Sly & the Family Stone

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Sly Stone holds the Family Stone in the palm of his hand in this image. From left to right in Sly's hand: Greg Errico, Freddie Stone, Larry Graham, Rose Stone, Cynthia Robinson, and Jerry Martini.

Sly & the Family Stone were an important and influential American rock band from San Francisco, California. Active from 1967 until 1975, the band was pivotal in the development of soul, funk and psychedelia. Headed by singer, songwriter, record producer, and multi-instrumentalist Sylvester "Sly Stone" Stewart, and containing a number of his family members and friends, the band was also important for being the first major American rock band to have a multicultural lineup, giving African-Americans, Caucasians, males, and females all important roles in the band's instrumentation.

Brothers Sly Stone and singer/guitarist Freddie Stone had combined their bands (Sly & the Stoners and Freddie & the Stone Souls) in 1967, joining the two of them, trumpetist Cynthia Robinson, and drummer Greg Errico. Saxophonist Jerry Martini and bassist Larry Graham completed the original lineup; within a year, Sly and Freddie's sister, singer/keyboardist Rose Stone, joined as well. This collective recorded five Top 10 hits and four groundbreaking albums, which were a major influence on the sound of American pop music in general and soul music in particular. It is often said that there are "two types of black music: black music before Sly Stone, and black music after Sly Stone" (Selvin).

During the early 1970s, the band switched its sound to a grittier, drug-laced funk sound, which was as influential on the music industry as their earlier work. The band began to fall apart during this period because of drug abuse and ego clashes; As Sly Stone and his bandmates delved deeper into drug abuse, the fortunes and reliability of the band deteriorated, leading to its dissolution in 1975. Sly Stone continued to record solo albums and tour under the "Sly & the Family Stone" name from 1975 until 1987, when he was arrested and sentenced for cocaine use.




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Sylvester Stewart during the Autumn Records days.

The Stewart family was a deeply religious middle-class African-American family from Dallas, Texas. K.C. and Alpha Stewart held the family together under the doctrines of the Church of God in Christ, and encouraged their musical expression. After the family moved to Vallejo, California (near Oakland and San Francisco), the youngest four Stewart children (Sylvester, Freddie, Rose, and Vaetta) formed "The Stewart Four", who released their own local 78 RPM single, "On The Battlefield For My Lord" b/w "Walking In Jesus' Name", in 1952. Eldest sister Loretta was the only Stewart child not to pursue a musical career.

As a teenager, both Sylvester and Freddie joined a number of high school bands. One of Slyvester's high school musical groups was doo-wop act called The Viscaynes, in which he and a Filipino teenager where the only non-white members. The Viscaynes released a few local singles, and Sylvester also recorded a few solo singles under the name "Danny Stewart".

By 1963, Sylvester had become Sly Stone, a DJ for San Francisco R&B radio station KSOL, where he often included white performers such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones into his playlists alongside the regular black R&B artists. During the same period, he worked as a record producer for Autumn Records, producing for San Francisco-area bands such as The Beau Brummels and The Mojo Men. One of the Sylvester Stewart-produced Autumn singles, Bobby Freeman's "C'mon and Swim", was a national hit record. Sylvester recorded some solo singles of his own while at Autumn, none of which made an impact.

Early years

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The cover to the 1968 LP Dance to the Music.

In 1966, Sly Stone formed a band called Sly & the Stoners, which included acquaintance Cynthia Robinson on trumpet. Around the same time, his brother Freddie founded a band called Freddie & the Stone Souls, which included Greg Errico on drums. At the suggestion of Sly's friend, saxophonist Jerry Martini, Sly and Freddie combined their bands, creating Sly & the Family Stone in 1967. Since both Sly and Freddie were guitarists, Sly appointed Freddie the official guitarist for the Family Stone, and taught himself to play the electric organ. The band was missing a bassist, which Sly found in Larry Graham, whom he had seen accompanying his mother, songstress Dell Graham, at a local Oakland nightclub.

Vaetta Stewart wanted to be a part of the new group as well. She and her friends Mary McCreary and Elva Mouton had a gospel group called The Heavenly Tones. Sly recruited the three teenagers directly out of high school to become Little Sister, Sly & the Family Stone's background vocalists.

The debut single for Sly & the Family Stone was "I Ain't Got Nobody", a major regional hit for Loadstone Records. CBS Records executive Clive Davis soon heard about the band and signed them to CBS' Epic Records label. The Family Stone's first album, A Whole New Thing, and its single, "Underdog", were released in 1967 to critical acclaim but disappointing sales.

