On August 17, 1969, the final scheduled day of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, Sly & the Family Stone appeared onstage at 3:30 a.m. Stage announcer “Chip” Monck’s sonorous voice brought the group out, and they played a tight, 50-minute set. Two songs from that performance, “Dance to the Music” and “I Want to Take You Higher,” made their way onto Michael Wadleigh’s documentary film of the festival, and were among its most electrifying moments.
Six weeks earlier, on June 29, the band had appeared at the Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of concerts that took place in New York City over several weekends that summer. The concerts drew large crowds, but only got the recognition they deserved in 2021 with Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s documentary Summer of Soul (. . . or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). Even in a movie filled with exceptional performances, Sly & the Family Stone’s stand out.
Sly Stone had been in the music business, in one way or another, since the 1950s. That summer, the group he had started in 1966 finally achieved the chart success and fame that Sly craved. Fame became a mixed blessing for him, however, and things began to unravel. But before his career petered out, Sly Stone had one dark masterpiece in him.
On March 15, 1943, Sylvester “Sly Stone” Stewart was born in Denton, Texas, a city about an hour from Dallas. The family soon moved to Vallejo, California, a suburb of San Francisco. The Stewarts were members of the Church of God in Christ, which encouraged music as an expression of faith. K. C. Stewart, Sylvester’s dad, was a musician. He and his wife, Alpha, were eager to help all their kids pursue music. Joel Selvin’s Sly & the Family Stone: An Oral History (1998; second edition 2022) opens with a quote from Alpha: “I think [Sly] was born with a big voice. When he was about five, we went to San Francisco and the bishop put him up on the table, so people could see him.”
When Sylvester Stewart was eight, he and three of his siblings recorded a gospel single for local release as the Stewart Four. By the time he was 11, Sylvester was playing drums, guitar, keyboards, and bass. At some point in grade school, he became “Sly” when a schoolmate misspelled his name as “Slyvester.” Sly continued to play music during his high school years, joining several bands. One of these, The Viscaynes, recorded a few singles and was notable for being a racially integrated doo-wop band.
In 1961, around the time Sly finished high school, The Viscaynes scored a regional hit with a single called “Yellow Moon.” Sly moved on to Vallejo Junior College and studied composition and music theory. By 1964, he was a DJ at KSOL, a Bay Area R&B station, where his radio patter and inclusion of British Invasion bands on his playlist made him popular. Sly was also playing keyboards for touring artists performing in the area, including Dionne Warwick, the Righteous Brothers, and Marvin Gaye. For his radio show, Sly adopted an on-air persona called “Sly Stone”: the name he would subsequently use as a performer.
Tom Donahue, a local DJ who would go on to create free-form FM rock radio, was a promoter of many of the Bay Area shows where Sly appeared, and knew of his work on KSOL. He offered Sly a job at Autumn Records, an independent label Donahue had established. Sly produced records there—credited as Sylvester Stewart—by the Beau Brummels and the Mojo Men, and by The Great Society, the band that recorded the original version of “White Rabbit,” with Grace Slick as lead vocalist. Sly’s biggest success at Autumn was “C’mon and Swim,” a song he cowrote and produced for soul singer Bobby Freeman. The song went to number 5 on the US pop charts in the summer of 1964.
In 1966, Sly Stone was putting together his own band, Sly & the Stoners, which included trumpet player Cynthia Robinson. Sly’s brother Freddie also had a band, Freddie & The Stone Souls, which included drummer Greg Errico. Saxophonist Jerry Martini had heard Sly Stone on the radio and started dropping by the station. At one point, he suggested that both bands merge. By November 1966, Sly & the Family Stone featured Sly on keys and vocals, Freddie Stewart (as Freddie Stone) on guitar, Errico on drums, Martini on sax, Robinson on trumpet, and Larry Graham on bass. The band started gigging and built a following in the Bay Area.
