Born Sylvester Stewart, March 15, 1944, in Dallas, TX; married Kathy Silva, June 1974 (divorced, 1974); children: Sylvester Bubb Ali Stewart, Jr. Education: Attended Vallejo Junior College.
With his groundbreaking group Sly and the Family Stone, Sylvester Stewart--or Sly Stone, as he came to be called--pioneered the psychedelic funk sound that would electrify the Woodstock generation of the late 1960s and profoundly influence the direction taken by rhythm and blues and, in the subsequent decades, other black music forms from soul to disco to rap. While Stone's flamboyant persona, uplifting songs, and ethnically diverse band earned a massive following, political and personal difficulties hampered his career and eventually drove him out of the music scene. During the most intensely productive segment of his career, however, he was, according to pop music critic Dave Marsh, "one of the greatest musical adventurers rock has ever known."
Sylvester Stewart was born in Dallas, Texas, in March of 1944. He began his recording career early--at age four--as a vocalist on the gospel tune "On the Battlefield for My Lord." In the fifties his family moved to the San Francisco area. Stewart and his brother Freddie learned to play various instruments and made music under the name the Stewart Four. Stewart also played and sang with doo-wop groups. In high school he sang with a group called the Viscanes, appearing on their record "Yellow Moon." At age sixteen he made a solo record called "Long Time Away" which gained him some modest fame. As a student at Vallejo Junior College he learned music theory and composition, putting what he learned into practice at weekend performing gigs.
At a show in 1964 Stewart met Tom "Big Daddy" Donahue, a disc jockey from San Francisco. Donahue told him about a record label he had formed with another former DJ. Stewart agreed to join the new venture, Autumn Records, and after cutting a few records of his own began to develop his talents as a producer. Working with bands like the Beau Brummels and the Great Society--the latter's singer, Grace Slick, would later front the psychedelic supergroup Jefferson Airplane--Stewart honed the studio skills he would later put to considerable use with his own group. In 1966, though, he left Autumn Records and became a disc jockey at radio station KSOL in San Francisco. He soon gained notoriety as one of the more eccentric voices on radio, blending sound effects with public service announcements and mixing soul singles with rock and roll records by Bob Dylan and the Beatles. According to Irwin Stambler in the Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul, by the time Stewart moved over to Oakland's station KDIA "he was generally considered the top R & B commentator" in the area.
At the same time, he was writing and playing with his own band, the Stoners. The group broke up in 1966, so Stewart and ex-Stoners trumpet player Cynthia Robinson formed a new ensemble. Stewart enlisted brother Freddie as guitarist and his sister Rosie to play piano. With the addition of saxophonist Jetty Martini, bassist Larry Graham and drummer Greg Errico (Martini's cousin), the Family Stone was born.
Stewart changed his name to Sly Stone, and the band soon attracted the attention of Columbia Records A&R executive David Kapralik. The group signed with Columbia, releasing its debut LP, A Whole New Thing, in 1967 on the Columbia subsidiary Epic Records. The album didn't fare particularly well--according to Timothy White's book Rock Stars, it "lacked the fizzy familial feel of their live shows"--but the group's single "Dance to the Music," released early in 1968, became a solid hit and provided the title for the group's next album. Charles Shaar Murray asserted in Crosstown Traffic that the song "changed the course of popular music. It was succeeded by a clutch of pop-soul crossover hits which somehow contrived to meld James Brown's funk with the Beatles' tuneful optimism, records as universally accessible as anything since early Motown."
In an essay included in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, rock critic Dave Marsh noted that "Dance to the Music" exploded the formal categories of soul and R & B because the vocals and the instruments "fought it out for space, right on the disc." Sly Stone had created a rock band that played in the traditions and spirit of soul music. "Dance to the Music" was the harbinger of hits to come; it reached the Top Ten of both the pop and soul charts, followed by a string of other hits. "Everyday People"--a song from Life! that gave the group its first Number One hit and helped popularize the slogan "different strokes for different folks"--"Stand!" and "I Want to Take You Higher" all increased the visibility of Sly Stone and his band. Stand!, the album containing the latter two singles, appeared in 1969. It also included the influential non-hit "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey."
