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Sly Stone vanished into rumor in the 1980s, remembered only by the great songs ("I Want to Take You Higher," "Dance to the Music") he left behind. What's become of the funky leader of the Family Stone since he forsook his Woodstock-era utopianism for darkness, drugs, and isolation? After a few sightings—most notoriously at the 2006 Grammys—the author tracked the last of the rock recluses to a Bay Area biker shop, to scope out where Stone's been, where he's headed, and what's behind those shades.
by David Kamp August 2007
Will Sly show up?
I sure hope so. I have an appointment with him. I've flown across the country and quadruple-checked to make sure that we're still on.
To cynics and music-industry veterans, this very premise is laughable: an appointment with Sly Stone. Yeah, right. For 20-odd years, Stone has been one of music's great recluses, likened in the press to J. D. Salinger and Howard Hughes. And in the years before he slipped away, he was notorious for not showing up even when he said he would. Missed concerts, rioting crowds, irritated promoters, drug problems, band tensions, burned bridges.
But in his prime, Stone was a fantastic musician, performer, bandleader, producer, and songwriter. Even today, his life-affirming hits from the late 60s and early 70s—among them "Stand!," "Everyday People," and "Family Affair"—continue to thrive on the radio, magically adaptable to any number of programming formats: pop, rock, soul, funk, lite. He was a black man and emphatically so, with the most luxuriant Afro and riveted leather jumpsuits known to Christendom, but he was also a pan-culturalist who moved easily among all races and knew no genre boundaries. There was probably no more Woodstockian moment at Woodstock than when he and the Family Stone, his multi-racial, four-man, two-woman band, took control of the festival in the wee hours of August 17, 1969, getting upwards of 400,000 people pulsing in unison to an extended version of "I Want to Take You Higher." For one early morning, at least, the idea of "getting higher" wasn't an empty pop-culture construct or a stoner joke, but a matter of transcendence. This man had power.
He also had a compelling penchant for folly. In the jivey, combustible early 1970s, when it was almost fashionable for public figures to unleash their ids and abandon all shame—whether it was Norman Mailer's baiting a roomful of feminists at New York's Town Hall or Burt Reynolds's posing nude on a bearskin for Cosmopolitan—Sly was out on the front lines, contributing some first-rate unhinged behavior of his own. Like marrying his 19-year-old girlfriend onstage in 1974 at Madison Square Garden before a ticket-buying audience of 21,000, with Soul Train host Don Cornelius presiding as M.C. Or appearing on Dick Cavett's late-night ABC talk show while conspicuously, if charmingly, high. "You're great," Stone told his flummoxed host in 1971, in the second of two notorious visits to Cavett's soundstage. "You are great. You are great. You know what I mean? [Pounds fist on heart.] Booom! Right on! Sure thing. No, for real. For real, Dick. Hey, Dick. Dick. Dick. You're great."
Cavett, grasping for some sense of conversational traction, smirked and replied, "Well, you're not so bad yourself."
"Well," said Sly, eyes rolling up in contemplation, "I am kinda bad … "
Sly Stone is my favorite of the rock-era recluses, and, really, the only big one left. Syd Barrett, the architect of Pink Floyd's entrancingly loopy early sound, passed away last summer at the age of 60, having resisted all entreaties to explain himself or sing again. Brian Wilson, the fragile visionary behind the Beach Boys, has been gently coaxed out of his shell by his friends and acolytes, and now performs and schmoozes regularly. He doesn't count as a recluse anymore.
But Sly has remained elusive—still with us, yet seemingly content to do without us. I have been pursuing him for a dozen years, on and off, wondering if there would ever come a time when he'd release new material, or at the very least sit down and talk about his old songs. I've loved his music for as long as I've been a sentient human being—he started making records with the Family Stone when I was a toddler. And over time, as the silence has lengthened, his disappearance from public life has become a fascinating subject in and of itself. How could it have happened? How could a man with such an extensive and impressive body of work just shut down and cut out?
"I often tell people that I have more dead rock stars on tape than anyone, and they'll say, 'You mean Janis, Hendrix, and Sly?'" says Cavett today. "A lot of people think he's gone." Even if you're aware that Sly lives, you have to wonder what kind of shape he's in, projecting that beautiful but reckless man of 1971 into 2007, the year he turned 64. What of the dark rumors that he's done so much coke that his brain is zapped, and that he now exists in a pathetic, vegetative state? What of the more hopeful rumors that he's still writing and noodling with his keyboards, biding his time until he feels ready to attempt a comeback?
I had long dreamed of the latter scenario. Syd Barrett excepted, they do all come back. Brian Wilson did. The Stooges did. The New York Dolls did. Even Roky Erickson, the psychedelic pioneer from the 13th Floor Elevators, long presumed to be fried beyond rehabilitation by electroshock treatments he received in the early 1970s, has staged a robust return to the live circuit.
