There is no one quite like Sly Stone. He invented his own funky, mixed-up hybrid of rock 'n' roll and R&B, and with his band, Sly and the Family Stone, he became one of the most influential musicians of the late 1960s.
Funk legend and longtime friend George Clinton said, "It was like seeing the Black version of The Beatles. He had the sensibility of the street, the church, and then, like, the qualities of a Motown, you know, Smokey Robinson – he was all of that in one person."
The songs – "Everyday People," "Dance to the Music," " Hot Fun in the Summertime" – are American classics. But the guy behind them is something of a mystery.
Watching the band in the 2021 documentary "Summer of Soul," it still feels like something new. Ahmir Questlove Thompson, who won an Oscar for that film, is now publishing Stone's memoir, with a title taken from his classic 1969 song: "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again)."
Sanneh said, "When he puts together this band, Sly and the Family Stone, it seems like he really has a vision. Jerry Martini, the saxophone player, said he knew exactly what he was doing. Boys, girls, Black, white."
"Sly knew which buttons to push to not only make his musicians better, but also how we would receive it," said Thompson, "knowing that we'd never seen a band before in which, you know, the women just aren't background singing foils that play the tambourine. Like, Cynthia Robinson could destroy anybody playing trumpet. So, to have a band that has women playing instruments as serious as men do? To have a white guy as the drummer? If you're the drummer in a Black band, you better be good, you know what I mean?"
Sly Stone grew up Sylvester Stewart in San Francisco, and worked as a DJ before founding the band in 1966. Three years later, the Family Stone album "Stand" put them on the map, and the single "Everyday People" went to #1.
Thompson said, "If you listen to the structure of 'Everyday People,' it's really nothing but, Nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah, nyah, nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah, nyah – who has the wit and the clever mind to figure out how to insert this potent message inside of a song so innocent-sounding?"
By 1971 the innocence was fading. The band released a darker, weirder follow-up, a futuristic masterpiece called, "There's a Riot Goin' On."
But Sly Stone was struggling. In the book he writes that his life revolved around drugs, particularly cocaine. He often missed gigs (although he did manage to show up to his own wedding to Kathy Silva at Madison Square Garden in 1974). By the eighties the band had basically disintegrated, and Sly Stone himself was only occasionally seen offstage, as in a 1983 court appearance on a cocaine possession charge. He made a few comeback attempts in the '80s, but mainly laid low.
Stone surfaced again in 2006 at a Grammys tribute – his first time with the original group since the '70s. But he left before it was over.
By 2011 he was living in a camper van; to many fans, it seemed like rock bottom. Now 80 years old, Stone is still living a reclusive life, but he has a house in an anonymous Los Angeles suburb.
Through a representative he declined "Sunday Morning"'s request for an interview. But the real Family Stone – daughters Novena Carmel and Sylvette Phunne Stone, and son Sylvester Stewart Jr. – agreed to speak on his behalf.
"He's doing okay," said Phunne. "He's still talking trash and all of that. Still, you know, he's loving and caring still. But he still don't take no mess from nobody."
Phunne Stone was at home for some of her father's darkest days. In his book, he writes that Phunne was one of the people tasked with helping to keep the drug dealers away while he was trying to stay clean.
When asked if that were true, Phunne laughed, "I had a few conversations, yeah! 'You got a dad, too? That's my dad. You're killing him. Stop. Or it's gonna be bad.' So, just had to just put your foot down and let 'em know, 'You're not welcome. Don't come back over here or it's gonna be a problem.'"
Longtime manager Arlene Hirschkowitz said that after more than half a century of high times and hard living, Sly Stone has finally found peace – and sobriety. "In December, it'll be four years," she said.
Sanneh asked, "Did you ever think that you'd be sitting here talking about Sly four years clean?"
"No. But I'm so happy that I am!"
One product of his newfound sobriety? The new memoir, a very personal book that was also, it turns out, a group project, involving Stone, writer Ben Greenman, and Hirschkowitz, and nearly 300 interview sessions.
The book tells Sly's life story, but it's not necessarily the final chapter. When asked if he thinks we'll see Stone in public again, George Clinton replied, "I think so. I'm not sure if he's gonna be playing on anything. He's got music that I know he wants to get somebody to do something with. He's gonna find a way."
"So, you think Sly Stone's not finished yet?"
"I hope not, let's put it that way," Clinton said.
Sly Stone's band may not be back together, but his family seems tighter than ever. Daughter Novena Carmel said moments like talking about her dad's memoir are "the most surreal. Not the other crazy Sly Stone moments, 'cause I think we were born into that. Him just being at home, we'd come over, decorate the Christmas tree, that's the craziest. It's all very wonderfully and weirdly normal."
Ahmir Questlove Thompson said, "Sly is in a place right now which, as we say, let us give you your flowers while you're still here. He's 80 years old. A lot of his contemporaries died at 20, 30, 40."
Sanneh asked, "Is he OK?"
"Yeah, you know, as long as Sly is breathing on Earth, I consider that OK," he replied.
READ AN EXCERPT:
For more info:
- "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin): A Memoir" by Sly Stone with Ben Greenman; foreword by Questlove (AUWA), in Hardcover, eBook and Audio formats, available October 17 via Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Bookshop.org
- Ahmir Questlove Thompson
- George Clinton
Story produced by John D'Amelio. Editor: Mike Levine.
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