Davis coerced Sly into writing and recording a record that could be a pop hit, and he and the band reluctantly provided the single "Dance to the Music". Upon its February 1968 release, "Dance to the Music" became a widespread groundbreaking hit, and was the band's first charting single, reaching #8 on the Billboard Hot 100. Just before the release of "Dance to the Music", Rose Stone joined the group as a vocalist and a keyboardist. Rose's brothers had invited her to join the band from the beginning, but she had initially been reluctant to leave her steady job at a local record store.

Sly & the Family Stone began to tour across the country, and were well-known for their energetic performances and unique costuming. The Dance to the Music album went on to decent sales, but the follow-up, Life, was not as successful. Regardless of commercial success, both albums were highly influential across the music industry. In September 1968, the band embarked on its first overseas tour, to England. That tour was cut short after Larry Graham was arrested for possession of marijuana, and also because of disagreements with concert promoters.

Sound, philosophies, and influence of early years

Sly Stone had produced for and performed with both black people and white people during his early career, and he integrated music by white artists into black radio station KSOL's playlist as a dee-jay. Similarly, the Sly & the Family Stone sound was a melting pot of many different influences and cultures, including James Brown proto-funk, Motown pop, Stax soul, Broadway showtunes, and psychedelic rock music. Wah-wah guitars, distorted fuzz basslines, church-styled organ lines, and horn riffs provided the musical backdrop for the vocals of the band's four lead singers. Sly Stone, Freddie Stone, Larry Graham, and Rose Stone would trade off on various bars of each verse, a style of vocal arrangement both unusual and revolutionary at that time in popular music. Cynthia Robinson would shout ad-libbed vocal directions to the audience and/or the band; for example, urging everyone to "get on up and 'Dance to the Music'" and demanding that "all the squares go home!"

The lyrics for the band's songs were usually pleas for peace, love, and understanding among all people. These rallies against vices such as racism, discrimination, and self-hate were underscored by the lineup for and onstage appearance of The Family Stone. Caucasians Greg Errico and Jerry Martini were both members of the band at a time when integrated performance bands were virtually unheard of, and integration itself had only recently become enforced by law. Females Cynthia Robinson and Rosie Stone played instruments onstage, rather than just providing vocals or serving as visual accompaniment for the male members. The band's gospel-styled singing endeared them to black audiences, while their rock music elements and wild costuming--including Sly's large Afro and tight leather outfits, Rose's blond wig, and the other members' loud psychedelic clothing--caught the attention of mainstream audiences.

Although "Dance to the Music" was Sly & The Family Stone's only hit single until late 1968, the influences of that single and the Dance to the Music and Life albums were felt (and heard) across the music industry. The smooth, piano-based "Motown sound" was out; "psychedelic soul" was in. Rock-styled guitar lines similar to the ones Freddie Stone played began appearing in the music of artists like The Isley Brothers ("It's Your Thing") and Diana Ross & the Supremes ("Love Child"). Larry Graham invented the "slapping" technique of bass guitar playing, which became synonymous with funk music. Some musicians changed their sound completely to co-opt that of Sly & the Family Stone, most notably Motown in-house producer Norman Whitfield, who took his main act The Temptations into "psychedelic soul" territory starting with the Grammy-winning "Cloud Nine" in 1968. The early work of Sly & the Family Stone was also a significant influence on the music of Michael Jackson and The Jackson 5, The Undisputed Truth, The Impressions, Stevie Wonder, George Clinton & Funkadelic, and, in more recent years, Arrested Development and The Black Eyed Peas.

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The cover to 1969's Stand!

Stand! (1969)

In late 1968, Sly & the Family Stone released the single "Everyday People", which became the band's first #1 hit. Even more pop-friendly than "Dance to the Music" had been, "Everyday People" was a protest against prejudices of all kinds, and popularized the catch phrase "diff'rent strokes for diff'rent folks". "Everyday People" and its b-side, "Sing a Simple Song" served as the lead singles for the band's fourth album, Stand!, which was released on May 3, 1969. The album eventually sold over three million copies, and its title track became another hit for Sly & the Family Stone. Stand! is considered one of the artistic high-points of the band's career, and its success secured Sly & the Family Stone a gig as one of the performers at the landmark Woodstock Music and Art Festival. The band performed their set during the early-morning hours of August 16, 1969; their performance was said to be one of the best shows of the festival. A new non-album single, "Hot Fun In The Summertime," was released the same month and went to #2 on the US pop charts.

