Sly Stone is an enigmatic cult-hero around the world. For my contemporary-minded Bay-centric folks who need a basis for comparison, imagine Mac Dre and 2Pac were genetically engineered to be one psychedelic, revolutionary and funky musical super hero. Now place this super-hero in the late 1960s with musical training, a drug habit and a rainbow coalition of hodge podge princesses and paupers in pimp hats. You got the picture now? Good.
A multi-instrumental funk god cum strange recluse, Sly Stone’s story is one for the ages. Raised in Vallejo, CA, he started his musical career in a family gospel group before becoming a record producer and on-air radio dj during the height of San Francisco’s psychadelic rock era. He formed a couple upstart bands, but none stuck until he assembled the, now infamous, Family Stone. The band’s racial and gender diversity was monumental, but the music was even bigger. To prove this, I admit that I actually wrote a 20 page paper on one Family Stone song (“Stand!”). That’s right kids, 20 pages about one song!!
From about 1968-1971 Sly and The Family Stone were untouchable, cranking out classics like “Dance to the Music,” “Everyday People,” “I Want To Take You Higher,” “Stand,” Hot Fun in The Summertime” and many others. They touched upon a variety of genres from soul to psychedelic rock, but most importantly, they pioneered the funk movement that would become the bread and butter of artists like Parliament and James Brown.
Unfortunately fame brought drugs and internal rifts that soon left the band unraveling. Their demise is well documented, but pales in comparison to their overall impact. They have been sampled and covered many times over and remain atop my list of best Bay Area acts, despite the presence of other musical giants like Santana, Toni! Tony! Tone!, Too $hort, 2pac, Tower of Power, The Grateful Dead, Greenday, En Vogue, E-40, Jefferson Airplane and others. They are the muse of many artists, the obsession of many fans and proof that music can make a social statement while being infectious, funky and celebratory.
Check out some of the videos below to get a taste of what Sly & The Family Stone was bringing to the stage and listen to a rare 2009 interview he did on NPR (Listen Here). It’s impossible to introduce you to Sly with just a couple jams or videos, but a great place to start is the two-disc set The Essential Sly & The Family Stone.