Sly Stone - psychedelic pioneer of funk
Sly Stone (born Sylvester Stewart in Dallas on March 15, 1944) and his family moved from Texas to San Francisco in the '50s. He had already begun to express an interest in music, and at 16, had a regional hit with "Long Time Away." Stone studied music at Vallejo Junior College in the early '60s; simultaneously playing in several groups on the Bay Area scene - often with his brother Fred. Soon he had become a disc jockey at the R&B station KSOL. The radio appearances led to a job producing records for Autumn Records. While at Autumn, he worked with a number of San Francisco bands and musicians.
During 1966, Stone formed the Stoners, which featured trumpeter Cynthia Robinson. Though the Stoners didn't last long, he brought Robinson along as one of the core members of his next group, Sly & the Family Stone. Formed in early 67, the Family Stone also featured Fred Stewart (guitar, vocals), Larry Graham Jr. (bass, vocals), Greg Errico (drums), Jerry Martini (saxophone), and Rosie Stone (piano), who all were of different racial backgrounds. The group's eclectic music and multiracial composition made them distinctive from the flower-power bands in San Francisco, and their first single, "I Ain't Got Nobody," became a regional hit for the local label Loadstone. The band signed with Epic Records shortly afterward, releasing their debut album, A Whole New Thing, by the end of the year. The record didn't do well, but the follow-up, Dance to the Music, generated a hit with its title track early in 1968. "Everyday People," released late in 1968, rocketed to the top of the pop charts and made the band an overnight success.
Sly Stone harnessed all of the disparate musical and social trends of the late '60s, creating a wild, brilliant fusion of soul, rock, R&B, psychedelia, and funk that broke boundaries down .
Before Stone, very few soul and R&B groups delved into political and social commentary; after him, it became a tradition in soul, funk, and hip-hop. And, along with James Brown, Stone brought hard funk into the mainstream. The Family Stone's arrangements were ingenious, filled with unexpected group vocals, syncopated rhythms, punchy horns, and pop melodies. Their music was joyous, but as the '60s ended, so did the good times.
The Family Stone had quickly became known as one of the best live bands of the late '60s, and their performance at Woodstock was widely hailed as one of the festival's best. While the group was at the height of its popularity, Sly was beginning to unravel behind the scenes. Developing a debilitating addiction to narcotics, Stone soon became notorious for arriving late for concerts, frequently missing the shows all together.
Stone became disillusioned with the ideals he had been preaching in his music. His music gradually grew darker, culminating in 1971's There's a Riot Going On, which set the pace for '70s funk with its elastic bass, slurred vocals, and militant stance. Stone was able to turn out one more modern funk classic, 1973's Fresh, before slowly succumbing to his addictions, which gradually sapped him of his once prodigious talents. Disco had overtaken funk in terms of popularity, and even if Sly wanted to compete with disco, he wasn't in shape to make music. He had become addicted to cocaine, his health was frequently poor, and he was often in trouble with the law. His recordings had slowed to a trickle, and Epic decided to close out his contract in 1979 with Ten Years Too Soon, a compilation of previously released material that had the original funky rhythm tracks replaced with disco beats. Stone signed with Warner Brothers that same year, crafting the comeback effort Back on the Right Track with several original members of the Family Stone, but the record was a commercial failure. In light of the album's lack of success, Stone retreated even further, eventually joining forces with George Clinton on Funkadelic's 1981 album The Electric Spanking of War Babies. Stone toured with Clinton's P-Funk All-Stars, which led him to embark on his own tour, as well as a stint with Bobby Womack. The culmination of this burst of activity was 1983's Ain't but the One Way, an album that was ignored. Later that year, Stone was arrested for cocaine possession; the following year, he entered rehab. Stone was again arrested and imprisoned for cocaine by the end of 1987, and he was never able to recover from the final arrest.
After his release, Stone went into semi-retirement and became a recluse.
By his 1993 induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, he had disappeared from public view. Following his surprise appearance at the induction ceremony, he was found living in a shelter. Avenue Records gave Stone a recording contract in 1995, but nothing would be recorded, and he faded away for awhile.
Stone now lives near Beverly Hills with two female assistants, where he records at a home studio and rides his motorcycle. His son, Sylvester Jr., told People in 1997 that his father had composed an album's worth of material, including a tribute to Miles Davis called "Miles and Miles."
A Sly & the Family Stone tribute took place at the 2006 Grammy Awards on February 8, 2006, at which Sly gave his first live musical performance since 1987. Sly & the original Family Stone lineup (minus Larry Graham) performed briefly during a tribute to the band, for which the headliners included Steven Tyler. Sporting an enormous blonde mohawk, thick sunglasses, a "Sly" beltbuckle and a silver suit, he joined in on "I Want To Take You Higher." Sly walked to the front of the stage toward the end of the performance, sang a verse and then with a wave to the audience, sauntered offstage before the song was over. He went up the ramp, outside the theater, got on a motorcycle and rode off. That's the last anyone has seen of him, a year ago. GATOR