Sly and the Family Stone

  • Funk rock band formed in 1966 from San Francisco California. The founding members were Sly Stone (born Sylvester Stewart – vocals, keyboards, guitar, bass guitar, harmonica, songwriting), Freddie Stone (born Frederick Stewart – vocals, guitar), Cynthia Roberts (trumpet, backing vocals), Jerry Martini (saxophone), Larry Graham (bass guitar, vocals), and Gregg Errico (drums). The primary backup singers for the group was a trio called Little Sister – Vet Stone (born Vaetta Stewart), Mary McCreary and Elva Mouton. Rose Stone (born Rose Marie Stewart) joined in 1968, performing vocals and keyboards.
  • After moving from Dallas Texas to the San Francisco area, the 4 youngest Stewart siblings formed a band called the Stewart Four, and in 1952, they released a gospel 78 RPM single – On the Battlefield of the Lord on the A-side, and Walkin’ In Jesus’ Name on the B-side – Sylvester was 9 years old, and Vaetta was only 2. Sylvester and Freddie performed in bands in high school, with Sylvester a member of a doo-wop group called The Viscaynes, releasing several singles locally. Sylvester also released some solo records, using the name Danny Stewart.
  • At 21 years old, Sylvester became a radio DJ, using the name Sly Stone. He worked with other local artists as a record producer, and he recorded some solo music that was not successful. In 1966, he formed a band called Sly & the Stoners, which included Roberts on trumpet. At the same time, brother Freddie formed a band called Freddie & the Stone Souls, which included Errico on drums. A friend, saxophonist Martini, suggested that Sly and Freddie merge the two bands, and in November 1996, the merge occurred. The group initially was called Sly Brothers and Sisters, but after their first gig, the name was changed to Sly and the Family Stone.
  • Freddie was appointed guitarist for the new band, and Sly taught himself to play keyboards. He recruited Graham to play bass guitar. Sister Vet wanted to join, and her gospel group The Heavenly Tones soon joined as background vocalists, calling themselves Little Sister. In 1967, after a record executive heard them perform, they were signed to a recording contract.
  • Their debut album, A Whole New Thing was released in 1967. The soul/funk album did not sell well, and the record label pressured Sly to write songs for their next album that would have more appeal to pop music fans. Reluctantly, the band released the album Dance to the Music in 1968. The title track became the group’s first hit, peaking at #8 on the Hot 100 chart. Their follow up album, Life, was less successful, with the title track barely charting.
  • Their breakthrough came with their fourth album – 1969’s Stand! The album was certified platinum, driven by their first #1 hit, Everyday People. The protest song was Sly’s plea for racial and gender equality, and the band was unique in its diversity – members Errico and Martini were white, and it featured both men and women as important contributors to the group. The success of the song got them invited to Woodstock, and their performance was highly acclaimed and led to increased popularity. A non-album single was released soon after Woodstock – Hot Fun in the Summertime reached #2 on the Hot 100 chart. This was followed by Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin), which topped the Hot 100 in early 1970.
  • With its success, the band started to have problems. Most of the members were hooked on drugs, and the Stone family fought frequently with bassist Graham. Sly’s drug problem was severe – he missed nearly a third of his concerts in 1970, and he hired thugs for managers and bodyguards. New recordings were delayed, and in early 1971, drummer Errico left the group and was replaced by a succession of drummers.
  • Finally, in 1971, a new album was released. There’s A Riot Going On was a shift away from the rock-soul of their early music. This album was dark, with songs about hopelessness and despair. The album was successful, topping the album chart and getting a platinum certification. It contained the #1 hit Family Affair, and Runnin’ Away from the album peaked at #23.
  • Tensions in the band increased, and more lineup changes occurred – most notably, Graham left the band after Sly’s bodyguards brawled with him when they heard that Graham had hired a hit man to assassinate Sly.
  • Two albums were released in 1973 and 1974. While not as successful as their previous work, 1973’s Fresh sold well, and they managed a #12 hit with the single If You Want Me to Stay. By 1975, with their reputation of missing concerts, they lost the support of concert-goers, and the band split up in January after performing a New York City concert that was only attended by 12% of the venue’s capacity.
  • Sly recorded 3 more albums in the 70s and 1 in the 80s – 3 were attributed to Sly and the Family Stone, though there was little contribution by the other band members. In the 80s, Sly toured with other artists, until a 1987 arrest and conviction for cocaine use ended his recording career. A 2011 album of re-recorded greatest hits was released, but a month after its release, it was reported that Sly was homeless, living out of a camper-van in Los Angeles.
  • Sly and the Family Stone was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. Rolling Stone ranks them at #43 on their Greatest Artists of All Time list, and Family Affair and Hot Fun in the Summertime are on Rolling Stone’s list of the GOAT songs, at #139 and #250 respectively. Their Fresh, Stand! and There’s A Riot Going On albums are all ranked in the top 500 of Rolling Stone’s GOAT albums list. Sly Stone was chosen as a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winner in 2017. Here’s a performance of Everyday People from 1969. “Different Strokes for Different Folks!”

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