Internal problems and a change of direction

With the band's newfound fame and success came a number of problems. The band's messages of peace and love seemed to fall on deaf ears, as Vietnam protests were met with violent resistance and race riots devastated Black neighborhoods across the nation. Relationships within the band were deteriorating; there was friction in particular between the Stone brothers and Larry Graham. Epic demanded more product. The Black Panther Party demanded that Sly make his music more militant and more reflective of the black power movement, and also demanded that he replace Greg Errico and Jerry Martini with black instrumentalists. All of the stress came down upon Sly, who developed ulcers and began taking prescription drugs for his condition.

After moving to the Los Angeles area in the fall of 1969, Sly and his bandmates began regularly taking a number of illegal drugs, primarily cocaine and PCP. As the members began focusing more time on drug use and partying (Sly Stone would carry a violin case filled with cocaine wherever he went), recording slowed significantly. Between summer 1969 and fall 1971, the only new Sly & the Family Stone material that was released was one double A-sided 45 RPM single, "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" / "Everybody Is A Star", released in December 1969. While "Star" was another positive record in the vein of "Everyday People," its flip side featured an angry, bitter Sly & the Family Stone, who declared in unison that they could no longer pretend to be something they weren't (peaceful, loving, and happy) and (dis)respectfully thanked the audience "for letting me be myself again." "Thank You" is considered the first full-fledged funk music single, and it and "Everybody is a Star" became the band's next two #1 hits in February 1970.

1970-1971 interim

Although irregular drug use was not new to Sly or the band prior to 1970, by this time Sly Stone spent most of his waking hours high. The drug use had a detrimental effect upon Sly's demeanor and reliability. He became erratic and moody, and missed nearly a third of the concerts for Sly & the Family Stone in 1970. Live appearances on television shows such as The Mike Douglas Show and The Dick Cavett Show went unpredictably. Bodyguards were hired, including a Mafia member. A rift developed between Sly and the rest of the band, and drummer Greg Errico was the first to leave the band for other ventures in early 1971. He was replaced with a succession of drummers until Sly settled upon Andy Newmark in 1973.

To appease fan demand for new Sly & the Family Stone product, Epic began re-releasing previously issued material. A Whole New Thing was reissued with a new cover, while "Thank You" and "Everybody is a Star" were packaged with "Hot Fun in the Summertime" and nine previously released tracks from Dance to the Music, Life, and Stand! as the first Sly & the Family Stone Greatest Hits album. Greatest Hits was a top-selling album in 1970, reaching #2 on The Billboard 200.

During this period, Sly Stone negotiated a production deal with Atlantic Records, resulting in his own imprint, Stone Flower. Stone Flower released three singles, including two by R&B artist Joe Hicks, and two pop Top 40/R&B Top 10 singles by Little Sister: "You're The One" and "Somebody's Watching You", a cover of a song from Stand!. For unclear reasons, Sly gradually withdrew his attention from Stone Flower, and the label was closed in 1971.

There's a Riot Goin' On (1971)

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The original cover for 1971's There's a Riot Goin' On.

In the fall of 1971, Sly & the Family Stone finally returned, after a nearly two-year period with no new material, with a new hit single, "Family Affair." Because of the anticipation built up for its release, "Family Affair" rose quickly to #1 on the US pop charts, but "Family Affair" was the polar opposite of what the public was expecting: a somber, dark-sounding record, with Sly singing in a low, depressed tone. "Family Affair" was the lead single from the band's long-awaited fifth album, There's a Riot Goin' On, which debuted at #1 on the Billboard album charts upon its November 1971 release. Instead of the bright, cheery rock-laced soul that had represented the optimistic 1960s, There's a Riot Goin' On was filled with dark, drug-hazed, and burnt-out vocals and instrumentation, representing the hopelessness many people were now feeling in the 1970s. Allegedly, most of the album's instrumentation is performed by Sly alone, who also enlisted the Family Stone for some instrumental parts and friends such as Billy Preston, Ike Turner, and Bobby Womack for others. Besides "Family Affair", "(You Caught Me) Smiling," and "Runnin' Away" were also released as singles, and performed well on the charts.

After the release of Riot, more lineup changes took place. In early 1972, Jerry Martini inquired to Sly and his managers about monies due him, and saxaphonist Pat Rizzo was hired as a potential replacement for Martini if he ever became suspicious of the business practices for the band again. Both Rizzo and Martini remained in the band.

Later that year, the tension between Sly Stone and Larry Graham came to a head. A post-concert brawl broke out between Graham's entourage and Sly's entourage, and Graham and his wife had to climb out of a hotel window and get a ride to safety from bandmate Pat Rizzo in order to escape with their lives. Unable to continue working with Sly, Graham went on to start Graham Central Station, a band in the same vein as Sly & the Family Stone that eventually began to outsell its predecessor. After a brief period with Bobby Womack as a stand-in bass player, Graham's place in the band was filled by nineteen-year-old Rusty Allen.