Greil Marcus’s chapter on Sly Stone in his 1975 book, Mystery Train, describes what was happening in music in 1967, both in the Bay Area and elsewhere: “It was a genuinely exciting time [but] it was a very white scene. . . . A musical vacuum was opening up, and the racial contradictions of the counterculture were coming to the surface. There was no music to work out the contradictions, and no music to fill the vacuum.”
Sly’s production work at Autumn Records included recordings with rock’n’roll bands, and he had kept his ears open to the currents at work in rock music, from the British Invasion to the psychedelic music coming out of San Francisco. He took these strains of music and combined them with soul and funk to create a new sound for his band. “A cultural politician of the first order,” Marcus wrote, “Sly was less interested in crossing racial lines than in tearing them up.”
Sly & the Family Stone’s unique sound was matched by the band’s appearance. “They not only sounded different,” Bud Scoppa wrote in the liner notes to the 2007 CD reissue of the group’s debut album, A Whole New Thing, “they looked different, too, even in the midst of Flower Power.” Martini told Scoppa, “[Sly] was the first person I met who was into a thematic thing. So we looked like a band.” They also moved well onstage, dancing and grooving without being choreographed.
Sly & the Family Stone was being noticed locally. Chuck Gregory, a Bay Area promoter, got in touch with David Kapralik, who had recently returned to CBS Records to run one of the label’s subsidiaries, Epic Records. Gregory took Kapralik to hear Sly’s band. “This group came on and I was electrified,” Kapralik told Selvin. “I knew right there and then that I wanted to sign them.” Kapralik brought Sly & the Family Stone to Epic.
The band began a three-month booking in Las Vegas, at the Pussycat a Go Go. The performances created a buzz and attracted some of the city’s biggest draws. James Brown, Bobby Darin, and the 5th Dimension came to hear Sly & the Family Stone. On days off, the group flew to Los Angeles to record its debut album. It took the summer months of 1967 to lay down the tracks for A Whole New Thing, which Epic released in October.
A Whole New Thing was a strong debut; a terrific slice of soul with a gospel touch, courtesy of background vocals by a group that included Sly’s sister Vet. Sly produced the album, and his studio experience and his studies in music helped him. He wrote good arrangements for the band, played guitar, harmonica, and other instruments as needed to fill out the sound, and he knew his way around the recording studio. It helped that the Family Stone was a crack band that could play anything he threw at them. Sly’s songwriting on the album is so good it’s puzzling that nothing on the album charted.
Song by song, A Whole New Thing was good, and it showed the band’s versatility. It was beautifully played and well-arranged soul music, but Sly was perhaps too aware of his influences. “Let Me Hear It from You” owed a clear debt to Lou Rawls, and the Stax sound ran through the album. Only “Bad Risk” and “I Cannot Make It” contained hints of the combination of soul and rock that Sly Stone would soon use to turn the group’s fortunes around.
A Whole New Thing received mixed reviews and didn’t chart, which led CBS label president Clive Davis to suggest that Sly write and record something more radio-friendly. He reluctantly complied. Sly Stone arrived at a formula that combined rock and funk, and his initial response to the result was lukewarm. The rest of the band agreed. “[It] was glorified Motown beats,” Martini told Selvin. “‘Dance to the Music’ was such an unhip thing for us to do.”
Epic Records released “Dance to the Music” as a single in November, just a month after the album release. It reached number 8 on the pop charts and secured the group’s reputation. It’s hard to know what Sly & the rest of the group found objectionable. A strong horn arrangement brings the song in, accompanied by Freddie Stone playing a rock’n’roll guitar riff against Errico’s solid backbeat. Robinson exhorts everyone to “get up and dance,” and then the song breaks for a funky a cappella break featuring Sly, Freddie, and Graham.
The song then moves into the chorus, with Graham playing a fluid bass line, double-tracked with fuzz bass. “Dance to the Music” isn’t a standard verse/chorus tune. The chorus hits first, and then Sly Stone announces the instruments, one by one, starting with the drums as the rest of the band drops out. Each layer of instruments helps build the groove. Freddie brings in his guitar, and Graham his bass, still double-tracked. Sly calls in his own organ feature, and then the horns. “Cynthia an’ Jerry got a message that says—” starts Sly. Robinson finishes with a firm, “All the squares go home!”