My hopes for a Sly comeback were highest in 2003. That year, in the back room of a music store in Vallejo, California, where Sly grew up, I sat in on a rehearsal of a re-united Family Stone led by Freddie Stone, Sly's guitarist brother. Freddie was intent on recording an album of entirely new material that he had written with his sister Rose, who played organ and shared lead vocals in the old group. "Sylvester's doing very well, by the way," Freddie told me, using his brother's given name. Gregg Errico, the band's drummer, who was also in on the reunion, explained that, while they weren't counting on Sly to join them, they had set a place for him just in case, like Seder participants awaiting Elijah. "We profess that the keyboard is on the stage, the [Hammond] B3's running, and the seat is warm for him," Errico said.
But that reunion quickly fizzled out. After that, my Sly search lay dormant; I pretty much gave up. He hadn't shown his face in public since 1993, when he and the Family Stone were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Characteristically, Sly slipped in and out of the ceremony without saying much, barely acknowledging his siblings and bandmates. So why would he ever want to perform again, much less meet up with a stranger?
Then, out of nowhere, there began a series of brief, intriguing resurfacings. In August of 2005, he was sighted in L.A. on a chopper motorcycle, giving his sister Vaetta, who goes by the nickname Vet, a ride to Hollywood's Knitting Factory club, where she was performing a set with her band, the Phunk Phamily Affair. The following February came Stone's enigmatic appearance at the 2006 Grammy Awards, in which he loped onto the stage in a gold lamé trench coat and plumy blond Mohawk, performed a snippet of "I Want to Take You Higher" with some guest musicians paying him tribute, and loped off again before the song was over. And in January of this year, Stone put in a surprise cameo at Vet's band's show at the House of Blues in Anaheim, California, adding vocals and keyboards to their performances of "Higher" and "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)."
What to make of this? Was Sly's newfound quasi-visibility a sign that, at last, his return was nigh? Early this year, I managed to get in touch with Vet Stone, who confirmed that her brother was indeed planning a return: a show in San Jose on July 7 with her band (which, with Sly's blessing, has been renamed the Family Stone), and then some summer dates at festivals in Europe. After several telephone conversations in early spring and one meeting with me in person, Vet called one day with the news: Sly would speak. We would meet up on May 9 in Vallejo, his hometown, 25 miles north of Oakland.
Are You Ready?
On the designated day, Vet and I arrive early at the designated meeting place: Chopper Guys Biker Products Inc., a Vallejo business that manufactures parts and frames for custom motorcycles. Sly, who lived in L.A. on and off for 36 years but recently relocated to Napa Valley, gets his bikes serviced here. As Vet and I kill time chatting, we eventually notice that it's about 10 minutes past the appointed start time of our meeting. Nothing worrying, but a long enough period to have faint thoughts of Hmm, maybe this won't work out. Vet tells me how many doubters she's had to deal with in booking those summer European dates, "people who wouldn't take my call, people who hung up on me, people who think I'm a delusional woman." She has been the catalyst of Sly's tentative re-emergence, the one who pulled him out of L.A. and found him a home up north, who persuaded him to play with her band and get back out on the road again. It's exhausted her, and she's openly daunted by the logistics of planning for her brother, never the smoothest of travelers, to fly to Europe and then zip from Umbria to Montreux to Ghent.
But she's gotten this far, which fuels her faith. "All I can say," she says, and it's something she says a lot, "is that I'm his little sister, and he's never lied to me." Nevertheless, even Vet is starting to get a little nervous about the interview, checking her cell phone, stepping outside the front door of Chopper Guys with me to see if anyone's coming.
And then, like John Wayne emerging from 'cross the prairie in The Searchers … a strange form advances through the wavy air in the distance: some sort of vehicle, low to the ground, rumbling mightily as it turns off the highway and into the parking lot. As it comes closer, the shapes become clearer: a flamboyantly customized banana-yellow chopper trike, the front tire jutting four feet out in front of the driver. He sits on a platform no higher than 18 inches off the ground, legs extended in front of him, his body clad in a loose, tan shirt-and-pants ensemble somewhere between Carhartt work clothes and pajamas. His feet are shod in black leather sneakers with green-yellow-red African tricolor trim. Behind him, on an elevated, throne-like seat built between the two fat back tires, sits an attractive, 30-ish woman in full biker leathers. He always was good at entrances.
Sly Stone and his lady companion, who I learn is named Shay, disembark from the chopper and walk toward the shop. He applies pink baby lotion to his hands, which I notice are huge, with elongated, tapering fingers. He's still very slim—there was never a Fat Sly period—and he does not appear frail, as several recent reports have described him. In fact, he moves rather well, especially for a 64-year-old man who's just spent time scrunched into a custom-chopper cockpit. But he has the same hunched posture he had at the '06 Grammys—a bit like Silvio Dante's in The Sopranos—and he wears a neck brace.
We shake hands and say hello. I've heard he owns an old Studebaker, so I tell him I, too, own an old Studebaker. "Really, what year?" he says, looking up at me with a smile. He pulls two chairs together for our chat, a metal stool and an old barber's chair. As all these mundane things are transpiring, I realize I'm recording them in my mind like a doctor observing a patient recovering from brain trauma. He is aware of his surroundings. He is capable of participating in linear conversational exchanges. He is able to move chairs.
The only strange part: he is still wearing his helmet and shades when we sit down to talk. Good lord, I'm thinking, is he going to wear the helmet the whole time? Fortunately, without my prompting, Vet says, "Why don't you take your helmet off?," and Sly obliges, revealing a backward San Francisco Giants cap.