Fresh (1973) and Small Talk (1974)

The next Sly & the Family Stone album, Fresh, was released in 1973. Like Riot, it featured primarily Sly on lead vocals, although Fresh featured a somewhat brighter sound than the previous album. Little Sister's background vocals were featured prominently throughout the album, as was the drum machine-produced rhythm tracks and Sly's self-played backing tracks. Rose Stone sang lead on a gospel-styled cover of Doris Day's "Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)", and the single "If You Want Me To Stay. became a Top Twenty hit in the U.S.

Its follow-up, Small Talk was released in 1974 to mixed reviews, and underperformed commercially. The first Small Talk single, "Time For Livin'", became the band's final Top 40 hit single. "Loose Booty", the second single, underperformed, peaking at #84.

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The cover for 1973's Fresh.


By this time, the Sly & the Family Stone fanbase had eroded, and the acts the band had inspired were now eclipsing them as important funk artists. Live bookings had steadily dropped off since 1970, as promoters were afraid that Sly or one of the band members might miss the gig, refuse to play, or pass out from drug use if they were booked. All three issues were regular occurances for the band during the 1970s, and had an adverse effect on their ability to demand money for live bookings. After a disastrous engagement at the Radio City Music Hall in January 1975, where the band only filled the house to one-eighth of its capacity and had to scrape together money to get home, Freddie Stone, Rose Stone, Rusty Allen, Andy Newmark, and Jerry Martini all parted company with Sly, and the Family Stone was dissolved.

Rose Stone was pulled out of the band by her husband Hamp "Bubba" Banks, one of Sly's former bodyguards. She began a solo career, recording an album under the name of Rose Banks for Motown in 1976. Freddie Stone joined Larry Graham's Graham Central Station for a time, and, after collaborating with his brother one last time in 1979 for Back on the Right Track, retired from the music industry. Stone entered drug rehabilitation to fight his ten-year cocaine addiction, and eventually became the pastor of the Evangelist Temple Fellowship Center in Vallejo, California. Little Sister was also dissolved, with Mary McCrary marrying Leon Russell and working with him on music projects. Vet Stone continued to perform on her own without fanfare, as did Elva Mouton, Rusty Allen, and Jerry Martini. Andy Newmark went on to become a successful session drummer, playing with Roxy Music, B.B. King, Steve Winwood and others.

Impact and influence of later material

The work of the later version of Sly & the Family Stone was as influential as the band's early work. There's a Riot Goin' On, Fresh, and Small Talk are considered among the first and best examples of the matured version of funk music, after prototypical instances of the sound in the band's 1960s work. The highly syncopated electric piano, guitar, and bass lines; programmed drum tracks, and lyrics that were wailed rather thansung set the example for most of the popular funk musical acts of the 1970s. Some of these acts, including Funkadelic, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Kool & the Gang, became as prominent and successful in the music industry during the mid-to-late-1970s as Sly & the Family Stone had been during the earlier part of the decade.

Jazz musician Herbie Hancock was inspired by There's a Riot Goin' On to move towards a more electric sound with his material, resulting in Head Hunters (1973), the best-selling jazz album of all time. In addition, later artists such as Prince, OutKast, D'Angelo, The Roots, and John Legend have shown significant inspiration from the post-1970 work of Sly & the Family Stone.

Sly on his own

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Sly Stone's 1975 LP, High on You.

Sly recorded two more albums for Epic: High On You (1975) and Heard You Missed Me, Well I'm Back (1976). High On You was billed as a Sly Stone solo album; Heard You Missed Me was a Sly & the Family Stone album only in name. While Sly continued to collaborate with some of the Family Stone members from time to time, the actual band no longer existed. Sly would play most of the instruments on record either himself, although he maintained a band to support him for live shows. Among his main collaborators during this period were Cynthia Robinson and Pat Rizzo from the Family Stone, and background vocalists Lynn Mabry and Dawn Silva, who parted company with Sly in 1976 and formed the Brides Of Funkenstein in 1978. Epic dropped him in 1977, and in 1979 released 10 Years Too Soon, a remix album featuring disco versions of the 1960s Family Stone hits, to complete Sly's contract.