“Dance to the Music” established a pattern for many Sly & the Family Stone songs that would follow. It mixed rock elements with funk, the members of the band took turns with the lead vocals, and the horn arrangements helped propel the song. Sly Stone absorbed James Brown’s lessons on funk, including how to use horns to make a song sparkle. Sly’s “psychedelic soul” would soon show its influence on other groups. The Temptations released “Cloud Nine” later that year, and its wah-wah guitar and fuzz tones were clearly influenced by Sly’s work.
Sly & the Family Stone toured through late 1967 and early 1968, playing the Fillmore East and West, Manhattan’s Electric Circus, and other important venues. The band’s audience was growing, and the onstage performances were getting sharper and more polished. At the same time, the band was working on a follow-up to A Whole New Thing. Epic released Dance to the Music in April 1968, and the album reached number 11 on the R&B charts, but it didn’t do much on the pop charts—peaking at number 148.
Sly’s sister Rose joined the Family Stone on Dance to the Music as a fourth vocalist and keyboardist. The album contains much the same gospel and soul influences as the group’s debut, but it’s more stylistically consistent. Sly takes the ideas contained in the title track to their limit on the 12-minute “Dance to the Medley,” with its fuzz guitars, a cappella vocal breaks, thumping bass lines, and kicking horn arrangement. The album maintains its momentum and groove through nine tracks, without being repetitive or stale.
Epic released the single “Life” in August 1968, in anticipation of Sly & the Family Stone’s third album, Life, the following month. The single, backed with “M’Lady,” barely cracked the top 100, and the album only went to 195 on the pop charts, with no showing on the R&B charts. The single deserved better. Both sides were as memorable and well produced as any of the group’s later hits.
The album has its share of enjoyable tracks that convey a party atmosphere, such as “Chicken” and “I’m an Animal,” and the arrangements are clever and well played. Of its 12 songs, however, only “Life” and “M’Lady” are fully realized. The other songs contain many of the elements that made the group unique, including the interplay of the vocalists and Freddie Stone’s inspired combination of psychedelic and funk guitar. In the end, however, Sly Stone seems to be edging away from the formula that worked on Dance to the Music without being sure which direction he should take.
A tour of England in September 1968 ended abruptly when Graham was arrested for marijuana possession. Sly also had problems with promoters, and his patterns of unreliability and bad behavior at concerts probably began to take hold during this tour.
When the group returned to the US, they went into the studio to work on a follow-up to Life. The failure of that album to make a splash convinced Sly that he had to create a hit LP. He wrote the charts for the band members and drilled them on how they should be played. In November 1968, Epic released a single from the upcoming album: “Everyday People.” The song became the group’s first number 1, on both the pop and R&B charts. The B-side of the single, “Sing a Simple Song,” also got heavy airplay.
“Everyday People” embodies the optimism of the late ’60s and brings focus to some of the messages Sly Stone was hinting at on the group’s earlier recordings:
Sometimes I’m right and I can be wrong
My own beliefs are in my song
The butcher, the banker, the drummer and then
Makes no difference what group I’m in
Sly also acknowledges the complexity and tension that lay beneath the surface of ’60s idealism:
There is a blue one who can’t accept
The green one for living with
A fat one tryin’ to be a skinny one
Different strokes for different folks
And so on and so on and scooby-dooby-dooby
We got to live together
It wasn’t just the message that grabbed people’s attention. Graham’s bass and Errico’s reliably rock-solid drumming set the mid-tempo groove against Sly Stone’s simple piano figure. Sly sings the first verse, and Rose Stone, accompanied at spots by other members of the group, takes over for the bridge. Freddie Stone interjects fuzz guitar lines that pull the song in a rock direction. The wordless vocal lines at the end of each bridge give the tune an old-time gospel vibe, and the vocal arrangement for the chorus—“I am everyday people”—is harmonically complex and grand, but has a communal feel that is in keeping with the lyrics.
