MTV.com Who, Exactly, Is Sly Stone?
(That Weird Guy With The Mohawk At The Grammys)
02.09.2006 12:42 PM EST
Sly Stone performs at the 48th annual Grammy Awards
You'd never know it from his "performance" at the Grammys on Wednesday night, but Sly Stone is one of the great musical innovators of the last 50 years.
During his all-too-brief creative peak — between the mid-1960s and early 1970s
— he and his group, the Family Stone, fused soul, rock and funk into a dynamic sound that changed all three genres forever and played a profound role in the creation of hip-hop (his songs have been sampled and covered many, many times).
A young person today might know his songs only from oldies radio or the long-running Toyota commercial that used his 1969 anti-racist hit "Everyday People," but his influence is so vast, and his sound has been so incorporated into so many different styles, that it's simply part of today's musical language. His band's contribution to funk music is every bit as enduring as James Brown's, and Parliament-Funkadelic, Rick James, Prince, D'Angelo and Jermaine Dupri — not to mention every single funk band since the late '60s — all owe the essence of their sounds to him.
And before Sly's outlook turned dark — with 1971's haunting, paranoid There's a Riot Goin' On — his message was one of positivity, unity and self-empowerment, exemplified by just a handful of his song titles: "You Can Make It If You Try," "Everybody Is a Star," "I Want to Take You Higher" and "Stand!" With "Everyday People," he coined the term "different strokes for different folks." And as the electrifying 1969 performance captured in the concert film "Woodstock" shows, he and the band could hold tens of thousands of people in the palms of their hands.
Wednesday night's performance (see "Kanye And Mariah Win, But In The End U2 — And Curveballs — Rule Grammy Night") during the Grammy tribute to him — which found him attired bizarrely in a silver-and-purple robe, dark shades and a foot-high platinum Mohawk, pawing befuddledly at his keyboard, at times seemingly unaware of where he was — showed just how far he's fallen.
To understand how revolutionary Sly's music, image and message were, you have to consider the America in which the band was formed in 1966. It was still largely a segregated country, in terms of both race and gender. A controversial war in a far-off land, Vietnam, was dividing the country. And pop music was made mostly by single-race, single-gender groups who'd only just begun to let their hair down.
Sly was born in Dallas in 1944 but raised on the mean streets of Vallejo in the San Francisco Bay Area. A prodigious talent, he had his first hit single at the age of 16 and studied music at Vallejo Junior College. He honed his chops in the early '60s as a massively popular DJ on San Francisco's KSOL and KDIA, as a producer (helming a national hit for the Beau Brummels, "Laugh Laugh"), and with his group, the Stoners. He combined that band's trumpet player, Cynthia Robinson, with his guitarist brother Freddie, his keyboardist sister Rosemary and bassist Larry Graham (who pioneered the thumb-popping funk bass style that has since become a signature of the genre) to form the Family Stone. Their formation coincided neatly with the city's burgeoning psychedelic scene, and Sly seized the moment, fusing the sounds and attitudes of the era into something he called "psychedelic soul." The group signed with Epic Records in 1967 and released its first LP, A Whole New Thing, later that year.
While the title track of Dance to the Music brought the group its first hit, 1969's Stand! remains its definitive statement. The album contains many of the positive songs above, yet it also did not shy away from talking tough, via the confrontationally anti-racist "Don't Call Me N-----, Whitey" (the chorus of which replied, "Don't Call Me Whitey, N-----"). The album became the group's first gold disc, "Everyday People" was a #1 single, the group arguably stole the show at Woodstock — and just as the Family Stone were reaching the top, it all started to unravel.
The group began 1970 with a bang: the single "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)," indubitably one of the funkiest songs ever laid to wax. Yet Sly's increasing drug abuse led to erratic behavior, and the group missed 26 of 80 scheduled concerts, many of which found the entire band present and ready to play, with Sly simply refusing to go on. Stories of his drug-fueled antics are legend: He obsessed maniacally with There's a Riot Goin' On, missing many deadlines and recording and re-recording so many times that the album has a dull, hissy sound (the tapes simply began to wear out). The album also had a dark, claustrophobic, doomed vibe, although Sly's powers of social commentary were as strong as ever on "Family Affair," which held the #1 spot on the U.S. singles chart for five weeks. By the time the album was done, the group's brilliant drummer, Greg Errico, had left, and Graham was not far behind.
The hits continued for another couple of years — 1973's Fresh, containing the excellent single "If You Want Me to Stay," was a strong effort — but 1974's "Loose Booty" was the group's last charting single, and it dissolved the following year, with Stone filing for bankruptcy in 1976.
