Maybe things started to get out of hand when the cocaine magically appeared on every possible spare bathroom countertop or mirror. Or when the huge amounts of cash arrived in suitcases. Or when the heavy dudes with gangster vibes and big fists started hanging around. Or the guns. Lots of guns. Or that old standby, Inter-Band Power Struggles for Creative Input.
Whatever the case, the musical trajectory of Sly & The Family Stone—and especially its namesake and leader, Sly Stone (born Sylvester Stewart) makes even the most shocking episode of Behind the Music look like children’s programming.
Esteemed music journo Joel Selvin chronicles the good, the bad, the ugly (and the really ugly), in a new reissue of his 1998 book, Sly & The Family Stone: An Oral History (256 pp., $18, Permuted Press).
Selvin spoke extensively with all but one member of the Family Stone [Rose Stone, who he says “dodged him”], along with a litany of other musicians, agents, promoters, managers, lovers, and others associated with the group.
But it wasn’t easy gaining trust. Selvin writes that “like many survivors of a catastrophic trauma, [the band] had adapted a strategy that hid the truth and protected the guilty.” But as one contact and interview led to another, the memories soon flowed.
Interestingly, he says that he doesn’t recall ever trying to reach out to Sly Stone himself to talk for the book. As if he looms large enough already dominating the story, making a bigger impact by the absence of his words.
“What was he going to say? ‘Yeah, I did all that shit?’ I was making a donut, and Sly was the donut hole. But his shape is clearly outlined,” Selvin says. “And they were incredibly brave interviews. Even if their stories sometimes changed. I don’t think I could get that if I wrote it today.”
One former manager even told the author after being sought out to tell his story “I knew you were coming. I just didn’t know it would be you.”
In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Sly & the Family Stone has a string of big hits (“Dance to the Music,” “I Want to Take You Higher,” “Family Affair,” “Everyday People,” “Stand,” “If You Want Me To Stay,” “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” “Everybody Is a Star,” and “Thank You [Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again].”
Their blend of rock, soul, R&B, and psychedelia also helped form the Foundation of Funk. And two records also had a particularly considerable social importance and the apex of the largely Stone-led artistry (1969’s Stand! and 1971’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On).
The band’s music directly influenced artists ranging from Parliament-Funkadelic, the Ohio Players, and Earth, Wind and Fire to Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Lenny Kravitz and especially Prince.
“Sly Stone has such an enormous impact on the music scene, it went beyond what he was doing. Even Motown Records took [notice]. Berry Gordy came into a sales meeting and held up a copy of Stand! and said, ‘The old days are gone!’” Selvin says via Zoom, puffing on a cigar (at 9:30 am!) in his San Francisco home office with framed vintage R&B and rock concert posters on the wall behind him.
“And even in the world of jazz! He led Miles Davis down a road that he wouldn’t have gone. Down otherwise And Herbie Hancock! His Headhunters is the biggest selling jazz record of all time. And there’s a song on it called ‘Sly!’”
The seven-member group featured both genders and two races (and included Stone’s sister and brother). It was all part of Stone’s plan, Selvin writes, for an image that would catapult them to mass popularity and even talk and variety shows: Boys, Girls, Black, White.
“There was even a bit broader intent than that when he came up with this vision in 1966 and ’67. He already had this sort of ghetto R&B band but picking up on humanistic themes that were part of the culture at that time. He wanted to represent that,” Selvin says. “And having a White drummer was an anti-cliché! Other [integrated] bands were [White] but had the Black drummer.”
One of the most memorable characters in the book didn’t actually speak to Selvin. In fact, he couldn’t: because he was a dog. A pet pit bull named “Gun” that Stone was very fond of. The dog would obsessively chase its own tail, and even when Stone had it removed by a vet, Gun would continue to twirl around and around and around.
Later, Gun was involved in an incident that very, very nearly turned tragic. When Stone’s wife, model/actress Kathy Silva (the couple famously wed onstage during a 1974 concert at Madison Square Garden) returned to their mansion with baby boy Sylvester, Jr. after being gone, they were confronted by an abandoned and starving Gun. The dog hadn’t eaten for two weeks.
Gun soon attached and locked his mouth around the baby’s head. Only when a quick-thinking Silva got down on all fours and began growling and barking like an animal herself did Gun release the infant, who was nevertheless bloodied. The couple separated soon after but would continue to have an on-and-off again relationship.
“That dog was both a tormentor and tormented. But the whole scene was this deranged royal court which became Shakespearian in nature, made more surreal with drugs. And here you also have this vicious pet,” Selvin says. “And Gun would attack guests. Especially if you had a hat on! [Some people] found out about that the hard way.”
By the time that Selvin got a chance to hear the story from Silva herself in the ‘90s, the author found a very, very different person from the one who was all beauty and smiles at Madison Square Garden and whose nuptials were covered by even the highbrow New Yorker magazine more than two decades earlier.
“That’s a very damaged woman. I conducted her interview in one of those casino bars in Vegas where she was living at the time at about ten in the morning,” Selvin says.
“She was still so traumatized by this whole experience, there was much weeping in the interview. By the time we got around to talking about the dog attack, she was just drenched in emotion. These people were so afraid to tell their story, and I can’t imagine Kathy could have done that too many times.”
Selvin’s narrative ends just where his 1998 version did, with the dissolution of the original band in the mid-‘70s. Anyone with an internet connection can be brought up to speed on Stone’s sad decline over the years with drug problems, arrests, convictions, homelessness, lawsuits, disappearances, and ill-fated “comebacks.”
“Everybody vividly remembered their contact with Sly. It was such an intense flash and experience,” Selvin says. “I would ask people about it, and they would remember it like you and I would remember a car crash. I got there right at the right time. And the band’s reputation was at a low ebb. People weren’t talking about Sly & the Family Stone much.”
But the now 79-year-old Sly Stone may be primed for a reemergence, at least in popular consciousness. He was heavily featured last year in director Questlove’s award-winning documentary Summer of Soul. Sly & The Family Stone ripped through a fiery live performance during the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival that many reviewers wrote was the film’s highlight. And according to Selvin, Sly Stone’s long-awaited autobiography, penned with music journo Ben Greenman, is on the horizon.
But outside of the craziness of the story, it’s ultimately the music of Sly & The Family Stone that will live on as the legacy of a very talented—but very bizarre— musical genius.
“It was a pivot point for all of Black music. And everything grew from that. Nothing was the same for Black music after Sly & The Family Stone: jazz, R&B, funk, nothing,” Selvin sums up.
“The story is a nightmare of ego and drugs and calamities and trauma and deceit and violence to the souls of the people involved. But out of that came this timeless music. And it reflects Sly’s journey. The music is embedded in his story, but it also stands alone.”
Originally appeared at HoustonPress.com