The group’s next single, released in March 1969, went to 22 in the pop charts. “Stand!” continued Sly Stone’s themes of social consciousness and, like “Everyday People,” was mid-tempo, but with a funkier undercurrent. Sly added an even more pronounced dance groove to the close of the song after asking a DJ to play an earlier mix at a club. The crowd’s reaction to the song was positive, but Sly realized that it needed something to keep people moving on the dance floor. He added a coda, which features Sly exhorting the listener to stand up, and scat singing from the rest of the band. Errico plays a series of 16th notes on the hi-hat, and a stabbing guitar line helps things along. The vocal and instrumental lines repeat for the final minute of the song. Rather than being an afterthought, the coda ties things together.
The flip side to “Stand!” was “I Want to Take You Higher,” which also received airplay and helped drive album sales. Sly Stone took James Brown’s innovations in funk, added distorted bass and guitar from the psychedelic music that surrounded him in San Francisco, and created an electrifying hybrid. Freddie Stone’s cutting lead-guitar lines gave the song a rock foundation, but his rhythm guitar was patterned after the example set by Brown’s guitarists. Graham’s fuzz bass hit hard, and the horns snarled. “I Want to Take You Higher” was a dance tune that was both liberating and menacing.
Epic released the LP Stand! in May and it sold briskly, in part because four of the album’s eight tracks had enjoyed exposure on the two double-sided singles. While Sly Stone’s optimism showed through much of the album, including its closing, “You Can Make It If You Try,” he acknowledged the complexities of America’s racial divide on “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey.” As Marcus writes in Mystery Train, “When the band growled out [the song], they gave pleasure by using the insults for all they were worth, and at the same time showed how deeply those insults cut.”
Epic released the single “Hot Fun in the Summertime” in July. The single, which did not appear on the album, reached number 2 on the pop chart, further solidifying Sly & the Family Stone’s popularity. The song has a tremendously appealing good-time vibe, with a hint of funk coursing through the bridge and chorus. In November, Epic released “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” backed with “Everybody Is a Star.” “Thank You” is pure funk, starting with Graham’s slap bass, which became massively influential. The song is Sly Stone’s most overt tribute to James Brown, building on Brown’s lessons and moving funk forward.
When Sly Stone appeared at the Harlem Cultural Festival and at Woodstock, the summer after Stand! had established his band as a music-industry force, it was still possible to believe that America fully embraced peace and love. Overall, Stand! was the embodiment of ’60s activism and positivity, but it occasionally hinted at undercurrents flowing through the decade that would soon cause things to take a dark turn. “Somebody’s Watching You,” for example, has a positive veneer, but its lyrics warn of the dangers of believing the external goodness we project while hiding a darker reality.
Sly & the Family Stone’s creative and financial breakthrough with Stand! and the triumph at Woodstock led to changes within the band. The major changes began with Sly Stone himself. He increasingly wanted to be the central figure onstage. He also began to succumb to the rock star’s biggest pitfall: drugs. One signal that something was up, personally and musically, was Sly’s decision to move from San Francisco to Los Angeles. He rented a mansion from John Phillips of The Mamas & the Papas—Phillips had installed a recording studio in the mansion, which made it attractive to Sly.
Sly Stone’s music began to reflect his personal struggles, as well as the changes in mood that occurred as the decade closed. The tragedy of the Altamont Free Concert in late 1969 coincided with the end of ’60s idealism, as the anti-war and civil rights movements gave way to more radical forms of activism, led by such groups as the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground.
Aside from “Hot Fun in the Summertime” and the two-sided “Thank You” / “Everybody Is a Star,” Sly Stone was slow to follow up the success of Stand! When Epic released Greatest Hits, the group had not produced a new LP for 18 months—an eternity in pop music at that time. The label was simply filling that gap.