And that, sadly, is largely where the story ends. Sly made comeback attempts in the late 1970s and early '80s, releasing three mediocre albums. P-Funk's George Clinton brought him on tour with Funkadelic in 1981; he also appeared on former Time guitarist Jesse Johnson's 1987 single "Crazay" — the title of which is so Sly-influenced that it verges on parody. The drug problems continued, with Sly being arrested three times on cocaine charges and ending the '80s in prison on a 55-day charge for driving under the influence of the drug.
Apart from the occasional impromptu appearance — in 1993, he surprised his former bandmates by joining them onstage when the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — Sly has kept a very low profile in the years since; his royalties presumably bring in significant income. He signed a contract with Avenue Records in 1995, but no releases followed. In the late 1990s, the creator of a Sly fan site claimed to have met with Sly at the artist's behest. He reported that Sly was lucid and friendly, and said that he played new material that ranks with his best work. None of that material has yet emerged.
Last summer, Sly was reported seen in the crowd during a tribute concert in Los Angeles, wearing a motorcycle helmet throughout the performance. His behavior was no less unusual during rehearsals for Wednesday night's Grammy performance: According to the Los Angeles Times, on Monday he participated in just two of three run-throughs of the song while dressed in a hooded raincoat and camouflage pants.
The Grammy performance — Sly's first with the original Family Stone since 1971 — was a halting, confused affair and a complete disservice to his music. For a taste of his and the band's greatness, Stand! and The Essential Sly and the Family Stone collection are probably the most definitive testaments.
Indeed, his legend is such that some defended even Wednesday night's bizarre showing. Adam Levine of Maroon 5 — who took part in the all-star tribute that preceded Sly's appearance — said to The Washington Post, "Can you really argue with an unbelievable-looking Mohawk and a silver jacket?"
Sly Stone's Surprise
Reclusive Musician May Emerge to Perform At Grammy Awards
By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 27, 2006; Page C01
Sly Stone, the reclusive, long-vanished funk-rock
pioneer whose potent recordings in the late 1960s and
early '70s defined the era and altered the course of
popular music, may be about to strut back into the
According to several friends and associates,
discussions are well underway about a Sly and the
Family Stone reunion performance at the Grammy Awards
on Feb. 8 in Los Angeles.
It would be Stone's first live performance since 1987,
and his first major public appearance since Jan. 12,
1993, when Sly and the Family Stone were inducted into
the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It would also mark the
first time since 1971 that the band has played in its
original configuration. (Drummer Greg Errico quit the
group that year and was soon followed by bass player
As songwriter, producer, bandleader and singer, Stone
dazzled the world of pop music more than 35 years ago
with a string of superlative anthems -- timeless
songs, including "Dance to the Music," "I Want to Take
You Higher," "Hot Fun in the Summertime," "Family
Affair" and "Everyday People" (whose lyric "Different
strokes for different folks" became a slogan for the
Woodstock generation). By the early '70s, though, he
had developed an all-consuming cocaine addiction, and
he soon faded from the spotlight. Speculation on the
whereabouts and condition of Sly Stone has been a pop
pastime for decades.
Ron Roecker, a spokesman for the Recording Academy,
wouldn't confirm that the reunion is on the
Grammy-night schedule, which already includes an
all-star tribute to Sly and the Family Stone. The
tribute -- featuring John Legend, Maroon 5, will.i.am
of the Black Eyed Peas and Steven Tyler of Aerosmith,
among others, performing a medley of Sly classics --
was announced yesterday by the academy. (All the
artists appear on a Sly and the Family Stone tribute
album that will be released the day before the
"The facts are what we put in the press release,"
Roecker said. "As far as anything else, it's all just
rumor. But we do believe that he is attending the
He added: "It seems like the right time for him. We're
thrilled that we'll be able to do this."
Stone's manager, Jerry Goldstein, could not be reached
Nor could Stone himself -- no surprise, given that he
stopped speaking to the media in about 1987.
But sources close to the band said rehearsals are
scheduled to begin next week in Santa Monica, Calif.
They cautioned, however, that the reunion could
implode at any point, given Stone's long history of
Still, that there's talk at all about a Sly Stone
coming-out party is a surprise.
"He's been in seclusion for so long, he's like J.D.
