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.
Rarely has a group risen so high and fallen so fast as Arrested Development (AD). This captivating musical collective stormed to the top of the charts with an exhilarating brand of countrified rap that mixed the spirit of Sly and the Family Stone with the political charge of Public Enemy, providing a positive alternative to more confrontational gangsta stylings. Their debut album “3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life Of...,” which chronicled the time it took the group to get a record deal, sold four million copies and sparked three top ten hits: “Tennessee,” “Mr. Wendal” and “People Everyday.” It also won two Grammys, including the coveted Best New Artist award in 1993, the first time hip-hop had ever taken that prize.
And then it all abruptly fell apart, as internal feuding over control, direction and money belied the group’s idealistic vibe. By the time Arrested Development began work on their second album, they had split into two camps and were communicating with each other through agents and managers. After just two albums of original material, Arrested Development called it quits. Now mostly reunited, the members of this pioneering band reveal the full story of a group who flew high, fell far, and survived to tell the tale.
“The truth is that it has been 20 years removed,” explains AD’s front man Speech. “A lot of beefs that we had, in fact to be honest, all of the beefs that we’ve had, have been reconciled for a while now, say about 10 years or so. We all respect, and even love one another to some extent. When you’ve lived through such highlights and such amazing journeys that we’ve been through with each other, you have a kindred spirit. you know what you’ve been through with each other, and no one can replace that, so there’s a certain bond that comes with the territory.”
AD continues to be a music group that respects women, promotes family, spirituality and male responsibility. Their music addresses consciousness, the earth, African self-determination and love. They call their live shows celebrations. They celebrate the power of life, the certainty of death and struggles of the ancestors. This month, the group released with a mixtape called, “Standing At The Crossroads”.
“From the very beginning, we always wanted to do message music and include the spiritual component to the music,” explained Speech. “It one thing about politics, but then to me, the essence of everybody is our spirit. Our spirit is what tells us what to do. It’s what drives us in the morning and the evening. I became a Christian 17 years ago, and that helped me to really understand a lot more about spirit; what we were created for, purpose and how we can shine the light that God has planted inside of us to the world so that people can also see their way around as well. So its an amazing thing that I was introduced through God.”
Arrested Development premieres on TV One’s series “Unsung” on Aug. 13 at 9 p.m. The episode repeats at midnight. AD’s 20th Anniversary Tour comes to Philadelphia on Sept. 27 at 8 p.m. at The Blockley Pourhouse, 3801 Chestnut St. For information, call (215) 222-1234. For a free download of 13 of AD’s new songs, visit http://newarresteddevelopment.com/.