Monday, June 17, 2024

On Texas native Sly Stone’s 50th birthday (3/15/1993)

Usually you’re surprised, one way or the other, when someone famous turns 50. You thought they were older or younger. It makes perfect sense, however, that Sylvester “Sly Stone” Stewart, hit the big 5-0 on Tuesday. Forty-nine would’ve been too young and 51 too old for the musical genius who, as leader of Sly and the Family Stone, invented funk music and influenced such artists as George Clinton, Rick James and Prince. Sly just seems to wear the big, even numbers as naturally as he once wore star-spangled headbands and purple cowboy outfits. Not many people know this, but Sly Stone was born in Dallas and lived in Denton until the age of 6, when his father, K.C., moved the family to Vallejo, Calif. Like his essential thumb-popping bassist-cousin Larry Graham, a native of Beaumont, Sly sang in his family’s gospel group from infancy to puberty. After that, he kept taking it higher and higher until there was no place to go but down. Though he saluted his Texas heritage with the yodelin’ Spaced Cowboy on There’s a Riot Goin’ On, his brilliant mess from 1971, Sly is more commonly associated with the Bay Area. There, he first made a name for himself as the teen-age producer of pop hits by the Beau Brummels (Laugh Laugh) and the Mojo Men (Sit Down I Think I Love You). During that early-to-mid-’60s period, Sly also produced such tracks as C’mon and Swim by Bobby Freeman and the original version of Somebody to Love by the Great Society, Grace Slick’s pre-Jefferson Airplane group. K.C. Stewart, an ex-musician and sometime preacher, encouraged his children to pursue music careers, and he even worked as tour manager when Sly formed the Family Stone with his brother Freddie, sister Rose and cousin Larry Graham. Trumpet player Cynthia Robinson, drummer Greg Errico and sax player Jerry Martini rounded out this group that erased the boundaries of race, sex and musical styles back when Prince and the Revolution were wearing swaddling clothes. George Clinton was also wearin g diapers, but that’s another story. The Family Stone’s eternal moment came at the Woodstock festival on Aug. 16, 1969, when they tore up a crowd of 400,000 (at least that’s how many people I’ve met who were at Woodstock) with a wicked version of I Want To Take You Higher. Because of transportation problems and scheduling snafus beyond their control, Sly and the band didn’t go on at Woodstock until 3:30 a.m. When they revved up their turbulent soul revue, though, it became midnight all over again. In later months and years – in less cosmic venues, however – this concept of timelessness didn’t hold. It seemed that Sly never wanted to take the stage until 3 a.m. If he showed up at all. In his return to the Dallas area, headlining the first night of the Texas International Pop Festival in Lewisville in September ’69, Sly kept nearly 50,000 fans (and dozens of relatives) waiting for nearly two hours as he sat backstage in his limo, doing God knows what. “We were afraid there would be a riot or something,” recalls Angus Wynne, one of the festival’s promoters. “We were pleading for him to go onstage, but he wouldn’t get out of that limo until he was good and ready.” In 1970, at the height of his popularity, Sly missed more than 25 shows. The party life was starting to take hold and, not coincidentally, Sly dried up creatively. He got married onstage at Madison Square Garden in 1974, probably to sell some tickets and get some good publicity for a change. But the ensuing marriage-inspired LP Small Talk stiffed with the public and was panned by critics. Five months after being married by Sly’s uncle, Bishop Stewart of Denton, in front of 19,000 concertgoers, bride Kathy Silva filed for divorce and took custody of the couple’s son. Amid various drug busts and lawsuits, it all started slip-slip-slipping away for the man whose “different strokes for different folks” line from Everyday People became an anthem for freedom and multiculturalism. In the band’s formative years, Sly would constantly scribble ideas into a series of notebooks, but by the end, it was all he could do just to show up, pressed between two bodyguards. If this is starting to read more like an obituary than a birthday acknowledgment, that’s because “Sly Stone” – the unpredictable musical visionary who brought poetry to dance music, anger to pop and soul to nursery rhymes – pretty much died in the late ’70s. He burned brilliantly, but for only a very short time. His last studio album, which wasn’t very good, came out in 1982. His next album, which won’t be very good, is scheduled for release in early ’95 on Avenue Records. This from an artist who released three classic albums from 1968 to 1971. Sly Stone might as well have never existed as far as Epic Records is concerned. Not only has Epic failed to release three of the seven Sly albums on CD, but the sound quality on those that are available is generally horrible. Regardless of whatever legal clouds linger overhead, Sly and the Family Stone are one of the most popular, vital acts ever on Epic – are liner notes too much to ask for? Maybe even those who are most gifted have only so much juice. They can either conserve it and pace themselves – like Paul Simon or Peter Gabriel – or they can use it all up as fast as they want to, which is a much larger group. Usually these brilliant flame-outs, from Phil Spector to John Fogerty to Chuck Berry, meet at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame dinner. That’s where Sly was last seen and (barely) heard from. It was January 1993 and he and the Family Stone were inducted into the Hall for making music like Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin), Fun and Family Affair that still sounds fresh today. Wearing a leather turquoise jumpsuit that looked like it had been hanging in a closet since 1978, Sly didn’t look so good. Weakly, frailly, he made his way to the podium, said something about how he’d be back and then slowly picked his way across the stage. The audience stood and clapped wildly, as much in pity for the present as in awe for the past. You want to blame the drugs or the “distractions,” as his people call them, but it goes deeper than that. His brother Freddie and sister Rose returned to gospel, to the mother church, as did cousin Larry Graham, so it probably wasn’t the temptations of the road that led Sly astray. Maybe it was the beat that kept going in his head when everyone else was fast asleep. At first, it drove him to excellence, but after a while, it started making him crazy. What kind of person would rather sit in a limo than go out onstage where 50,000 people are ready to applaud his every “uh-huh”? Ever wonder what’s going though that head? In 1948, a 4-year-old boy stood in front of the congregation of a church in Denton and sang On the Battlefield Of My Lord, and maybe deep in the hearts of a few parishioners was the belief that this baby would one day sing his simple song for the world. That 4-year-old went on to forever change the landscape of popular music. And maybe now Sylvester’s Stewart talent looks like a big waste, but for a time he did take us higher. It was only for a brief, mist-shaded moment, but sometimes that’s all you get.

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