as James Brown’s, and Parliament-Funkadelic, Rick James, Prince, D’Angelo and Jermaine Dupri — not to mention every single funk band since the late ’60s — all owe the essence of their sounds to him.
And before Sly’s outlook turned dark — with 1971′s haunting, paranoid There’s a Riot Goin’ On — his message was one of positivity, unity and self-empowerment, exemplified by just a handful of his song titles: “You Can Make It If You Try,” “Everybody Is a Star,” “I Want to Take You Higher” and “Stand!” With “Everyday People,” he coined the term “different strokes for different folks.” And as the electrifying 1969 performance captured in the concert film “Woodstock” shows, he and the band could hold tens of thousands of people in the palms of their hands.
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Wednesday night’s performance (see “Kanye And Mariah Win, But In The End U2 — And Curveballs — Rule Grammy Night”) during the Grammy tribute to him — which found him attired bizarrely in a silver-and-purple robe, dark shades and a foot-high platinum Mohawk, pawing befuddledly at his keyboard, at times seemingly unaware of where he was — showed just how far he’s fallen.
To understand how revolutionary Sly’s music, image and message were, you have to consider the America in which the band was formed in 1966. It was still largely a segregated country, in terms of both race and gender. A controversial war in a far-off land, Vietnam, was dividing the country. And pop music was made mostly by single-race, single-gender groups who’d only just begun to let their hair down.
Sly was born in Dallas in 1944 but raised on the mean streets of Vallejo in the San Francisco Bay Area. A prodigious talent, he had his first hit single at the age of 16 and studied music at Vallejo Junior College. He honed his chops in the early ’60s as a massively popular DJ on San Francisco’s KSOL and KDIA, as a producer (helming a national hit for the Beau Brummels, “Laugh Laugh”), and with his group, the Stoners. He combined that band’s trumpet player, Cynthia Robinson, with his guitarist brother Freddie, his keyboardist sister Rosemary and bassist Larry Graham (who pioneered the thumb-popping funk bass style that has since become a signature of the genre) to form the Family Stone. Their formation coincided neatly with the city’s burgeoning psychedelic scene, and Sly seized the moment, fusing the sounds and attitudes of the era into something he called “psychedelic soul.” The group signed with Epic Records in 1967 and released its first LP, A Whole New Thing, later that year.
While the title track of Dance to the Music brought the group its first hit, 1969′s Stand! remains its definitive statement. The album contains many of the positive songs above, yet it also did not shy away from talking tough, via the confrontationally anti-racist “Don’t Call Me N—–, Whitey” (the chorus of which replied, “Don’t Call Me Whitey, N—–”). The album became the group’s first gold disc, “Everyday People” was a #1 single, the group arguably stole the show at Woodstock — and just as the Family Stone were reaching the top, it all started to unravel.
The group began 1970 with a bang: the single “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” indubitably one of the funkiest songs ever laid to wax. Yet Sly’s increasing drug abuse led to erratic behavior, and the group missed 26 of 80 scheduled concerts, many of which found the entire band present and ready to play, with Sly simply refusing to go on. Stories of his drug-fueled antics are legend: He obsessed maniacally with There’s a Riot Goin’ On, missing many deadlines and recording and re-recording so many times that the album has a dull, hissy sound (the tapes simply began to wear out). The album also had a dark, claustrophobic, doomed vibe, although Sly’s powers of social commentary were as strong as ever on “Family Affair,” which held the #1 spot on the U.S. singles chart for five weeks. By the time the album was done, the group’s brilliant drummer, Greg Errico, had left, and Graham was not far behind.
The hits continued for another couple of years — 1973′s Fresh, containing the excellent single “If You Want Me to Stay,” was a strong effort — but 1974′s “Loose Booty” was the group’s last charting single, and it dissolved the following year, with Stone filing for bankruptcy in 1976.
And that, sadly, is largely where the story ends. Sly made comeback attempts in the late 1970s and early ’80s, releasing three mediocre albums. P-Funk’s George Clinton brought him on tour with Funkadelic in 1981; he also appeared on former Time guitarist Jesse Johnson’s 1987 single “Crazay” — the title of which is so Sly-influenced that it verges on parody. The drug problems continued, with Sly being arrested three times on cocaine charges and ending the ’80s in prison on a 55-day charge for driving under the influence of the drug.
Apart from the occasional impromptu appearance — in 1993, he surprised his former bandmates by joining them onstage when the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — Sly has kept a very low profile in the years since; his royalties presumably bring in significant income. He signed a contract with Avenue Records in 1995, but no releases followed. In the late 1990s, the creator of a Sly fan site claimed to have met with Sly at the artist’s behest. He reported that Sly was lucid and friendly, and said that he played new material that ranks with his best work. None of that material has yet emerged.
Last summer, Sly was reported seen in the crowd during a tribute concert in Los Angeles, wearing a motorcycle helmet throughout the performance. His behavior was no less unusual during rehearsals for Wednesday night’s Grammy performance: According to the Los Angeles Times, on Monday he participated in just two of three run-throughs of the song while dressed in a hooded raincoat and camouflage pants.
The Grammy performance — Sly’s first with the original Family Stone since 1971 — was a halting, confused affair and a complete disservice to his music. For a taste of his and the band’s greatness, Stand! and The Essential Sly and the Family Stone collection are probably the most definitive testaments.
Indeed, his legend is such that some defended even Wednesday night’s bizarre showing. Adam Levine of Maroon 5 — who took part in the all-star tribute that preceded Sly’s appearance — said to The Washington Post, “Can you really argue with an unbelievable-looking Mohawk and a silver jacket?”
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