Woodstock Performers: Sly and the Family Stone
This series of articles—32 in all—covers each of the artists who performed at the original Woodstock festival August 15-18, 1969. Appearing on Day 2, before Sly, was Janis Joplin, who left a great big piece of her heart on the Woodstock stage. After Sly was done, there were still two acts to go before Day 2 was over. The first of these was The Who.
Sly and the Family Stone brought their funk-rock set to the stage at 3:30 a.m. on Sunday, August 17th. Considering the hour, they looked remarkably fresh.
Who Is Sylvester Stewart?
Sylvester Stewart was born March 15, 1943, the second of five children for K.C. and Alpha Stewart. When Sylvester was seven years old, the family relocated from Denton, Texas to Vallejo, California. Even at that tender age, Sylvester was considered a musical prodigy on keyboards.
Deeply religious, K.C. and Alpha encouraged their children to take up music, which all but Sylvester's eldest sister did. The kids started out singing devotional music, calling themselves "The Stewart Family." They even recorded a single containing the songs "On the Battlefield" and "Walking in Jesus' Name."
By the time Sylvester reached the age of 11, he had added the bass guitar, acoustic guitar and drums to the list of instruments he was proficient with. Sylvester and his brother Freddie were both influenced by the R&B music they heard on the radio, and in their high school years, they became members of a doo-wop group called the Viscaynes. Freddie moved on, leaving Sylvester and his Filipino friend Frank as the only non-white members of the group. This would later influence the multicultural nature of the Family Stone. The Viscaynes managed to release a few singles in their time together, including "Yellow Moon" and "Stop What You Are." It was around this time that Sylvester adopted the name Sly, which was a nickname he had picked up in grade school.
By 1964, Sly was working as a DJ for an R&B/soul station based in San Francisco, and moonlighting and learning to produce music at Autumn Records, whose roster included Grace Slick's first band, The Great Society. Sly, who by this point had a well-deserved reputation as a keyboard player, also worked as a session musician for some major names, including the Righteous Brothers, Marvin Gaye, The Ronettes and Dionne Warwick.
Adopting the stage name "Sly Stone," in 1966 he formed his own band "Sly & The Stoners," which included his brother Freddie on guitar and Cynthia Robinson on trumpet. They were joined by Jerry Martini (saxophone), Larry Graham (bass) and Gregg Errico (drums). Sly left Freddie to handle guitar duty while he adopted the role of frontman and keyboard player.
Sly and the Family Stone was born.
Sly and the Family Stone
Signed to a contract by Epic Records, the band hoped to capitalize on their popularity in the San Francisco Bay area. They were pioneers of the late '60s funk sound, and their soul/R&B/funky music, coupled with their moves onstage, made them wildly popular wherever they played. The band's first album A Whole New Thing did respectably well in the Bay area, but didn't generate any hits. With his great instinct for hits, and wanting a song that was more commercially viable, producer Clive Davis suggested that Sly write a song to be released as a single. The result was “Dance to the Music,” which was released in November 1967 and peaked at #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in February 1968. The album of the same name did better in terms of sales than their first album had. Sly's sister Rosie joined the band for a tour to promote the album, and their third album Life was released on July 1, 1968. That album received much critical acclaim, but didn't sell well, though many of the songs became staples for the band's live shows.
In anticipation of the release of their fourth album, the single “Everyday People” was released in November 1968. The song's underlying message about unity and brotherhood resonated with audiences everywhere, and it quickly went to #1 on the charts. When Stand!, the LP containing the song, was released on May 3, 1969, it too climbed the charts and reached the #13 spot on the Billboard 200 chart. went on to sell three million copies. If you are a fan of funk, nobody did it better than these guys at the time. "Stand!," "Everyday People" and "I Want To Take You Higher" are all on this album and the music is positively infectious. Stand!
Sly and the Family Stone "Everyday People" 1969
By August of 1969, everybody knew this band, and when they finally took the stage at Woodstock, the crowd was pumped and ready. Considering the hour, that was a miracle in itself.
Sly and the Family Stone finally started their set at 3:30 a.m. (some sources suggest it was closer to 4:00 a.m.). By this time in his career, Sly had become a real challenge to deal with, showing up late or not showing at all for live performances. Janis Joplin had finished her set about 3:00 a.m., and numerous sources suggest that one of the organizers of Woodstock had to put Sly up against a trailer and threaten him with violence to make him go on.
The band performed a planned seven-song set that was followed by two encore numbers. They opened up with a powerful version of “M’Lady,” then moved through two numbers from Stand! Their call-and-response chant of "Higher" naturally morphed into a long version of that song, which proved to be a real crowd pleaser. Whipped up now, the crowd demanded more, and Sly and the band came back for two encore numbers, "Love City" and "Stand!"
Sly and the Family Stone Performing "I Want To Take You Higher"
Life After Woodstock
“Hot Fun in the Summertime,” released right after Woodstock, went to #2 on the U.S. pop chart, further solidifying the band’s cultural importance and immense popularity. But, the higher they climb, as the saying goes. In the fall of 1969, Sly and the band moved to Los Angeles and sank further into heavy drug use. Sly surrounded himself with "business managers" and bodyguards that the other members of the band described variously as unsavory and dangerous. Sly's legendary cocaine habit and growing paranoia led to more and more missed shows, or situations where he would appear onstage only to leave after a song or two.
"Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)," released in December of 1969, sounded like nothing before it. Larry Graham used a slap bass technique on this song that had not been heard on record before. The song was a huge hit, reaching the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 by February 1970. But the writing was on the wall.
The band was falling apart and their sales and popularity began to slip. Live bookings dried up, as venues and promoters refused to book the band for fear that one or more of the members would fail to show or be too high to perform if they did show. The band finally broke up in 1975.
The band members went their various ways. Freddie became a minister and Larry Graham started his own band. Rose Stone, Cynthia Robinson, Greg Errico and Jerry Martini all worked with various artists over the years and all but Rose got back together as The Family Stone for a time. In 2015, Cynthia died of cancer at the age of 71.
The man himself, Sly Stone, worked on various solo projects over the years, then dropped out of sight. Legal troubles plagued him through the years, and coupled with his expensive coke habit, he was left with little to show for what was a magnificent run.
In 1993, Sly made a brief surprise appearance onstage when the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And, at a 2006 Grammy Awards tribute, Sly appeared in a blonde Mohawk hairdo and silver lamé suit. He sang and played keyboards on "I Want To Take You Higher" for all of three minutes, leaving the Family Stone and guest performers Steve Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith to finish the song.
Another music/producer-genius brought down by the ravages of fame and drugs.
Sly and the Family Stone Performing "Hot Fun In the Summertime"
Five Musical Facts
- The nickname Sly began when a classmate of Sylvester's misspelled his name "Slyvester."
- "Sing a Simple Song" from Stand! was rated by drummer Greg Errico as one of the most technically challenging tracks he played on. The drum track from the song went on to become a favorite among hip-hop producers. Public Enemy used those beats in at least five different tracks and Ice Cube used them in four.
- “I Want to Take You Higher” appears in both the 1970 Woodstock film and on the original soundtrack album.
- In 2010, the band was ranked #43 on Rolling Stone's "100 Greatest Artists of All Time" list.
- In September 2011, the New York Post ran an article stating that Sly was living in a camper van in a residential area of Los Angeles. Another article published by The Daily Mail in February 2015 included photos of Sly's modest camper, which he said he lived in by choice. The article went on to state that Sly had recently been awarded $5M in damages in a lawsuit against his former manager.
© 2019 Kaili Bisson