Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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SLY and the FAMILY STONE

Rock group that fused pop, soul and rock to make first-class dance music with a political edge. Sly Stone (b Sylvester Stewart, 15 March 1944, Dallas TX) sang gospel music as a child, moved with his family to the San Francisco area '50s, had local hit 'Long Time Away' at age 16, formed various groups and studied music formally; he became a disc jockey on KSOL, then KDIA, and worked as a producer for Autumn records with the Beau Brummels, Bobby Freeman, the Great Society (see Jefferson Airplane), others. He formed the Stoners '66 with Cynthia Robinson (b 12 January 1944, Sacramento; d 22 November 2015 of cancer), brother Fred (as Freddie Stone; b 5 June 1946, Dallas) on guitar and vocals, Larry Graham on bass (important contribution led to later solo success), Greg Errico (b 1 September 1946, San Francisco) on drums, Rosie Stone (b 21 March 1945, Vallejo CA) on piano, Jerry Martini (b 1 October 1943, CO) on sax. First album on Epic A Whole New Thing '67 sank without a trace, but Dance To The Music '68 was more coherent: while curiously reaching only no. 142 in the pop LP chart, it included a top ten title track, the music transcending musical boundaries as the group ignored racial and sexual ones: they were the first to fuse an R&B beat with jazz-oriented horns, psychedelic guitar work, lyrics with a social message. Life '68 did less well; Stand! '69 was a no. 13 LP including 'Everyday People' (no. 1 both soul and pop charts), also '(I Want To Take You) Higher', 'Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey', 'Somebody's Watching You', 'Sex Machine'; the album stayed in the charts for nearly two years.

Exciting versions of 'Higher' and 'Dance To The Music' were heard in Woodstock Festival film/LP '69; Greatest Hits '70 was a no. 2 LP including singles 'Hot Fun In The Summertime' (no. 2), 'Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)' (no. 1), which despite its silly title was not only a slice of ghetto life but a profound influence for Graham's percussive, popping bass line. There's A Riot Goin' On '71 changed the pace, variously described as violent and controversially militant, or as having a softer, more personal feel: including 'Family Affair', a no. 1 hit marking one of the first uses of a drum machine, since thought by many to be the most disastrous innovation in pop music.

By this time Stone had become unreliable due to a drug problem; Graham left to form Graham Central Station and Robinson played with that group; Andy Newmark replaced Errico and Pat Rizzo was added on sax. Fresh '73 was a top ten album; Sly got married during a concert at Madison Square Garden '74; Small Talk '74 slipped to no. 15; his solo High On You '75 did not reach the top 40 albums; the group's Heard Ya Missed Me, Well, I'm Back '76 did not make the top 200. Back On The Right Track '79 reached no. 152 on WB; Ten Years Too Soon '79 had Epic re- editing tapes, laying disco backing on the hits; Anthology '81 was a two-disc compilation. Stone also toured with George Clinton's Parliament/Funkadelic family, which he had deeply influenced. He fell on hard times later, but under his real name he sued a former manager and an attorney, and in January 2015 was awarded $5m in back royalties.

In 2002 Robinson and Martini, who was living in Folsom, not far from Sacramento, had formed The Family Stone, with Phunne Stone, Cynthia's daughter with Sly, on vocals. They played at the Glastonbury Festival in England in June 2015. As her health declined, Martini and his wife, a nurse, looked after Cynthia in their home until she passed.