"Still sporting the blond Mohawk under there?" I ask.
"Naw, not now, it's very short," he says. Then, deadpan: "Most of it growing under the skin."
I start the interview in earnest with the most obvious question: "Why have you chosen to come back now?"
At this, he grins. "'Cause it's kind of boring at home sometimes."
"But it's bigger than just being bored at home, isn't it?"
"Yeah, I got a lot of songs I want to record and put out, so I'm gonna try 'em out on the road," he says. "That's the way it's always worked the best: Let's try it out and see how the people feel."
Stone tells me he has a huge backlog of new material, "a library, like, a hundred and some songs, or maybe 200." This subject, I come to understand, animates him like no other. With the old songs, he seems uninterested in analysis. When I ask him if he was consciously trying to do something different with his December 1969 single "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)," which, with its chanted unison vocals and slap bass, effectively invented 1970s funk—without it, no Parliament-Funkadelic, no Ohio Players, no Earth, Wind & Fire—he replies simply, "Well, the title was spelled phonetically. That was one thing different."
Likewise, on more personal matters, such as what else he was up to in his awol years, he's evasive: "Just traveling—going around, jumping in and out, and up and down." He doesn't flinch when I broach the subject of his hunched posture and neck brace, but it's clear he doesn't want to break out the M.R.I.'s, either. "I fell off a cliff," he says. "I was walking in my yard in Beverly Hills, missed my footing, and started doing flips. But you know what? I had a plate of food in my hand. And when I landed, I still had a plate of food in my hand. That's the God-lovin' truth. I did not drop a bean."
But when I ask Stone to describe the new songs, he straightens up, rocks forward in his seat, and starts rhyming in an insistent cadence somewhere between a preacher's and a rapper's, the rasp suddenly gone from his otherwise low, throaty speaking voice. "There's one that says, 'Ever get a chance to put your thanks on? / Somebody you know you can bank on? / Even sometimes you might embarrass them by pulling rank on? / Now, whatcha gonna do when you run out of them? … Another holiday, you're drunk and curbing it / You can't face a noun, so you're straight adverbing it / You had an argument at home, and you had to have the last word in it / Now whatcha gonna do when you run out of them?'
"There's one that's called 'We're Sick Like That,'" he continues. "It says, 'Give a boy a flag and teach him to salute / Give the same boy a gun and teach him how to shoot / And then one night, the boy in the bushes, he starts to cry / 'Cause nobody ever really taught him how to die.'"
The obvious allusion to the current war jars me, and I soon realize why: Stone has been absent from the scene for such a duration that it's hard to imagine that he was with us all along, experiencing all the things we experienced over the years—the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, Nelson Mandela's release from prison, the rise of the World Wide Web, the attacks on 9/11, the invasion of Iraq. It's almost as if he went into a decades-long deep freeze, like Austin Powers or the astronauts in Planet of the Apes. Except he didn't. "Did you do normal-person things?" I ask about the missing years. "Did you watch Cheers in the 80s and Seinfeld in the 90s? Do you watch American Idol now? Do you have a normal life or more of a Sly Stone life?"
"I've done all that," he says. "I do regular things a lot. But it's probably more of a Sly Stone life. It's probably … it's probably not very normal."
The Sly Stone life started getting abnormal shortly after his band's euphoric Woodstock performance. Joel Selvin, the veteran music critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, published a thoroughgoing, book-length oral history of the group in 1998 (simply called Sly and the Family Stone: An Oral History) that is as disturbing and chilling a version as you'll ever find of the "dashed 60s dream" narrative: idealism giving way to disillusionment, soft drugs giving way to hard, ferment to rot.
It's agreed upon by everyone Selvin interviewed—which is pretty much everyone in Stone's family, band, and circle of hangers-on, apart from Sly himself—that the bad craziness began when he forsook the Bay Area for Southern California, in 1970. Exit the music of hope and the gorgeous mosaic; enter firearms, coke, PCP, goons, paranoia, isolation, and a mean-spirited pet pit bull named Gun.
"There is a cloud flying over Sly from the time he moved down to Los Angeles," the Family Stone's original saxophonist, Jerry Martini, told Selvin. "Things really changed when he moved down there … It was havoc. It was very gangsterish, dangerous. The vibes were very dark at that point."
Before that, though, there was the Bay Area Sly of the 1960s, a different character altogether: a personable, outgoing, uncommonly talented young man who cut quite a swath through the region's music scene. He was born Sylvester Stewart into a loving, tight-knit family presided over by a father, K.C., and a mother, Alpha, whose marriage would last 69 years. K.C. ran a janitorial business in Vallejo and was a deacon in the local Pentecostal church. From an early age, Sylvester was performing with his siblings in a gospel group called the Stewart Four. Loretta, the eldest of the five Stewart children, provided piano accompaniment, while the four Stewarts of the billing—in birth order, Sylvester, Rose, Freddie, and Vet—harmonized on vocals. "We traveled around from church to church, all over California, performing concerts," says Vet. "We thought we were just like any other family. We had no idea."