The band, in its composition as much as its sound, crystallized much of the idealism and revolutionary thinking of the period. As Marsh observed, "Here was a band in which men and women, black and white, had not one fixed role but many fluid ones. The women played, the men sang; the blacks freaked out, the whites got funky; everyone did something unexpected, which was the only thing the listener could expect." A 1987 Rolling Stone piece devoted to "The Top 100" rock albums included Stand! --as well as two subsequent Sly and the Family Stone records. "On Stand! Stone's talent seems boundless," the magazine declared, calling the album's best songs "anthems you can dance to, soaring hymns of equality and self-determination set to a sweaty gutbucket beat." According to White, " Stand! ... was the album-length masterwork that 'Everyday People' had presaged; in one fell stroke it gave black music a new inner complexion while revolutionizing every other rock rhythm section extant."
The year 1969 brought more hit songs, most notably "Hot Fun in the Summertime" and the phonetically titled "Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again" ("thank you for lettin' me be myself again"). Greil Marcus described Stone's peak in his book Mystery Train: "Sly was a winner. It seemed he had not only won the race, he had made up his own rules. Driving the finest cars, sporting the most sensational clothes, making the biggest deals and the best music, he was shaping the style and ambition of black teenagers all over the country." The group's moment of greatest visibility came in 1969 when they performed at the Woodstock festival, the gigantic concert in New York state that stood as the summit and symbol of the hippie generation. A supplement in Rolling Stone advertising the Woodstock movie noted, "Many of [Stone's] songs have social consciousness, yet they are able to appeal to both black and white, short-haired and long-haired people of all ages."
Sly and the Family Stone's rendition of "I Want to Take You Higher" looked for a brief time like the embodiment of a generation's dreams: black and white musicians bringing an activist throng to its feet with irresistible rock and roll music. Marsh claimed in a 1973 Creem review that Stone "was almost forced into the role of house nigger for the Woodstock Nation"--someone who, as Marsh later claimed, "could make race a safe issue"--but the audience's thunderous response and its flashing the peace sign at the word "higher," as per Stone's instructions, suggest that Stone's message and appeal were hardly apolitical. Murray's description of the Woodstock performance gives it a ritual cast: "There's Sly's happy family in their baddest threads doing that old-time boogaloo while their chief mocks and exorcises generations of racial terror, shoving his huge grinning black mug into young America's face, going 'BOOM-lakka-lakkalakka, BOOM-lakka-lakka-lakka...'"
In 1970, riding on the wave of his hits, Stone began to cancel many of his shows and appear late for others. "According to his agent," reported Rolling Stone, "he canceled 26 of the 80 engagements scheduled for him in 1970." Some blamed the excesses of his lifestyle--Stone's regalia, onstage and off, was ostentatious to say the least and matched by his alleged fondness for drugs--for what the magazine called "the most erratic performance record since [drug-addicted actress-singer] Judy Garland." Kapralik, who had become the band's manager, created a split-personality narrative to explain the star's behavior to journalists and record executives: "OK, that's Sylvester Stewart, he's a poet," Kapralik told Rolling Stone. "And then there's Sly Stone, the street cat, the hustler, the pimp, the conniver, sly as a fox and cold as a stone.... That's the strutter, the street dude who walks up there with that charisma that holds an audience captive, right? 400,000 at Woodstock and 25,000 at Madison Square. He's irresponsible, opportunistic and unethical and he pimps our minds if we let him."
Of Stone's drug habit, Kapralik reasoned that factions in the black political community, especially the revolutionary group the Black Panthers, along with former band members and his family, were in a tug-of-war over the star: "That poor kid was torn apart. And when you are torn apart that means a lot of pain. And one of the clinical ways to ease the pain is cocaine." April of 1970 saw a near-riot at a Washington D.C. concert; also, a rumor that Stone had insulted black DJs brought about a short ban of his records from local soul stations. Meanwhile, to ease record company anxieties about new "product," a Greatest Hits album was released in 1970. This collection appeared in Rolling Stone 's Top 100 seventeen years later, and in 1981 rock critic Robert Christgau ranked it "among the greatest rock and roll LPs of all time." In August of 1970 Sly and the Family Stone appeared at the famed Isle of Wight music festival. As J. Green wrote in the festival issue of the Evening Standard, "Sometimes something emerges which breaks all the rules, shatters the accepted conventions, survives the hype and wins through. Sly and the Family Stone are such a band."
