Sly And The Family Stone formed in 1966 with Sly’s sister Rose on keyboards and vocals, brother Freddie on guitar, cousin Larry Graham on bass, Cynthia Robinson on trumpet, Jerry Martini on saxophone and Greg Errico on drums. Sly handled lead vocals, keyboards, songwriting and producing.
As the grinning showman with a penchant for outlandish shades and giant afros, Sylvester ‘Sly Stone’ Stewart represented everything great about late-60s psychedelic soul: wild, free-spirited music intent on moving people’s feet and blowing their minds.
Nobody wanted to take you higher than Sly Stone. Archive footage of his early performances depicts a smiling precursor to both Prince and Outkast.
His pop songs were pep pills that took the sanguine utopianism of hippiedom at its word.
The group made the charts in 1968 with their energetic debut single, Dance To The Music. But 1969 was to be the group’s breakthrough year, with a #1 hit single (Everyday People), one of the era’s most influential albums (Stand) and an epic performance at Woodstock.
It seemed The Family Stone could do no wrong, but this proved to have been their pinnacle and the band began falling apart. Sly’s disenchantment with touring, and crucial personnel changes (such as the departure of bassist Larry Graham) only dissipated their versatility.
Much had been made of The Family Stone’s multi-racial soul and rock fusion, but thanks to bass player Graham they had also been one of the first groups to realise the power of the funk.
By the time of There’s A Riot Goin’ On (1971), Stone had sunk into drug addiction and Bacchanalian squalor. It was as if the faded Aquarian dawn of the 60s, the betrayal of African-Americans, the riots, assassinations and unkept promises, had been absorbed by Stone and taken their toll.
Holed up in a Bel Air mansion with a mountain of drugs and some bad company, he was perpetually stoned. Riot is decay music, toxic and oozing. And decadent – the tapes sound fuzzy because they were worn out from Sly recording over and over them with vocal tracks of women he wanted to bed.
Once, his music was about reaching out to a bright new beyond. Now he was pawing about in a dark inner-space, heavy-lidded and given to random bursts of narcotic ecstasy – like the scream at the end of Family Affair. The album alienated much of Sly’s fanbase.
Throughout the 70s the formerly flamboyant Sly became a recluse, recording to less effect than in the 60s. But despite his prodigious cocaine intake, Sly’s fall from grace in the mid-70s involved no grand follies or crazed flights of fancy.
The truth was more prosaic than that, as Stone spent the decade after There’s A Riot Goin’ On tiresomely insisting that everything was OK and that he was the same old Sly.
In truth, he was becoming his own tribute act, and switching labels from Epic to Warner’s did nothing to stop the rot.
When the band finally broke up in 1975, Sly’s career disintegrated. Despite its wafer-thin songwriting, 1979s desperate-to-convince Back On The Right Track was a solid-enough funk record (ironically, a collection of his older songs remixed for disco came out at the same time and sold better), but 1983’s justly neglected Ain’t But The One Way really was the end of the line, with its unbecoming 80s sheen and baffling version of The Kinks‘ You Really Got Me.
After this: coke bust, rehab, hermitage. Perhaps it was for the best.
Sly and The Family Stone were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 1993.
Sly Stone (Sylvester Stewart)
Vocals, guitar, keyboards
Freddie Stone (Frederick Stewart)