The greatest prodigy of all the young Stewarts, Sylvester was also the most driven. He was barely into his 20s when he insinuated himself into the inner circle of San Francisco's biggest music macher, the disc jockey and impresario Tom "Big Daddy" Donahue. In 1964, Sylvester collaborated with Donahue on the song "C'mon and Swim," a Top 10 hit for the local soul star Bobby Freeman. Shortly thereafter, he became the house producer at Donahue's label, Autumn Records, working with, among others, the Great Society and the Warlocks, the precursor bands to, respectively, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. In the same period, under his new stage name, Sly Stone, Sylvester became a regional radio celebrity, hosting a soul show on the station KSOL from seven p.m. to midnight.
You Can Make It If You Try
It was all in place, the eclectic mishmash of sensibilities and influences that would inform Sly and the Family Stone: soul, gospel, pop, Haight hippiedom, sparkly showmanship. (In his D.J. days, Stone drove a Jaguar XKE he'd had custom-painted bright purple.) So when Sly decided to start up a band of his own, he knew exactly what he wanted. "It was very deliberate: men and women, different races, dressing different," says Larry Graham, the group's bassist. Martini, the saxophonist and one of the band's two white members (along with Errico, the drummer), recalls Stone playing an almost curatorial role in shaping the band's presentation. Pointing to an old publicity photo that shows him ridiculously attired in a piebald poncho, Martini says, "That was a rug! Sly saw a cow skin on the floor, got a rug cutter, cut a hole in it, and said 'Here, Jerry, this is gonna be your outfit.'"
Everyone had a signature look. Errico wore a leopard-print vest-and-trousers getup almost as absurd as Martini's bovine fantasia. Graham wore robes and capes. Freddy Stewart, re-christened Freddie Stone, wore appliquéd overalls. Rose Stewart/Stone wore a variety of Ikette wigs and go-go dresses. Cynthia Robinson, the trumpet player, favored psychedelic-patterned smocks and let her straightened hair grow out into a Black Power Afro. Sly himself cultivated a neon pimp look, with flashy vests (often worn without a shirt), goggle shades, heavy jewelry, tight trousers, and muttonchop sideburns.
"I remember having lunch with Sly in my dining room, right at the beginning," says Clive Davis, who was in his first year as president of CBS Records in 1967, when its Epic subsidiary signed the group. "I told him, 'I'm concerned that the serious radio stations that might be willing to play you'—by which I meant the underground FM radio stations—'will be put off by the costuming, the hairstyles.' It was almost Las Vegas–like in its presentation. Sly said, 'Look, that's part of what I'm doing. I know people could take it the wrong way, but that's who I am.' And he was right. I learned an important lesson from him: When you're dealing with a pathfinder, you allow that genius to unfold."
Musically, too, Stone orchestrated a theoretically unwieldy but ultimately ingenious fusion of styles. "It's one of the things I really admire about Sly—we were all allowed to use our creativity, to have freedom of expression in how we played," says Graham, whose percussive "thumpin' and pluckin'" bass style became practically a new musical genre unto itself. The band's first and most conventionally soul-like album, A Whole New Thing, was a flop, but the exhortative title song of album two, "Dance to the Music," became their first Top 10 hit, in 1968, and remains a party standard to this day.
The album Stand! (1969) represented the apotheosis of both the band's signature "psychedelic soul" sound and their status as positivity-preaching messengers from the Utopian, multicultural future. Five of the album's eight songs—"Stand!," "I Want to Take You Higher," "Sing a Simple Song," "Everyday People," and "You Can Make It if You Try"—ended up on the Greatest Hits album that came out the following year.
Stand!, tellingly, was the album that the band was touring behind at the time of Woodstock. Graham recalls the festival as a moment when the group's members "tapped into a new zone," achieving a musical power they hadn't realized they were capable of. "It's like when an athlete like Michael Jordan realizes the extent of his gifts and goes, 'Oh, I can do that,'" he says.
But rather than return to the studio to capitalize on this momentum, Stone bunched himself up into a shag-carpeted cocoon. The year 1970 came and went with no new album and, worse, a new penchant for missing shows—26 out of 80, to be precise. Stone's decision to move to Los Angeles didn't do much for band harmony, either. In 1971, Errico quit, fed up with being summoned to L.A. from his Bay Area home for sessions on the next Family Stone album, only to be kept waiting indefinitely for Stone to use him.
That same year, Stone started renting the Bel Air mansion owned by the debauched hippie king John Phillips, of the Mamas and the Papas, which had been previously owned by Jeanette MacDonald, squeaky-clean star of corny 1930s MGM operettas. The L.A. music mogul Lou Adler, Phillips's best friend, recalls that the house across the street (which was used for exterior shots in The Beverly Hillbillies) was owned by a wealthy hotelier named Arnold Kirkeby. "The Kirkebys were a very conservative family," Adler says, "and they hated the flowing robes that John and his wife, Michelle, wore, the caftans and Nehru collars. They were very pleased that a 'Mr. Sylvester Stewart' was moving in. They liked the sound of that."
Needless to say, Stone and his new entourage left even John Phillips appalled. "There were lots of guns, rifles, machine guns, and big dogs" on his property, he later lamented.
