Though he hasn't issued any new music in more than a decade, singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Sly Stone is assured a place in music history as one of the forefathers of funk.
Stone was born Sylvester Stewart on March 15, 1944, in Dallas. In the '50s, the Stewart family moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where the young Stone nurtured his passion for singing gospel.
When he was 16, Stone had a local hit with "Long Time Away." He studied the trumpet and music theory and composition in school and began playing on the Bay Area music scene, sometimes in groups with his younger brother, Freddie.
Stone became a DJ at soul station KSOL and produced artists for Autumn Records, including the Beau Brummels and Grace Slick's pre–Jefferson Airplane band, the Great Society.
In 1966, Stone formed the Stoners, including trumpet player Cynthia Robinson. The Stoners evolved into Sly and the Family Stone, which also included Freddie Stewart (later known as Freddie Stone) on guitar, Larry Graham Jr. on bass, Greg Errico on drums and Jerry Martini on saxophone. Stone also began using his new surname. Stone's sister Rosie later joined the group.
Sly and the Family Stone were one of the first multiracial groups to have commercial success. After the flop of their debut, A Whole New Thing (1967), their sophomore LP, Dance to the Music, yielded a 1968 pop and soul hit in the title track. Word spread of the band's innovative mix of heavy soul and psychedelic rock. That same year, the group had a #1 smash with "Everyday People," which Toyota began using in the late '90s in its commercials.
Stand! (1969), which included "Sex Machine" and "I Want to Take You Higher," was notable for combining dance music with liberal politics.
The group was at its commercial apex as the '60s ended. It played a blistering set at the Woodstock Festival, enjoyed a #2 hit with "Hot Fun in the Summertime" and a #1 with "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" (RealAudio excerpt). In 1970, Greatest Hits was a huge-selling album.
But then Stone began battling drugs and became infamous for missing shows. Yet in 1971, the dark, violent There's a Riot Goin' On topped the charts, despite its militant themes, and spawned the chart-topping "Family Affair."
In 1972, Graham and Errico left and the band eventually splintered. Its last R&B hit was "I Get High on You" (1975). Stone's future albums were commercial disappointments, as Stone was in the news more for his drug arrests than his music.
When funk became popular again in 1979, Stone issued an attempted "comeback" album, Back on the Right Track, which didn't get much attention. Two years later, Stone played on Funkadelic's Electric Spanking of War Babies and toured with George Clinton's P-Funk All-Stars. Stone also did a solo tour and gigged with Bobby Womack in the early '80s. He underwent drug rehabilitation in 1983 following an arrest on charges of cocaine possession.
Stone inked a record deal with A&M Records in the mid-'80s after appearing on "Crazay," a single by former Morris Day and the Time guitarist Jesse Johnson. Stone had mixed fortunes in 1987: His single "Eek-a-Bo-Static" bombed, and he was jailed for possession of cocaine. But he successfully dueted with the Motels' Martha Davis on "Love & Affection," from the "Soul Man" soundtrack.
Despite sporadic, unfounded reports of new work from Stone during the years, he has spent most of his time in drug rehabilitation. The band's most visible member now is Graham, who often works with The Artist, who considers Stone to be a major influence.
In addition to their siring of funk, Sly and the Family Stone had a groundbreaking, unisex, multiracial lineup during a time of sexual and racial unrest. Their music is a major influence on many R&B, pop, rock and hip-hop artists today. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, where Stone made a rare public appearance.
Other birthdays on Wednesday: Phil Lesh (Grateful Dead), 60; Mike Love (Beach Boys), 59; David Costell (Gary Lewis and the Playboys), 56; Howard Scott (War), 54; Ry Cooder, 53; Frank Lugo (? And the Mysterians), 53; Preston Hubbard (Fabulous Thunderbirds), 47; Bunny DeBarge (DeBarge), 45; Dee Snider (Twisted Sister), 45; Terence Trent D'Arby, 38; Steve McCoy, (Dead or Alive), 38; Bret Michaels (Poison), 37; Rockwell, 36; Mark Hoppus (Blink-182), 28; Lightnin' Hopkins, 1912–1982.