Personalities | Sly & The Family Stone | Sixties | Rock

The story of Sly Stone (born Sylvester Stewart in Dallas on 15 March 1944) is a classic rock’n’roll tale of ground-breaking success followed by a drug-fuelled downward spiral into unreliability and dissipation.

In the 1960s and early 1970s he pioneered a fusion of funk, rock and soul that changed the course of R&B, pop and even jazz. Yet on his induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1993 he was reportedly found living in sheltered housing; and today he remains largely overlooked in the public’s view of popular music history.

Going Up

Sly Stone started playing drums and guitar (aged 4) in the family gospel group, The Stewart Four, in 1948. Growing up he played and sang in the Bay Area, solo and with various groups, and built a large local following as a DJ on two SF radio stations, KSOL and KDIA. In 1964, he became a house producer for Autumn Records, gaining much valuable studio experience.

In 1967, he formed Sly and The Family Stone. Band members – Freddie Stone (guitar), Rose Stone (keyboards), Cynthia Robinson (trumpet), Jerry Martini (sax), Larry Graham (bass), Greg Errico (drums) – came from several racial backgrounds, and they made a big impression on the emerging West Coast psychedelic scene. Their second LP, 1968’s Dance To The Music, saw the band hit its stride, with an exuberant riot of vocal and instrumental interplay – the free-flowing hippy spirit applied to soul music. Psychedelic Funk was born, and the title track made the US and UK Top 10s.

An early 1969 single ‘Everyday People’ became the group’s first US No. 1 with its engaging chant ‘Different strokes for different folks’. It was from their fourth LP, the upbeat masterpiece Stand!, an album of joyous psychedelic soul, pop melodies and tight exchanges between performers both instrumentally and vocally (symbolically giving everyone in this racially integrated unit a voice). Additionally, Stone began addressing social issues with tracks such as ‘Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey’ and the title track itself.

Stand! spent over 100 weeks in the charts, selling over two million copies. Their career-defining performance at Woodstock that year stole the show, confirming their reputation as one of the best live acts around.

Coming Down

But just as things were coming good they started to go bad. Sly was developing a serious cocaine habit and becoming unpredictable. He missed a third of all the band’s shows in 1970; recording deadlines were not met; and although two cheerful singles – ‘Hot Fun In The Summertime’ and ‘Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin)’ – and a stop-gap Greatest Hits LP all charted well, it was clear that something was seriously wrong.

The much-delayed LP, There’s A Riot Goin’ On, that finally emerged in November 1971 was as dark as its predecessor had been bright, the bleary vision of a man disappointed by both his own success...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, general editor Michael Heatley


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