"At some point, I started getting concerned about stories I heard about Sly's personal habits," says Clive Davis, who was also worried that his star artist might never deliver a new album. "But every time I met with him, he was on top of his game. I was somewhat innocent of the lifestyle going on around me, whether it was him or Janis Joplin."
Even though he had the Bel Air house and real studios at his disposal, Stone spent much of his time working on the new album, There's a Riot Goin' On, in a Winnebago motor home rigged up with recording equipment. ("There was a riot in that motor home," Stone says with a smile, not elaborating further.) The remaining Family Stone members played on the album, but no longer did so as a band, instead overdubbing their parts individually. They also had company, in the form of guest musicians Stone had brought aboard, among them the keyboardist Billy Preston and the guitarist Bobby Womack.
"We used to ride around in his motor home, getting high and writing songs and making music," Womack told the British rock journalist Barney Hoskyns. But what started as a lark for the soul and R&B singer-guitarist became a nightmare. "I became paranoid at everything," Womack said. "I was always thinking I was gonna get killed and that the feds were gonna bust in on Sly. Everybody had pistols. It got to the point where I said, 'I gotta get away from here.' Sly be talkin' to you, but he ain't there."
Somehow, the album that emerged from this chaos, which was finally released in November 1971, turned out brilliantly, if darkly. There's a Riot Goin' On is great "this is your brain on drugs" music. It sounds nothing like the chirpy albums that preceded it. Because Stone kept re-recording and overdubbing on the same master tape, wearing it out in the process, the overall sound is muffled and washed out—a bit of technical malfeasance that serendipitously suited the album's spacey, mid-tempo songs.
On many tracks, the air of dislocation is enhanced by the cold, metronomic gallop of the primitive drum machine that substituted for the departed Errico. And Stone's vocals are plain spooky—like a supine junkie's before he lapses into a coma. This is true even on the album's catchy, chart-topping single, "Family Affair." Listen to his ghoulish, meandering delivery of the line "Newly wehhhhdd a year ago / But you're still checkin' each other out / Yeahhh." It's like hearing a heat-warped 45 played at 33 r.p.m.
There's a Riot Goin' On has been as picked over and decrypted by rock critics as anything in Bob Dylan's catalogue. The opening line of the opening song, "Luv N' Haight"—"Feels so good inside myself / Don't wanna move"—is often interpreted as Stone's statement of retreat into solipsism, a repudiation of his flower-power "Everyday People" ethos of the 1960s. The late Timothy White, the Billboard editor and former Rolling Stone writer, called the album "a brooding, militant, savage indictment of all the decayed determinism of the '60s."
But Stone himself seems oblivious to the very fact of all this tea-leaf reading. "People say Riot is about Sly Stone's disillusionment with the 60s dream," I tell him.
"Oh, really?" he says, genuinely surprised.
"Yes, what do you make of that?"
"That may be true," he says.
"May be?" I say. "It's you! Is it true or isn't it?"
"I mean, I've never thought about it like that," he says. "I don't really feel like I'm disillusioned. Maybe I am. I don't think so, though."
I ask if his writing was impacted by any of the period's ugliness—the Kent State killings, the Attica prison riots, the M.L.K. and R.F.K. assassinations.
"Um, I paid attention to it," he says, "but I didn't count on it. I wasn't going on any other program or agenda or philosophy. It was just what I observed, where I was at."
Still, Stone doesn't totally dismiss those who ascribe loftier meanings to the album. When I ask him if he regards There's a Riot Goin' On in any way as a political statement, he says, "Well, yeah, probably. But I didn't mean it to be."
The success of There's a Riot Goin' On, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart, obscured the fact that the band was further disintegrating and that Stone's unreliability was increasingly a problem to concert promoters. The no-show subject remains a sore one with Stone, who says he wasn't as bad as he was made out to be. "I got tired of going to concerts where I'd have to pay a bond, pay money in case I didn't show up," he says. Stone claims that some of his missed dates weren't his fault but acts of collusion between promoters and transportation people, who cynically exploited his reputation for flaking out. "I later found out that they had a deal going between the promoter and the guy that was taking me to the gig," he says. "So I would put up the $25,000 or the $50,000. The guy with me would help me be late, and I didn't realize that was what was going on until later. Then they'd split the money. That kind of stuff can play on your attitude a little bit. I wasn't so focused after a while."
Larry Graham bolted from the band in the tumultuous period after Riot's release, having grown estranged from Stone. If the witnesses in Selvin's oral history are to be believed, each man had developed an entourage of gun-wielding flunkies, and Graham feared for his life. Graham, now a devout and unrelentingly upbeat Jehovah's Witness, is reluctant to get into the details, except to say, "Maybe things were exaggerated in the past. During those periods of time, there were a number of elements I couldn't control. I wasn't the leader. Whereas Sly was the leader: he chose to have certain people around him. Sly and I were, and still are, a family. At some point, a member of a family needs to leave home."
With a new bassist, Rusty Allen, Stone managed to put out one more great album, Fresh (1973), and one more pretty good one, Small Talk (1974). But the fragmentation of the "classic" lineup was the beginning of the end, and a prelude to Stone's reclusive, unproductive years. From the mid- to late 1970s, his output was low in inspiration and didn't sell well, notwithstanding the desperate hopefulness of the titles he gave his albums: High on You (not on drugs; on You!); Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I'm Back; and Back on the Right Track.
