Sly Stone Turns 80

More crazy news: Sylvester Stewart a.k.a. Sly Stone (b.1943) turns 80 years old today. It seems a good reason to shine a spotlight on him for that reason, as does the less happy benchmark that he basically slid from his place near the top of pop culture just about a half century ago. AND. And? And…he’s still very much alive. I’m ashamed to admit I had assumed otherwise and hadn’t checked in a while. A good time to celebrate people is when they’re still around.

Sly and the Family Stone would have been among the first contemporary pop music I ever heard, an impression reinforced by the fact that their early, celebratory hits were maximally accessible to children. Hailing from the San Francisco Bay area, Sly and the Family Stone were all about breaking barriers. The members were black and white, male and female. Three of Sly’s siblings (Freddie, Rose and Vet) were in the band, making it, as his own song would have it, a “Family Affair” — just like that other kid friendly soul act of the day, The Jackson Five. Other original members included Cynthia Robinson, one of the first female trumpet players in a major American band; Larry Graham, who invented the slap style of playing the bass that became a staple of funk (and who later released the #10 solo single “One in a Million You” in 1980); sax and clarinet player Jerry Martini, and drummer Greg Errico. Sly himself played every instrument, and played them well. In this he is one of the several influences Prince surely drew from.

Prior to forming his own band, Stone had been a DJ and a record producer for local bands like The Beau Brummels (for example, he produced their awesome 1964 hit single “Laugh Laugh” which I gushed about here). So he was not afraid of white sounds and influences. I was amused by this early picture of him from that period, a far cry from his back-to-Africa ‘fro and rhinestone pimp gear he was rocking a decade later:

The band’s heyday was basically 1967 to 1973, with most of their biggest hits characterized by a joyful sound and a tactic of constant, fun surprises, unusual instrumentation, a cappella passages, and infectious soul-derived rhythms. Because the horn players were also singers and could move around and dance, the act was in constant motion and looked like a party. Visually it was almost like one of those New Orleans marching bands. About a half dozen of their songs were major hits and remained in rotation long after they were introduced: “Dance to the Music” (#8, 1967), “Everyday People” (#1, 1968), “Stand!” (#22, 1969), “Hot Fun in the Summertime” (#2, 1969), “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” b/w “Everybody is a Star” (#1, 1969), “I Want to Take You Higher” (only #38 on the charts but memorable from the Woodstock movie, 1970), and “Family Affair” (#1, 1971). And they performed on The Ed Sullivan Show, Kraft Music Hall, The Leslie Uggams Show, Soul Train, The Midnight Special etc.

The band had always been about black empowerment and racial harmony but with their fifth (and best selling) LP There’s a Riot Going On (1971) the lyrics became more about “straight talk” than optimism and cheery slogans (“different strokes for different folks” is what they had sung on “Everyday People” almost as a kind of credo or rallying cry). Their musical sound now became darker, more in the vein of Marvin Gaye’s then-recent What’s Going On. Stone and some of his band got deep into drugs and the sound of his subsequent records seemed to follow trends more than set them. By 1975 several key members of the group had dropped out. Popular preference shifted to the orchestral soul with heavy string sections we associate with Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield and blaxploitation soundtracks, and then came disco, and of course funk, all of which owed something to Stone’s innovations. The group officially folded in 1982.

At various times Stone re-emerged as a guest artist or collaborator on various projects in the four decades since. But it has also been reported from time to time that he has been homeless, or close to it, living out of trailers. I hope someone’s taking good care of him. He’s a national treasure. I take this up-to-date official website as a good sign.