More difficulties, more cancellations, and more accusations surfaced in 1971. Rolling Stone reported that by October Stone had "canceled 12 shows out of 40" and was "late for two shows." In November the band at last released a new album. There's a Riot Goin' On was unlikely to banish concerns about Stone and his group, however. "The record was no fun," wrote Marcus. "It was slow, hard to hear, and it didn't celebrate anything. It was not groovy. In fact, it was distinctly unpleasant, unnerving." Yet, as Marcus and other critics agreed, the record was a groundbreaking statement. "Maybe this is the new urban music," speculated Vince Aletti in Rolling Stone. "Gone is the energy and flash that exploded in Sly's early music.... There's no exhilaration left and no immediately clear message. Only an overwhelming feeling of exhaustion." However, Aletti conceded, the album showed Sly's inner state with courageous honesty, "at the same time holding a mirror up to all of us.... There's a Riot Goin' On is one of the most important f--king albums of the year." White, writing in Rock Stars, called the album "a broody, militant, savage indictment of all the decayed determinism of the 1960's," while Marsh opined that it "might be the only truly epic album of the 70's." Christgau's book awarded it an "A+" and assessed, "Despairing, courageous and very hard to take, this is one of those rare albums whose whole actually does exceed the sum of its parts."
Despite the political edge and apparent lethargy and struggle of There's a Riot Goin' On, however, it went to Number One on the album chart and yielded three hit singles, "Family Affair," "(You Caught Me) Smilin'," and "Runnin' Away." It also featured a slowed-down and provocative rendition of "Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again," retitled "Thank You for Talkin' To Me Africa." Furthermore, according to Marsh and Marcus, Aletti's initial thought was correct: this was the new urban pop sound. A slew of politicized and skeptical if not downright pessimistic soul songs overtook the airwaves in the wake of There's a Riot Goin' On.
Stone's inconsistencies continued to dominate press reports about him, and his frequent run-ins with police increased in 1972. Since the star "got busted five times in as many months last year," Rolling Stone announced in February of 1973, "we award him a bust of himself." The joke held little appeal for Stone's handlers; a long time had lapsed without a new album, and Riot raised doubts that the Sly Stone of old would ever take audiences "higher" again. "We've been recording, rescheduling, [and] regrouping ... on everything we like to do, what we have to do, and things we wish we could do," Stone explained in an interview quoted in Rock Stars.
Stone was accurate when he said "regrouping," as the band went through several personnel changes in the early seventies. Graham left and was replaced by Rusty Allen; Andy Newmark replaced drummer Errico, and Stone recruited sax player Pat Rizzo. In August of 1973, Rolling Stone ran a profile featuring plenty of anecdotes about Stone's unreliability. "He's sort of like Mercury," a record company publicist admitted. "You think you've got your hands on him, but before you realize it he's slipped away." Stone reportedly felt that he didn't owe his fans anything for missed concerts: "I got nothing to pay back," he was quoted as saying in Rolling Stone.
Stone's fans would have to wait until October for Fresh! The new LP contained "If You Want Me to Stay," which went platinum, and one other hit, "Frisky." Marsh, reviewing the album for Creem, saw it as "Sly coming to terms with himself as rock star." He concluded that "there have been few albums as rich as this one released in 1973, if there have been any," and expected the record would yield hit songs "because Sly, however great the contradictions he feels may be, is a truly great rock singer in the first place." Vernon Gibbs, writing for Crawdaddy!, agreed: "The music is quite worthy of the founder of progressive soul. It gives us plenty of ass-shaking rhythms for the present and reason for optimism about the future.... Make no mistake about it, friends and neighbors, Sly is back and just as freshly chirping as ever."
In June of 1974 Stone married his girlfriend, Kathy Silva. The ceremony took place before television cameras at New York City's Madison Square Garden just before a concert. By the end of the year they were divorced, with Silva seeking custody of the couple's one-year-old son, Sylvester Bubb Ali Stewart, Jr. That year Sly and the Family Stone released Small Talk, an album that sank without much fanfare. In December, Stone walked out on a Muscular Dystrophy benefit in Washington, D.C. More arrests and conflicts followed, and Stone's musical output dwindled.