By the 80s, the situation was just dire—too sad to qualify as gonzo Keith Richards druggy bravado or This Is Spinal Tap muso-comedy. Stone was arrested several times for cocaine possession. He missed several court dates. In 1984 he shortsightedly sold his publishing rights to Michael Jackson's publishing company, Mijac Music. And creatively he'd dried up. The last new music he recorded for commercial release came out in 1986: a duet with Jesse Johnson, of the Minneapolis group the Time, on Johnson's solo single "Crazay"—an acceptable but undistinguished slice of period shoulder-pad funk. "I don't even know what that song was about, to this day," Stone says. "I just happened to go in the studio."
His drug use is another one of those subjects that Stone won't delve into too deeply. But he reckons that he got serious about getting sober around 15 years ago. "I'm pretty cool," he says. "I drink now and then, a little bit—beer. And I smoke butts sometimes." When I probe about how he managed to "clean up," he responds with a shrewd bit of verbal cryptology that sounds like one of his lyrics: "I just looked around one day, and it was cleaned up. Just hardly was nothing there. Just … certain people were not around."
I get the sense that Sly relishes this sort of opaqueness—letting people in just enough to intrigue and confound them. Some weeks later, Vet calls to tell me that Sly wants to send me a statement "about the war," by fax. It turns out to be a free-associative pensée that touches on our populace's divisions of opinion, the 9/11 attacks, and my own long pursuit of an interview with him. "Our demonstrative ways representing our opinions do us more harm than we are ready to admit," the fax reads in part. "I'd hate to start a fight, but I could get into fighting back. I know what you mean about being tired of callin' me. I was looking at this report having to do with reporters deserving free travel. In utter words, you are deserving of great patience and persistence and you got it. Although both of us know you must be patient before you are one.… Just say the truth and hope he doesn't get pissed off at you. You don't need that. I'm invincible … no Sly, you're washable and rinseable."
The Chopper Guys get-together was the first time I actually met Stone, but it was the second time this year I'd seen him in the flesh. On March 31, he played his first-ever scheduled concert with Vet's version of the Family Stone—which features only Robinson, the trumpeter, among the original members—at the Flamingo Hotel, in Las Vegas. By "scheduled concert," I mean that Stone was promised to the promoter and the ticket buyers as part of the show; he wasn't merely making an unbilled cameo, as he'd done in Anaheim in January.
It was a curious booking: a concert attached to the stand-up act of George Wallace, a veteran black comedian who routinely works Saturday nights in the Flamingo Showroom, a smallish theater with lounge-style banquettes and tables. The unconventional, low-wattage setup was an indicator of the industry's persistent wariness of Stone. Whereas Brian Wilson's comeback concerts at the turn of the decade were elaborately stage-managed affairs in posh venues, with an orchestra behind him and adoring fans in front of him, Stone finds himself in the position of having to earn back the public's trust. "Somebody had to take a chance," Wallace told EURweb.com, a black-entertainment news service, "so it's me."
As word leaked out about the Flamingo engagement, the skeptics raised their voices. "There are some doubters who bet Sly will be a no-show for his show," said an item in the New York Post's "Page Six" column, the day before the concert. "Our bookmaker says the odds are about even."
When I got to Vegas, I realized how jerry-rigged the Sly comeback machinery was. There were posters up in McCarran Airport and throughout the city advertising sly & the family stone at the Flamingo, but the photo displayed was a poor-quality screen grab of Stone, with his Mohawk, from the Grammy telecast—evidently the best the promoters could do in terms of getting a current publicity shot.
The morning of the show, I sat down with Vet Stone, Cynthia Robinson, and some other members of their traveling troupe. With the exception of myself and Skyler Jett, a young musician who sings Sly's leads in the prodigal leader's absence, everyone in the room was a woman. Among them were Lisa Stone, the pretty daughter of Rose, who sings her mother's old parts, and Novena, Sly's daughter, a petite, poised young woman of 25, who, when I asked, said, "My last name's not important." (Sly also has a daughter in her 30s, Phunn, with Robinson, and a son, Sylvester junior, also in his 30s, with Kathy Silva, the woman he married onstage at Madison Square Garden in '74 and divorced five months later.)
The matriarchal new configuration of the Family Stone makes sense—a bosomy, embracing, welcoming change of pace from the phallic tough-guy posturing of the old days. It's a forgiving group, too. It couldn't have been easy for Robinson in the 1970s, carrying and raising Sly's child while he was becoming an epic rock casualty, but here she was, telling me that Sly's tardiness to concerts was often the result of noble behavior. "Many times Sly was late because he came back and got the ones who were really late," she said. "You know, the first trip we ever made to New York, I missed the flight—and had never been on a plane before. And Sly stayed back, so I'd have somebody to ride with. I didn't ask him to, but he knew I'd never flown."