Salinger," said Greg Zola, who is producing and
directing "On the Sly: In Search of the Family Stone,"
a documentary about the elusive musician and his band
mates. "He was so famous for a period of time, but
he's just not around anymore. A lot of people who
you'd think are in the know actually think Sly Stone
Stone's younger sister, Vaetta, acknowledges as much
on her Web site, where she's selling T-shirts that
say, simply: "Sly Lives."
"I don't think Sly has been hurting from his
underground status -- I think he likes the mystique,"
said Rickey Vincent, author of "Funk: The Music, the
People, and the Rhythm of the One" and host of a funk
radio show in the San Francisco Bay area. "But it
would be nice to see him make a triumphant return --
to be treated the way Carlos Santana was at the
Grammys a few years ago, and the way George Clinton
was treated at the Grammys."
Clinton thinks so, too.
A funk legend himself, Clinton was forced to rethink
his approach to music after hearing Sly and the Family
Stone's landmark 1969 album, "Stand!"
"He's my idol; forget all that peer stuff," Clinton
said. "I heard 'Stand!,' and it was like: Man , forget
it! That band was perfect. And Sly was like all the
Beatles and all of Motown in one. He was the baddest
thing around. What he don't realize is that him making
music now would still be the baddest. Just get that
band back together and do whatever it is that he do."
In its heyday, from roughly 1968 through 1971, Sly and
the Family Stone created revolutionary music, an
intoxicating mix of psychedelic pop, pulsating funk
and social commentary. Among the first fully
integrated groups on the American music scene, with
blacks and whites and men and women together onstage,
the seven-piece San Francisco band played the world's
biggest venues while cranking out hit after
Stone was an innovator whose work inspired Motown to
find its social conscience, helped persuade Miles
Davis to go electric, and ultimately laid out a
blueprint for generations of black pop stars, from
Prince and Michael Jackson to OutKast, D'Angelo and
"There's black music before Sly Stone, and there's
black music after Sly Stone," said Joel Selvin, author
of "Sly and the Family Stone: An Oral History" and a
San Francisco Chronicle music critic for the past 30
years. "He completely changed what black music was. I
mean, he changed Motown! Before Sly, the Temptations
were 'I'm Losing You.' After Sly, they were 'Ball of
Confusion.' It's a black and white moment.
"The album 'Stand!' summed up the times, with the
humanitarian sentiments, in a perfect sloganeering
way. 'Dance to the Music,' 'There's a Riot Goin' On'
-- these were revolutionary documents. And Sly's
statements last. They sound as good today as they did
when they were recorded. There's really nobody like
Sly Stone in the history of black music."
Lamont Dozier, part of the Holland/Dozier/Holland
hit-making machine at Motown, said in an interview
that Stone "took music in a new direction, another
step forward. He definitely had some potent stuff, and
some new stuff, in a new voice. It was this funky,
street-y, but pop R&B music. I was very much a fan."
Said Vincent: "Sly was so far ahead of everybody else,
he was flaming out when everybody was still trying to
figure him out."
Indeed, even as Stone's star was ascending, he was
deteriorating personally -- skipping concerts (he
missed a third of the band's shows in 1970), blowing
off record-label deadlines, acting increasingly
ornery. He was abusive toward associates, band mates,
friends and family members, too: Once, upon being
caught with cocaine and a handgun, Stone -- whose real
name was Sylvester Stewart -- told police that his
name was Freddie Stewart. (Freddie was Sly's little
brother and the guitarist in the Family Stone.)
By 1975, the hits had dried up, and Stone's downward
"He was so creative, one of the most talented guys
I've ever met," said R&B great Bobby Womack. "It was
inspirational being around him. He made some great
music. He just wasn't happy in his personal life. He
got to the point he wouldn't even listen to his own
stuff. That's paranoia. As the drugs set in, the warm,
creative side went away. And then it got worse and
worse. He was a person out of control."
Womack added: "We used to be as tight as bark on a
tree. But I haven't heard from Sly in 15 years. At
least. The last time I saw him, I was driving down
Hollywood Boulevard, and he was going the opposite
way. I blew the horn and said, 'Sly!' He looked at me
and just kept going.
"But then he turned around and said, 'Bobby, I can't
do that to you, man.' I said: 'What was that about?' "
Stone, who'd once earned a reported $2 million per
album, was cut loose by Epic Records in 1978. Warner
Bros. offered a half-million-dollar contract, and in
1979, the label released Stone's "Back on the Right
Track." It didn't even crack the Top 150 -- a
disastrous showing for an artist who was once a
fixture at the top of the charts.