Joel Selvin wrote an article for the August 2001 issue of Mojo magazine about the drama and difficulties of recording the follow-up to Stand! In “Lucifer Rising,” he describes a world colored by drug use, which was becoming a problem for most of the band and led to associations with drug dealers and gangsters. Sly Stone’s paranoia had increased, and he became more and more distant from the rest of the group. He also became unreliable. He was late for live performances or missed them entirely, and was drug-addled when he appeared on television shows.
Sly was also closing himself off from the rest of the group during recording. He was working at his home studio and at the Record Plant in Los Angeles, and playing nearly all the instruments. Recording the group live in the studio gave way to Sly overdubbing parts, calling in the occasional guest, and using the group only rarely.
Epic released There’s a Riot Goin’ On in November 1971, and from the first moments of the opening track, “Luv n’ Haight,” it’s clear that something is very different about Sly & the Family Stone. The sound is constricted and crowded. Sly made so many overdubs that every playback of the album reveals something you haven’t previously heard. The vocals are slightly buried and the mix is thick—even a bit muddy. Perhaps by way of explanation, a note on the lyric sheet included with the original LP says: “It’s so complex / Words get in the way.”
It’s easy to hear Graham’s bass on “Love N’ Haight,” “Family Affair,” “Africa Talks to You (The Asphalt Jungle),” and other tracks. Sly Stone also plays bass on the album, and he’s no slouch on the instrument, but Graham is certainly the more distinctive player. Errico appears on drums for several tracks, but Sly mostly used drum machines, which he reprogrammed to get the sounds he wanted. Robinson and Martini play horn parts throughout but were only called in when needed.
Given the chaotic nature of the recording sessions, it’s a miracle that There’s a Riot Goin’ On turned out to be Sly Stone’s masterpiece. It was so different from the Sly & the Family Stone albums that preceded it that initial reactions were mixed. Vince Aletti at Rolling Stone respected the album, but could only bring himself to like parts of it. Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times disapproved of the move to music that was less reassuring. Greil Marcus’s appraisal, four years later in Mystery Train, recognizes the album’s greatness, calling it “a devastating work of art that that deeply challenged anyone who ever claimed to be a part of [Sly Stone’s] audience.”
Epic was able to pull hit singles from There’s a Riot Goin’ On, despite its complexities. “Family Affair” uses a rhythm machine, wah-wah guitar, bass, and an electric piano to create a percolating groove. Rose Stone sings the chorus to open the song, and Sly handles the verses, which examine family dynamics and, by extension, those in his band and the world around him. Sly Stone sees, at best, ambivalence.
One child grows up to be
Somebody that just loves to learn
And another child grows up to be
Somebody you’d just love to burn
Mom loves the both of them
You see, it’s in the blood
Both kids are good to mom
Blood’s thicker than the mud
“Family Affair” was number 1 on the charts. The album’s next single, “Runnin’ Away,” went to number 23. Rose Stone is the lead vocalist and the arrangement is spare—just drums, bass, and guitar. Robinson injects trumpet lines at points. Those singles and two others on the album showed that Sly Stone hadn’t lost his ability to craft good tunes. “Just like a Baby” and “(You Caught Me) Smilin’” are as memorable as anything Sly had written before.
Other tracks took longer to absorb and appreciate. Sly Stone closed the album with “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me Africa,” which takes “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” and slows it to a crawl. The bass still pops, but the song is sad, drugged-out, and resigned. In the original, Sly sang: “Thank you for the party / But I could never stay.” He alters the lyrics slightly for the revamp of the song, and they’re more emphatic: “I wanna thank you for the party / I could never stay (I could never stay).”