Vet Stone was never an official member of the original Family Stone, but she contributed backing vocals to their albums from the beginning and had some brief chart success in the early 70s with her own, Sly-produced group, aptly called Little Sister. As down to earth as her brother is interplanetary, she is the one who will go down in the annals as the hero in this happy coda to Sly's life, provided everything stays on track. "I was persistent. I prayed a lot," she told me of her effort to cajole her brother out of retirement.
Her campaign to reclaim Sly started in earnest with their parents' deaths, which occurred within 18 months of each other—K.C.'s in 2001, Alpha's in 2003. "They both died in my arms," Vet said, "and they both told me, 'Go get your brother.' Independent of each other—not knowing. That kind of stuck with me. And it was more than just physically 'go get him.' It was 'Support him.' So I started going to Los Angeles, maybe sometimes twice a week, to see him. I went and told him what our parents said. He said, 'Find me a house.' And I did."
Sly's new compound, which I get to see a couple of months later, is in a bucolic, isolated spot in Napa Valley. The setting is more Francis Coppola than MTV Cribs, with grape arbors and topiary, but it's been Slyed up. In the driveways and garage sits an eccentric array of vehicles: the yellow chopper; a second, still bigger chopper with lightning-bolt detailing; the Studebaker, a burnt-orange Gran Turismo; a London taxi in disrepair; a Hummer that's been haphazardly spray-painted silver; and an old Buick convertible that's been spray-painted black, its front grille replaced with a rectangular length of chicken wire.
Back on the Right Track
The night of the Vegas show, after George Wallace had concluded his routine, which included some choice jokes in the "Yo mama" genre (e.g., "Yo mama's so fat, she got a real horse on her Ralph Lauren shirt!"), I watched the Family Stone take the stage, minus Sly. They played a proficient revue-style set, effectively a long medley of Sly and the Family Stone's greatest hits. But the audience was growing palpably restless; the fellow next to me was rather belligerently shouting, "Where's slyyyyy! We want slyyyyy!"
Then, sometime around midnight—the stroke of April Fools' Day—a man who looked like an extra from a blaxploitation version of Buck Rogers sauntered onto the stage. He was wearing a black knit cap, wraparound white sunglasses, outrageous black platform boots with sneaker-style laces, spangly black trousers cut like newsboy knickers, a matching spangly black jacket, and a red spangly shirt. He sat down at the Korg synthesizer parked center stage and pumped his fist.
"I don't think it's him," said a woman near me, the companion of the impatient shouter. And she had a point. The figure before us was so swaddled, layered, shaded, hatted, be-scarved, and neck-braced, it really could have been anyone. But then he went into "If You Want Me to Stay," one of his later hits, from 1973, and everyone recognized that, Omigod, Sly made the gig. The place erupted in appreciative cheers, and Stone, tentative and seemingly nervous at first, grew more confident. On "I Want to Take You Higher," he got up from behind his keyboard and boogied down the center-stage catwalk, slapping hands with members of the audience.
It was not a tightly scripted show. Stone wandered the stage between songs, seemingly taking it all in, as if re-acclimating to performing life. He brought out his daughters for their own brief turns in the spotlight. Phunn performed a rap. Novena sat at a piano and played, incongruously but with great skill, "Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum," a fast, heavily arpeggiated piece by Claude Debussy. Their father loitered behind them as they did their bits, shifting from platform boot to platform boot, beaming like a dad at a school assembly.
Stone's own segment lasted a little more than half an hour. Over the course of it, he proved that he is still a limber vocalist, ad-libbing some euphoric, gospelized melismas over "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" and re-creating the scary croak of "Family Affair." But there was one mesmerizing moment that seemed lost on the liquored-up, good-timey Vegas crowd. "Stand!" began not with the rousing drumroll you hear on the record but with Stone singing a cappella in a soft, deliberately fragile voice. ("I just felt like doing it like that—so everybody could really hear it properly," he later told me.) Some of the crowd chattered through it, but to hear him almost whisper these words—
In the end you'll still be you
One that's done all the things you set out to do
There's a cross for you to bear
Things to go through if you're going anywhere
—and to know the things he went through, the things he set out to do, the things he achieved, and the things he threw away; and then, to see him there, hunched and older but still standing, onstage, surrounded by family … well, it got to me. I misted up.
Stone is intent on getting to work on the new album in the fall, when the European tour is over. He says it will be a Sly and the Family Stone album, not the solo album. Vet's version of the Family Stone will play on it, as will his siblings Rose, who lives in Los Angeles, and Freddie, who is now the pastor of the Evangelist Temple Fellowship Center, in Vallejo.
Which is all well and good, but still: it is a tenet of rock snobbery that the founding lineup of a group must be held sacrosanct. Jerry Martini, the Family Stone's original saxophonist, joked to me a few years ago about the sadness of "reunions" that lack crucial band members. "Think of Creedence Clearwater … Revisited," he said, relishing the ellipsis. "Where are they playing? Anywhere you see a Ferris wheel!" (That said, Martini has done time in outfits called the Family Stone Experience and the Original Family Stone.)
So I put it to the main man: Is there any chance that the whole lineup from the old days will gather to play on the new album?
"I'm sure that's gonna happen, yeah," Sly says.