Sly switched over to Warner Bros. Records and recorded Back On The Right Track (1979). Even though the album featured contributions from Freddie and Rose stone, Sly still did not return to the heights of his late-60s/early 70s fame. He toured with George Clinton and Funkadelic during the late 1970s and early 1980s, and also appeared on the 1981 Funkadelic album The Electric Spanking of War Babies. The same year, Clinton and Sly began work on a new Sly Stone album, but recording halted when Clinton and Funkadelic disputed with and left Warner in late-1981. When Sly disappeared into self-seclusion, producer Stewart Levine completed the album, which was released as Ain't But the One Way in 1983. The album received mixed reviews from critics, and was not commercially successful. Overcome by numerous drug addictions, Sly Stone disappeared from the limelight and, at the insistence of his old friend Bobby Womack, entered drug rehabilitation in 1984. Sly continued sporadically releasing new singles and collaborations at irregular intervals until a 1987 arrest for cocaine possesion and use. After being released, he stopped releasing music altogether.


Awards and tributes

Sly & the Family Stone were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. The members of the Family Stone were in attendance, but Sly was not. Just as the band took the podium to receive their awards, Sly suddenly appeared, to thunderous applause. He accepted his award, gave a quick a speech, and disappeared from public view. In December 2001, Sly & the Family Stone were awarded the R&B Foundation Pioneer Award. Two Family Stone songs, "Dance to the Music" and "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)", are among The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.

A Sly & the Family Stone tribute album, to be called Sly 2K, is in the works and due for release in 2005. The project will feature contributions from Beck, The Roots, Lenny Kravitz, Maroon 5, and Floetry, among others, and is to include both cover versions of the band's songs and songs which sample the original recordings. One song from the collection, The Roots' "Star", which samples "Everybody is a Star", has already been released as a single.

Reunion projects

Since the mid-1990s, various Family Stone members have collaborated on projects with other members of the band. On May 25, 1997, Sindbad's Soul Music Festival was held in Aruba. One of the performances reunited four members of the Family Stone: Larry Graham, Rose Stone, Cynthia Robinson, and Jerry Martini. Robinson and Martini joined Graham Central Station when Larry Graham revived it later that same year, and the band toured with Prince, a noted admirer of Sly & the Family Stone.

On her own, Rose Stone provided guest vocals to Fishbone's 2000 cover of "Everbody is a Star", which also features vocals by No Doubt's Gwen Stefani. The cover was included on the album Fishbone & the Familyhood Nextperience Present: The Psychotic Friends Nuttwerx, released March 21, 2000.

In 2003, all but two of the members of the original Family Stone reunited to record a new studio album. Missing from the lineup were Sly Stone and Larry Graham; Freddie Stone, Rose Stone, Cynthia Robinson, Jerry Martini, and Greg Errico began work on a sixteen-song album on their own.

Currently, Vet Stone, Cynthia Robinson, and Rose Stone's daughter Lisa Stone are in a Family Stone-like band called Phunk Phamily Affair while Greg Errico and Jerry Martini maintain a band called The Family Stone Experience. Both acts serve to carry on the legacy of Sly & the Family Stone, and perform both Family Stone songs and original material as part of their respective repertoires.


Original Members

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Other Members



For a detailed discography, see Sly & the Family Stone discography.


Original Family Stone

Later period

  • 1975: High On You (credited only to "Sly Stone")
  • 1976: Heard You Missed Me, Well I'm Back
  • 1979: Back On The Right Track
  • 1983: Ain't But The One Way

US and UK Top 40 Singles

Year Song title US Top 40 chart UK Top 40 chart
1968: "Dance To The Music" Template:Audio 8
1969: "Everyday People" Template:Audio 1
1969: "Stand!" Template:Audio 22
1969: "I Want To Take You Higher"
(b-side of "Stand!")
1969: "Hot Fun In The Summertime" 2
1970: "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" Template:Audio 1
1970: "Everybody is a Star"
(double a-side with "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)")
1971: "Family Affair" Template:Audio 1
1972: "Runnin' Away" 23
1973: "If You Want Me To Stay" Template:Audio 12
1974: "Time For Livin'" 32

Other samples


  • Aronowitz, Al (Nov. 1, 2002). "The Preacher" ( The Blacklisted Journal.
  • Ankeny, Jason (2005). ""Sylvester 'Sly Stone' Stewart" ( Retrieved March 29, 2005.
  • Erlewine, Stephen Thomas (2005). "Sly & the Family Stone" ( Retrieved March 29, 2005.
  • Selvin, Joel (1998). For the Record: Sly and the Family Stone: An Oral History. New York: Quill Publishing. ISBN 038-079377-6.
  • (2003) "Sly and the Family Stone" ( Retrieved March 29, 2005.

External Links

Band member personal websites


nl:Sly & the Family Stone


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