It is the second weekend in mid-July 2007, North Sea Jazz Festival is now firmly rooted in Rotterdam where it moved from its original base in The Hague; the so-called Nile hall is filled to the max of the few thousand people it can receive, and it was all to witness one of the most anticipated appearances in the new century: Sly (Stewart) Stone and his Family Stone.
The weather is unusually hot for anywhere close to the North Sea, the hall is packed and the air-conditioning is being turned on and off. Saving time. No saving of nerves. The show is late even by festival standards. The band appears to an absolute uproar and launches into a few instrumental versions of the songs that earned Sly and his band the title of one of the best live performers, not only of the original Woodstock festival but ever.
Maybe that was then, and the band still has that precision, but by today’s standards, everybody has more or less caught up in that respect. A few songs turn into few more, and then a few more. The crowd grows restless and then suddenly this white-clothed, chubby guy with a white hat shows up. He might be chubby, but you get a sense you are watching a shadow. And hearing a shadow. A shadow of one of the most inventive men in rock, soul, funk, you name it. As you realize that it is actually Sly Stone, two or three songs in he declares, “I’ll be back in five minutes!” And he actually is. But then, he suddenly stops mid-song, mutters “I can’t do this,” drops the microphone and leaves. The band tries to save face, but the crowd is leaving too.
From a child prodigy, to rock producer, to leader of the first truly integrated rock/soul/funk band, and author of some of the best modern pop songs and two of the best rock/soul/funk albums around.
This ‘true story’ is in a way a encapsulation of what went on with “the most talented musician I ever saw and heard,” as Bootsy Collins, one-time Sly Stone collaborator and all-time great bass player, said about him. From a child prodigy, to rock producer, to leader of the first truly integrated rock/soul/funk band, and author of some of the best modern music and two of the best rock/soul/funk albums around. This was one of the comebacks that never worked. Damn shame.
From Sylvester to Sly(vester), From Pop Punk to Real Funk
Being a child prodigy can always be a double-edged sword, but for Sylvester, it started off like a rocket. In a family where almost every sibling played an instrument (his brother Fred was the original Family Stone guitar player), Sly (a schoolmate misspelled his name as Slyvester, and it stuck) was immediately recognized as the most talented. He quickly shot from high school bands to DJ gigs at San Francisco radio stations, to becoming a resident producer and composer at Autumn Records – one of the original labels that initiated the garage and psychedelic boom, and Sly was barely 18.
At Autumn, Sly was able to dig out, produce, and compose for the likes of garage hit, The Beau Brummels (later folk-rock pioneers) and The Great Society (Grace Slick’s first band), and a host of other bands and artists that later landed on the famous Nuggets collection. When he formed his second band, The Family Stone (the first was just called Stone), it wasn’t just family, but close friends too like drummer Greg Errico, who was originally from The Philippines, resulting in it being the first truly multiracial rock/soul band.
Things seemed to be stalling with their debut, A Whole New Thing, but the follow-up, Dance to theMusic,came with it’s title song, which with its exciting rhythm changes and shuffling vocals, turned out to be not only one of the best songs of 1968 but certainly one of the best modern music singles period. While the third album Life, included strong Sly material throughout (Sly composed all of his band’s and later solo career material, except an occasional cover), it didn’t advance his or the band’s career as expected.
But then came a pair of disparate-sounding albums that certainly go down as two of the best of any ‘best of’ modern music lists – Stand! and There’s A Riot Goin’ On. Stand! brought most of Stone’s strongest rock-bent material with the title song and “Everyday People”, among others. These formed the staple of the band’s live show, which was considered one of the best at the time and represented one of the most electrifying performances at the Woodstock Festival. Stand! also brought in Sly’s social and political engagement with tracks like “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey” and the beginning of his strand of funk.
From True Innovator and Social Commentator to Drug Washout… and Back (Well, Almost)
Yes, Sly Stone had practically reached the top; he achieved success, and then he said yes to excess. Working on the follow-up album to Stand!, he and the band turned to incredible amounts of drug use. To the point where it became a Californian legend that wherever Sly went (parties mostly) he carried a violin case full of all the possible drugs available during that time period.
The recording sessions were in shambles, the title of the album was ‘in the works’, there was strife in the band, and Sly’s connections among the Black Panthers were telling him that he needed a more direct political engagement. The album was late, and in the meantime, Marvin Gaye came up with his seminal What’s Goin’ On Album.
There’s A Riot Goin’ On was actually a direct answer to Marvin Gaye’s album…and Sly came with his own politically and socially charged lyrics
However, in all of that chaos and drug haze, Sly came up with his masterpiece. The title There’s A Riot Goin’ On was actually a direct answer to Marvin Gaye’s album (Sly played in Gaye’s band in the early ’60s), and Sly came with his own politically and socially charged lyrics, but in a truly sophisticated manner, and with a style of a more languid, extended funk that is still currently a soul staple. While everybody riding the funk train tried hard to pick up the grooves James Brown came up with (Brown once said about his funk followers: “I taught them everything they know, but not everything I know”), Sly Stone, particularlyaided by Larry Graham, took his own road paving the way for a new style in soul and R&B. As was the case with Stand!, There’s A Riot Goin’ On is one of the most sampled albums around.
From there on things rapidly started to fall apart. His brother Fred, and Graham, left the band, and the drugs were taking their toll. But Stone was able to make one last musical ‘stand’ with Fresh, which included a seemingly strange (but great) cover of “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)” – seeming like a subconscious epitaph to his musical career.
…it became a Californian legend that wherever Sly went (parties mostly) he carried a violin case full of all the possible drugs available during that time period.
Stone was nose-diving to the bottom. From weaker and weaker albums, to stronger and stronger drug abuse, to a drug possession conviction and jail time. Attempts at a comeback were resurrected with his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the mid-90s, but nothing truly happened until 2006 when, with a new album and band reunion planned, Sly appeared at that year’s Grammys and midway through a star-studded performance of his song “I Want To Take You Higher”, up and left the stage – foreshadowing his North Sea Jazz Festival performance a year later.
With the reunion and the albums turning into yet more Sly chaos, he promptly disappeared again, only to resurface when he sued his former management while he was living in an RV with almost no money to live on. He won almost$5 million in the first verdict, only to have that judgment squashed in the second. Somebody would certainly have to be made out of stone to survive such ups and downs, but there’s hardly a chance that any meaningful Sly Stone music will ever be coming our way again. Damn shame.