Happy birthday today to one of music’s true eccentrics and geniuses, Sly Stone, who with his Family Stone, concocted a blend of genres like R&B, funk, light rock and roll, pop, and even psychedelia into one seamless quilt of songs and sounds that are still passionately loved, remembered, and influential to this day, the master songwriter/songcrafter and ultimate showman.
With songs like “Everyday People,” “Dance to the Music,” “Thank You Fallentinme Be Mice Elf (Agin),” “Stand” “Family Affair,” “If You Want Me To Stay,” “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” “Everybody is a Star,” “I Want To Take You Higher,” and plenty more, spanning albums through the mid 1960s to the early 1970s, when the band experienced a dizzying carnival ride of success before excess made it spin out of control, largely due to its leader, Sly and the Family Stone ushered in a multi-racial, kind of party-esque musical atmosphere that everyone was allowed to metaphorically imbibe on, a rainbow that everyone was able to surf on, an idyllic ocean filled with waves of notes and good vibes.
They weren’t the first band with Caucasian and African-American members, other genres had already notched that, with some of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis’ ensembles (notably his line up on Kind of Blue, which sported the white Bill Evans on piano) or Booker T and the MG’s with its mix of white and black men, but both aforementioned lineups were pretty much set in their musical ways, Davis firmly rooted in jazz and Booker T in a kind of jazzy organ tinged funk instrumental R&B skein. Sly Stone (born Sylvester Stewart) took a little of what Booker T was doing, but Sly and the Family Stone really rode their magic carpet that was weaved by giants such as James Brown, Otis Redding, Lee Dorsey, and eventually even people and side by side peers of the times like Jimi Hendrix, Parliament/Funkadelic, Issac Hayes, and The Beatles. They acted as the bridge between what was going on in Detroit’s Motown Records, which were churning out records at a furiously fast clip, each of them top ten or higher hits and what was going on in the deeper south out of Atlantic/Stax Records, where there was a little bit more soul fried musical envelope pushing. Put into the blender and thrown into their own snifter, Sly and the Family Stone bridged the polarized audiences of both those hit making record companies together, and even taught them both a few new tricks.
And it was all pretty much helmed from the master mind and soul of Sly Stone. He was like an R&B Shaman, a musical wizard who had an empty canvas in front of him, easily throwing his own paint on time and time again, creating his own musical masterpieces, dressed to the nines in a kind of bizarrely yet charming for him and fitting like a glove kind of apparel. Each album, each song during Sly and the Family Stone’s glory years seemed to have kind of perfection on them, but not of the cold, stark variety that usually works in concert and tandem with the word perfection. On the contrary, the music that came from his pen and piano was a celebration unlike no other, creating a sonic communal atmosphere and influence that ran broad and wide. It really was a marvel to behold and to listen to. Here was a black man, during one of the most turbulent eras of the times in the late 1960s, on top of his game musically, not pigeonholed or tethered by any supposed genre he was supposed to musically portent (even people like Jimi Hendrix had pressures put upon him to stay mired in his own musical boxes that was expected of him time and time again). If anything, Sly Stone created his own tracks, crafted his own musical railroad, and independently went chugging down it into the horizon, free rides for all, because he and the band had the ultimate free ride, their own musical control.
But for Sly Stone, he too couldn’t escape the indulgences that the ’60s had to offer, by way of the supposed freedom of narcotics. As quickly as all he built up around him that was a gigantic mode of success, which arguably was at it’s peaks when the band did a highly memorable set at the Woodstock Festival in 1969, was also just as quickly crestfallen by the usage of drugs that almost killed him; it certainly killed his career and the reputation of the band, which disbanded as the 1970s hit it’s decade midrange. And ever since then, Sly Stone has not been able to get back on the plank of success and adoration that was paved gold when he was in his glory years. For decades afterwards and right up until today, he has manifested a legend and so has his audience, which have thrown urban legends upon him like darts to the skin, of a sort of latter day Howard Hughes proportions; some reports say he is currently homeless, others deny it, he’s made appearances on stage that have lasted no more than 10 minutes, looking physically garish or bombastic, out-of-control in a fashion sense, disappointing crowds globally to the point of them demanding their money back. There’s still no finger that can put itself on the man, the legend, the urban legend, the enigma and complex or possibly not complex man at all, that is Sly Stone.
But the music remains unscathed. The highlight reels of Sly and the Family Stone still aurally shine and project through the global fabric with the same luster as they had when they first came out of the cardboard sleeves as vinyl singles and 33 and a third records all those decades ago. The music is still fun, exciting, urgent, funky, even turbulent and message laden, (especially songs from the adventurous and critically divided political There’s A Riot Going On album) but above all, they are songs of get down, get loose and party style music of the highest order, raised to the highest level within its genre. Although the artistic works of Sly Stone have not been at that level for decades now, for arguably over 40 years, he still created an indelible stamp on the music world and community. Bands like War and Earth, Wind and Fire and even Santana took the baton after he carelessly and unfortunately dropped it and created their own Sly sounds, yet originally done with their own styles and musical fabrics as well. The influence Sly Stone had on that type of music is immeasurable (and even indirectly on the hip hop/rap genre, which have been sampling elements of classic Sly songs and sounds endlessly), even if the man himself was not able to sustain that kind of influence.
So dance to the music today, stand, and let Sly and the Family Stone take you higher. It’s a family affair indeed, and you and me and everyone are always going to be part of that family. He asked once, on a Sly and the Family Stone monster hit, from what seems like another time altogether, if you want him to stay. The answer to that is, Sly Stone, man, we wish you never would have left. But thanks for dropping off those great tunes in perpetuity for us when you didn’t stay, even though we wanted you to. Have a Happy 70th, wherever you are, you genius you.
Anthology, a 20-song Sly and the Family Stone hits collection, is currently on sale for only $5 in MP3 format.