Sly & The Family Stone Biography

This highly influential US band was formed in San Francisco, California, in 1967 by brothers Sly Stone (Sylvester Stewart, 15 March 1943, Denton, Texas, USA) and Freddie Stone (b. Frederick Stewart, 5 June 1946, Vallejo, California, USA; guitar), with Cynthia Robinson (b. 12 January 1946, Sacramento, California, USA; trumpet), Jerry Martini (b. 1 October 1943, Colorado, USA; saxophone), Larry Graham (b. 14 August 1946, Beaumont, Texas, USA; bass) and Greg Errico (b. 1 September 1948, San Francisco, California, USA; drums) the other original members. Errico and Martini were both white, making Sly And The Family Stone one of the first multi-racial bands to prosper in their homeland.

Sly Stone’s recording career began in 1948. A child prodigy, he drummed and added guitar to ‘On The Battlefield For My Lord’, a single released by his family’s group, the Stewart Fourm in 1952, At high school he sang harmony with the Viscaynes, but by the early 60s he was working the bars and clubs on San Francisco’s North Beach enclave. Sly learned his trade with several bands, including Joe Piazza And The Continentals, but he occasionally fronted his own. ‘Long Time Away’, a single credited to Sylvester Stewart, dates from this period. He also worked as a disc jockey at stations KSOL and KDIA. Sly joined Autumn Records as a songwriter/house-producer, and secured a 1964 success with Bobby Freeman’s ‘C’mon And Swim’. His own opportunistic single, ‘I Just Learned How To Swim’, was less fortunate, a fate that also befell ‘Buttermilk Pts 1 & 2’. Stone’s production work, however, was exemplary; the Beau Brummels, the Tikis and the Mojo Men enjoyed a polished, individual sound.

In 1966 Sly formed the Stoners, a short-lived unit that included Cynthia Robinson. The following year Sly And The Family Stone made its debut on the local Loadstone label with ‘I Ain’t Got Nobody’. The band was then signed to Epic, where their first album proclaimed itself A Whole New Thing. However, it was February 1968 before ‘Dance To The Music’ became a Top 10 single in the USA and UK. The Stones’ sister Rosie Stone (b. Rosemary Stewart, 21 March 1945, Vallejo, California, USA; vocals/keyboards) was now a member of the band, and ‘Everyday People’ topped the US chart early the following year. Sly’s talent was not fully established until a fourth album, Stand!, was released. Two million copies were sold, while tracks including the title song, ‘I Want To Take You Higher’ and ‘Sex Machine’, transformed black music forever. Rhythmically inventive, the whole band pulsated with a crazed enthusiasm that pitted doo-wop, soul, the San Francisco sound, and more, one on top of the other, transcending the smooth pop sound of Motown Records that had established the blueprint for black music in the mid-60s. Contemporaries, from Miles Davis to George Clinton and the Temptations, showed traces of Sly’s remarkable vision. A sensational appearance at the Woodstock Festival reinforced his popularity.

The new decade began with a double-sided hit, ‘Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)’/‘Everybody Is A Star’, an R&B and pop number 1, but the optimism suddenly clouded. Beset by drug problems, Sly began missing concerts, and those he did perform were often disappointing. Errico left the band and was replaced by a succession of drummers. When There’s A Riot Goin’ On did appear in 1971, it was dark, mysterious and brooding, a perfect aural soundtrack for troubled times. This introverted set nevertheless reached number 1 in the US chart, and provided three successful singles, ‘Family Affair’ (another US R&B and pop number 1), ‘Running Away’ and ‘Smilin’’, but the joyful noise of the 60s was now over.

The 1973 release Fresh, featuring additional saxophone player Pat Rizzo, was heavy on the funk but lacked Sly’s erstwhile focus while successive albums, Small Talk (1974) and High On You (1975), reflected a waning power. The Family Stone was also crumbling: Larry Graham had already left to form Graham Central Station prior to the release of Fresh and was replaced by Rusty Allen (b. 1953, USA), and Rosie Stone recorded a solo album as Rose Banks. However, the real undermining factor was the leader’s drug dependency, a constant stumbling block to Sly’s recurrent ‘comebacks’. The 1979 release, Back On The Right Track, featured several original members, but later tours were dogged by Sly’s addiction problem. Jailed for possession of cocaine in 1987, this innovative artist closed the decade fighting further extradition charges and there was little of any note heard of Stone in the 90s, although he was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1993. His next major public appearance was at the 2006 Grammy Awards.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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