Among the most influential groups in the history of popular music, Sly and The Family Stone fused funk, soul, rock and R&B to create a sound that resonated well beyond the charts. Led by the brilliant and charismatic Sly Stone, it was a sound that by turns reflected the idealism of the ’60s, and the fracturing of those ideals in the decade that followed. The band’s performance at the Woodstock festival in 1969 showed a group at the height of their powers, while suggesting a future of unlimited musical possibilities.
Stone (born Sylvester Stewart, March 15, 1944) was the youngest of four of a deeply religious middle-class household from Dallas, Texas. The parents encouraged musical expressions, and Stone excelled in mastering every instrument he touched. Early examples of Stone’s color-blind band dynamics were evident when he became one of the first non-white members of his high school musical group, The Viscaynes, and recorded several solo singles under the name “Danny Stewart.”
By 1964, Stewart had become Sly Stone, a disc jockey for San Francisco R&B radio station KSOL, where he integrated music by white artists into a Black radio playlist. Stone had produced for and performed with Black and white musicians during his early career, so the eventual Sly and the Family Stone sound continued that melting pot, or stew, of many influences and cultures, including James Brown proto-funk, Motown pop, Stax soul, Broadway showtunes and psychedelic rock music.
The Family Stone original founding members — saxophonist Jerry Martini, trumpeter Cynthia Robinson and drummer Greg Errico — are Rock & Roll Hall of fame inductees and still tour the globe featuring the songs of the first interracial, multi-gender band. 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. Stone, Freddie Stone, Larry Graham and Rose Stone traded off on various bars of each verse, a style of vocal arrangement unusual and revolutionary at that time in popular music. Robinson shouted ad-libbed vocal directions to the audience and the band; for example, urging everyone to “get on up and ‘Dance to the Music’” and demanding that “all the squares go home!”
“One of the greatest things that Sly did as part of the line-up, with the original band, there wasn’t no four chicks or all the women in the background and just him out front — we were all on the front line, every one of us,” said Martini. “That’s how it is now. Cynthia really stands out now because she is so dynamic.”
Sly and the Family Stone cut a phenomenal swath through the landscape of popular music in the late 1960s and early 1970s, impacting music festivals and releasing some of the greatest rock and roll music ever recorded. The groups work would go on to influence generations of artists — from Herbie Hancock, who was inspired by Sly’s new funk sound to move towards a more electric sound with his material in1973’s “Head Hunters”; to Miles Davis, who worked with Stone for his 1972 LP “On The Corner”; to as varied a line-up of talents from Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Prince and Chuck D.
“The music was absolutely the catalyst that made it all stick; that gave us the focal point,” explained Errico. “When we went on the road we were a family. We had each other’s back and dealt with all the issues and allegations. It was good, and you’ve go to have that or otherwise you’re not going to make it through the moment. We definitely did have that, and you could feel it in the music and those moments, those recordings that were captured, and you could feel that spirit, that energy and that togetherness. It’s there — it lives in the music.”
But even while crafting great music, the group gradually disintegrated, torn apart by drugs, personality clashes, and the glare of the public spotlight. Stone, now 69, himself became deeply reclusive, his recordings increasingly sporadic, while refusing to grant interviews for decades. On June 25, the story of Sly and the Family Stone kicks off a new season of TV One’s “Unsung,” the NAACP Image Award-winning series celebrating the lives and careers of successful artists or groups who, despite great talent, have not received the level of recognition they deserve or whose stories have never been told. During this groundbreaking episode, Stone emerges to tell that tale, with the help of bandmates and family members — a unique and remarkable musical journey that, after four decades, is still unfolding.
Or, as Martini underscores: “His songs are going to live on — they’re standards.”
Sly and the Family Stone premieres on TV One’s series “Unsung” on Monday, June 25 at 9 p.m. The episode repeats at midnight.