Stone summarily retreated from the studio and the
spotlight. His brother Freddie told Spin magazine
several years later that Stone had "wanted to get away
from the fast pace. He just kicked back. . . . He
didn't want to be out in front anymore. The glamour
didn't mean anything anymore. He wanted to be normal."
In 1981, Stone -- who'd been raised in a strict
Pentecostal household and grew up singing gospel songs
with his siblings -- reemerged to work with Clinton on
a Funkadelic album, a summit that resulted in both
artists getting arrested for possession of cocaine and
As Stone's career faltered, his legal problems
mounted. In 1983, he was charged in Illinois with
possessing a sawed-off shotgun; was found barely
conscious in a Fort Myers, Fla., hotel room,
apparently a result of a cocaine overdose; and was
then arrested during the middle of a show in Fort
Lauderdale on charges that he'd stolen a ring from a
hotel owner. (During one court hearing that year,
bailiffs had to shake Stone awake.)
In November 1987, on the eve of a two-night comeback
engagement at a small club in Hollywood, Stone told a
Los Angeles Times reporter that he was clean, saying:
"I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm fine. I'm straight, I'm
clean. What else can I say?" The night after the first
show -- which was declared a disaster by a Times
critic -- Stone was arrested outside the club for
having failed to pay $2,856 in child support. He was
also charged with cocaine possession.
"It's amazing he's still here," Errico said in an
interview last fall. "But he is. I always say that a
cat has nine lives, and Sly has nine cats. He's a
character in every respect."
In 1989, after failing to show up for a court date in
Los Angeles, Stone was declared a fugitive. The FBI
arrested him in Connecticut and extradited him to Los
Angeles, where, in a two-week span at the end of the
year, Stone pleaded guilty to driving under the
influence of cocaine and then guilty again to two
counts of cocaine possession.
Since then, the world has heard very little from -- or
about -- Sly Stone. Just a single song recorded with
Earth, Wind & Fire, a national advertising campaign
for Toyota that used "Everyday People," and the 1993
appearance at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
induction, where the six original members of Family
Stone (drummer Errico, bassist Graham, saxophonist
Jerry Martini, trumpet player Cynthia Robinson and the
siblings Freddie and Rose Stone) walked onto the
stage, sang a bit of "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice
Elf Agin)," said their thanks . . . and then waited
for Sly to surface.
As usual, it's just us," Rose said, looking at her
Sly finally materialized, in an electric-blue leather
jumpsuit, and gave a brief speech, which concluded:
"See you soon."
Bucking Hall of Fame tradition, he didn't stop
afterward to pose for pictures with his band mates,
instead disappearing into the night -- and into the
ether, for 13 years of radio silence.
There are rumors, of course: He's broke! He's dead!
He's homeless! Insane!
Stone, who is 61 or 62, or maybe 64 ("I've lied about
my age so much, I'm not quite sure how old I am," he
told the Los Angeles Times in 1987), is either living:
In a mansion in Beverly Hills; in a dingy apartment in
the San Fernando Valley; on the streets of Hollywood;
in a nice place in Pacific Palisades; or elsewhere in
"He's in Malibu," said Clinton. But Clinton isn't
completely sure, since he couldn't get Stone on the
phone -- even after Stone left a message for his
friend to call.
In 1986, Stone was living in an apartment in Toluca
Lake, Calif., when his landlord filed a lawsuit,
alleging that Stone and a roommate were making
excessive noise -- and that they'd refused to leave
the apartment after being served an eviction notice.
His health is also unclear. Stone's manager,
Goldstein, recently told an associate that Sly is
"frail." When Stone surfaced at his father's funeral
in 2002, he was reportedly in bad shape.
"Sly went down the aisle of his brother's church with
his mother on his arm, and nobody recognized him,
because he has a hunchback," Selvin said. "He deprived
his body of too much nutrition over the years."
There are reports -- unconfirmed, as with much in the
murky, mysterious world of Sly Stone -- that he's done
recording sessions and then gone in and erased all the
"He's got hundreds of songs that he's sleeping on,"
Errico said. "He's been writing the whole time. Where
are all those songs? But I haven't heard one in 20
years. He's written and destroyed who knows how many
great songs over the years with all the insanity he's
But Stone is said to have been recording recently with
his sister Vaetta, who performs in a Family Stone
tribute band. Last year he even surfaced at one of her
shows, in Los Angeles.
Zola, who's making the documentary on Sly and the
Family Stone, was at the club that night and saw Sly
Stone with his very own eyes.
"This adventure to find Sly, it can feel hopeless," he
said. "There was a period of time where I really
wondered where he was. But he was there! It was