In 1976 the band put out Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I'm Back, but the album was generally dismissed by critics as a half-hearted effort. Stambler reported that "for a time after 1976, [Stone] was essentially out of the music business." He signed with Warner Brothers after a couple of unproductive years and in 1979 released Back on the Right Track with many of his original band members. Epic, meanwhile, seized the opportunity to release a record containing several Sly and the Family Stone tracks rerecorded with disco instrumentation. Entitled Ten Years Too Soon, it repulsed many of Stone's fans and critics, who saw it as the most cynical business move imaginable by a record label. Epic also released Anthology, an updated greatest hits package, in 1981. That same year Stone made an appearance on The Electric Spanking of War Babies, an album by George Clinton's group Funkadelic.
In 1982 Sly and the Family Stone started a tour, but Stone's drug problems led him to check into a treatment program in Florida. He released a new album, Ain't But the One Way, in 1983; Stereo Review 's Joel Vance wrote approvingly that "it's clear at least that [Stone] very much wants to come back with this comeback album. He's sure got my vote." Stone made some concert appearances the next year with soul star Bobby Womack. The rest of the decade saw him make news only with new arrests and court appearances. Jet magazine reported the star's being jailed for parole violation in Florida in June of 1987; in December of 1989 he was reportedly held in Connecticut on a drug charge. These short announcements read like career obituaries, noting casually that "in the 1960's Stone's group, Sly and the Family Stone, had several hits, including 'I Want to Take You Higher.'" Anyone acquainted with the legacy of Stone's achievements would know how much more there was to the story.
by Simon Glickman
Sly Stone's Career
At age four sang on gospel record "On the Battlefield for My Lord"; cut first solo record, c. 1960; worked as record producer and disc jockey, 1964-66; signed with Epic Records and released first LP with Sly and the Family Stone, 1967; recording artist with Epic and Warner Bros., 1967-83.
Sly Stone's Awards
Platinum award for single "If You Want Me to Stay."
- Selective Works
- A Whole New Thing Epic, 1967.
- Dance to the Music (includes "Dance to the Music"), Epic, 1968.
- Life! (includes "Everyday People"), Epic, 1968.
- Stand! (includes "Stand!," "I Want to Take You Higher," and "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey"), Epic, 1969.
- Greatest Hits (includes "Hot Fun in the Summertime" and "Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again"), Epic, 1970.
- There's a Riot Goin' On (includes "Family Affair," "[You Caught Me] Smilin'," "Runnin' Away," and "Thank You for Talkin' to Me Africa"), Epic, 1971.
- Fresh! (includes "If You Want Me to Stay" and "Frisky"), Epic, 1973.
- Small Talk Epic, 1974.
- Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I'm Back Epic, 1976.
- Back on the Right Track Warner Bros., 1979.
- Ten Years Too Soon Epic, 1979.
- Anthology Epic, 1981.
- Ain't But the One Way Warner Bros., 1983.
- With others
- Woodstock (includes "I Want to Take You Higher"), Cotillion, 1970.
- (With Funkadelic) The Electric Spanking of War Babies Warner Bros., 1981.
- Christgau, Robert, Christgau's Record Guide: Rock Albums of the Seventies, Ticknor & Fields, 1981.
- Marcus, Greil, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music, E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1975.
- Murray, Charles Shaar, Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and the Rock 'n' Roll Revolution, St. Martin's Press, 1989.
- The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, edited by Jim Miller, Random House/Rolling Stone Press, 1976.
- Stambler, Irwin, Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul, revised edition, St. Martin's Press, 1989.
- White, Timothy, Rock Stars, Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1984.
- Crawdaddy!, September 1968; October 1973.
- Creem, September 1973.
- Evening Standard, August 22, 1970.
- Jet, July 2, 1984; November 11, 1986; June 22, 1987; December 4, 1989.
- Rolling Stone, March 19, 1970; April 16, 1970; October 14, 1971; December 23, 1971; February 1, 1973; August 30, 1973; August 27, 1987.
- Stereo Review, July 1983.