It almost happened last year, at the Grammys. For the first time since 1993, the year of the Hall of Fame induction, the seven original members were in the same place, and, what's more, they were poised to play together for the first time since 1971. This time, though, while Sly and his Mohawk made it to the stage, Graham fell ill and dropped out at the last minute. (His successor, Rusty Allen, filled in.)
As it turned out, Graham fared the best of anyone that night. In a bizarre miscalculation, and an affront to anyone with an appreciation of soul and rock history, the awards show's producers barely acknowledged the original group's presence. As the musicians plowed through a medley of the old hits, the cameras stayed fixed on a series of guest vocalists, who ranged from the mildly credible (John Legend, Joss Stone [no relation], Steven Tyler of Aerosmith) to the verily D-list (Fantasia, Devin Lima).
"We just kept playing, because there was really no order," says Cynthia Robinson. "There was a stage band standing in front of us, so hardly anybody knew we were there." To make matters worse, Stone had flipped his motorcycle a few days before the broadcast, damaging tendons in his right hand and making him even more uneasy with the situation than he would have been on his best day. When I ask him why the whole performance seemed so discombobulated, he says, "That wasn't my gig. Really, that wasn't my gig. I was trying to, like, cooperate with someone else that … " He pauses to find the right words: " … had their turn."
The "someone else" he's most likely alluding to, though he won't comment on him any further, is a mysterious man named Jerry Goldstein. In the deep-freeze years when no one saw Sly Stone in public—roughly from the Hall of Fame ceremony until last year—Goldstein was the man you needed to go through to get to Sly Stone: a nebulously defined manager-gatekeeper-protector. He is listed as a co–executive producer of Different Strokes by Different Folks, the obvious promotional tie-in to the Grammy appearance: a turgid remix CD of old Sly Stone tracks that features such artists as Legend, Tyler, Lima, Joss Stone, and Maroon 5. It was initially sold exclusively at Starbucks.
In Goldstein's defense, he is also listed as a co–executive producer of Sony Legacy's long-overdue series of Sly and the Family Stone album reissues, spanning the 1967–74 period from A Whole New Thing to Small Talk. These are terrific, with thoughtful liner notes, crisply remastered sound, and great bonus songs. The only problem is, Stone claims the reissues were prepared and released without his knowledge.
For all I know, Goldstein, who runs a Los Angeles–based company called Even St. Productions, was a positive influence on Stone and helped him get on the path to where he is now. But the thing is, Goldstein is even more elusive a figure than Stone. I know. On several occasions over the course of my Sly search, dating back to the 1990s, I tried to reach him, to see if Stone might be available for an interview. He never responded to any of my calls or e-mail messages.
I tried every tactic I could imagine to persuade him to talk to me, including contacting his old 1960s songwriting partners, Bob Feldman and Richard Gotteher. The three of them scored big in 1963 with "My Boyfriend's Back," a No. 1 for the girl group the Angels. Two years later, they had a hit of their own with the original version of "I Want Candy," which they performed under the alias the Strangeloves.
But neither Feldman nor Gotteher was able to help. (Goldstein, after the trio's split, went into management and production, with the funk band War his most famous client.) Finally, four years ago, I made a bit of headway when Lou Adler, who far out-ranks Goldstein in the L.A.-music-biz hierarchy, agreed to call Goldstein on my behalf. Goldstein took Adler's call, but even Adler came up empty, telling me, "Jerry says there's nothing he can say, and there's no way Sly will talk."
Goldstein didn't return a phone message this time around, either. And, evidently, his mysterious services are no longer required. Stone has a new booking agent, Steve Green, and plans on releasing the new album on his own label, Phatta Datta. Green is the only person who will betray the slightest indication of the role Goldstein played in Stone's life. "Goldstein called me and told me him and Sly are connected at the hip," he says. "Jerry said, 'Sly's not capable of playing.'"
When I ask Vet Stone what the deal is with Goldstein, she says, "As far as I'm concerned, there is no deal with him." Greg Yates, Stone's attorney, gave me this carefully dictated statement when I called him on the matter: "I've been retained by Sly Stone to represent him regarding issues surrounding contracts with other third parties for his publishing rights. There are some significant questions about certain matters that we are investigating. We want to make certain that these things are in order, so that Sly is prepared for his return. We are concerned about certain matters that he was kept in the dark about."
So much has transpired over the last 40 years that there's bound to be some untidiness and skepticism—especially in the music business, and especially in the Sly Stone business. But then, there's also delighted disbelief that Stone has come even this far. "For me," says Green, who also represents the volatile Jerry Lee Lewis, "it's a gamble that seems less and less like a gamble."
"Certainly, I have great regrets that it's taken Sly all these years to return," says Clive Davis, "but the fact that there might be a happy ending to all this is a great feeling."
At the end of my face-to-face chat with Stone, I can't help but address something that's been nagging at me the whole time. At the Grammy Awards, he wore shades. In Vegas, he wore shades. Now, here in the front room of Chopper Guys, he's wearing shades. I'm feeling a twinge of doubt, like what that woman in Vegas felt.
"Can I see your eyes, Sly?"
"Yeah," he says, pulling down his sunglasses, revealing healthily white whites and a remarkably unlined face—
the same face from Woodstock, Cavett, and the cover of Fresh. It really is Sly Stone.