The original LP lists the title track at the end of side 1, but with a running time of 0:00. The side actually ends with “Africa Talks to You (The Asphalt Jungle),” a more-than-eight-minute slow jam where Sly Stone sings—perhaps about himself—“Must be a rush for me / To see a lazy / A brain he meant to be.” The song builds layer by layer, bass and rhythm carrying it along. Many other songs on the album follow that pattern of developing slowly, including “Spaced Cowboy,” “Poet,” and “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me Africa.”
There’s a Riot Goin’ On is funk, but it’s a slow grind rather than an exhortation to dance. In Mystery Train, Marcus comments: “The songs seem to wander, to show up and disappear, ghostly, with no highs or lows.” Time reveals that Sly Stone was playing the long game on There’s a Riot Goin’ On. He may have been punchy from drug use, and reports suggest everyone around him, including the recording engineers, were similarly affected. Yet the album is carefully constructed. Because it was so different from what Sly had done before—so different from what anyone had done—it took a while for that fact to sink in.
The next Sly & the Family Stone album, Fresh, arrived in June 1973, another 18 months after its predecessor. By then, Errico had moved on and Graham only appeared on two tracks. Once again, Sly fussed over the recording in the studio. The album was certainly sprightlier than There’s a Riot Goin’ On, and it has a more pronounced dance groove. The album took fewer chances, though, and Sly seemed on occasion to be borrowing from Stevie Wonder, who had previously learned a few things from Sly Stone. Even so, there are some good moments to savor.
“If You Want Me to Stay” is effortlessly funky and has a radio-friendly melody that made it a hit. Rustee Allen’s snapping bass line owes more than a little to Larry Graham. “Frisky,” “Skin I’m In,” and “In Time” were reminders of how groundbreaking Sly Stone’s brand of soul was. A gospel-flavored version of “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)” reached back to Sly’s roots, but managed to sound up to date. Fresh was not as innovative as Stand! or There’s a Riot Goin’ On, and in some ways it felt like Sly was playing nice after the difficulties of Riot. But time has proved the LP to be one of Sly Stone’s best, and it was his last significant album.
Small Talk (1974) was Sly & the Family Stone in name only. It’s hard to judge how much the remaining band members contributed to the record, but it’s underpowered, as if Sly had given up. High on You ( 1975) was a Sly Stone solo album, although some of his former bandmates helped. It’s a surprisingly good funk album, but one that sees Sly covering territory he’d already conquered.
Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I’m Back (1976) returned the group name above the album title, but only included Robinson from the original lineup. It was succeeded by Back on the Right Track (1979) and Ain’t But the One Way (1982). In the years that followed, Sly’s drug use and eccentric behavior made the news more often than his music, but rumors floated that he was making a comeback. In 2011, after a gap of nearly 30 years, he released I’m Back! Family & Friends, which included help from some high-powered names on remakes of his best-known tunes.
Sly & the Family Stone’s reign was brief, but Sly Stone had a major influence on other musicians, then and later. Motown picked up on what he was doing and added rock elements to its singles in the late ’60s and early ’70s. George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic owes as much to Sly Stone as it does to James Brown. Miles Davis took the rhythmic experiments of There’s a Riot Goin’ On as an inspiration for his recordings in the early part of the ’70s, especially for On the Corner (1972) and Big Fun (1974). Stevie Wonder picked up a few tricks from Sly & adapted them to his own needs. Later musicians, such as Prince and Arrested Development, also owe a debt to Sly Stone.
It would be too easy to look at Sly Stone as a cautionary tale of pop-star excess. He took the collapse of the ’60s dream to heart, and it led to his drug use. It also led him to create one of the era’s strongest musical statements. Since then, the pressures of fame seem to have soured him on the idea of being a pop star. Bassist Bootsy Collins, who guested on I’m Back! Family & Friends in 2011, told an interviewer: “It’s like he’s had it—it ain’t no fun no more. It’s a curse and a blessing. The curse part of it is the business you have to deal with, and then the blessing part is you get to be a musician and have fun.”
Sly Stone has edged close to a comeback a few times in the last 50 years. Perhaps, for him, the curse has outweighed the fun.
. . . Joseph Taylor