In the late 60s, perhaps the most positive change in the music industry was that age-old genre barriers were finally starting to crumble. The days of segregating the styles of rock, country, folk, soul and R&B were coming to an end and the result was an exciting new era of musical exploration. At the forefront of this melding of styles was Sly and the Family Stone, a group instrumental in defining, then refining, the funk sound. By infusing elements of pop, rock and psychedelica into a heavy R&B rhythmic foundation, the band created some of the most energetic and grooving hits of the era. And leading the charge in these defining times, was the creative talent of Sly Stone.
Entering the world as Sylvester Wallace, Sly came from a deeply religious Texas family that placed the utmost importance on musical expression. Upon relocating to California in the early 50s, four of the Wallace children (including Sly and brother Freddy) released a Christian record in 1952. While nothing came of the record, it would further cement the siblings’ interest in someday becoming a successful musical act.
Sylvester would eventually change his name to Sly Stone, his on-air name when he found work as a DJ at a San Francisco radio station in 1964. He also got his feet wet as a record producer for Autumn Records, where he worked with such acts as The Beau Brummels and The Mojo Men. He produced his first hit record for Bobby Freeman called “C’mon and Swim” but the same fame eluded Sly, who couldn’t get any notice for his own singles. Still, Sly plugged away with his own band, while his brother Freddy did the same. Eventually, both siblings would take the best players from their respective bands and form Sly and the Family Stone. Finally, they had found the magic and were soon performing locally to enthusiastic audiences with their unique style that blended rock and roll and R&B.
Their popularity led to a record deal, and to their first hit single, the pulsing and energetic “Dance to the Music.” Accentuated by a crisp horn section, vocals that chanted “bum-bum-bum-bum” and an infectious bassline, the song catapulted to the Top-10, and its accompanying album by the same name started flying off store shelves. Their follow-up album, Life, featured an equally energetic offering, “Everyday People” that rose all the way to #1. Sly and the Family Stone had arrived.
The following year, they released Stand, featuring a more refined sound that officially introduced music lovers to a new genre called Funk. The title track continued their string of hits and led to a celebrated appearance at the festival of all music festivals, Woodstock. To this day, their performance, chronicles in the film of the event, is arguably one of the best performances contained within.
Into the 70s, Sly and the Family Stone showed no signs of slowing down, treating their fans to such hits as “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” a heavily orchestrated song that displayed their gospel roots and went to #2 on the charts, and an incendiary #1 hit called “Thank you Falettinme Be Mice Elf (Agin)” featuring a bass line that was simply impossible to ignore. An industry rarity, the single managed to produce, not only one, but two #1 hits, thanks to the flip-side, “Everybody is a Star.” The band scooped up all of these hits and put them together for the Sly and the Family Stone’s Greatest Hits album.
Not taking a moment to rest on their laurels, the band released There’s a Riot Goin’ On the following year, which showed a more introspective and less pop version of the band, stripped down to the most basic of elements. With its social criticisms and tales of personal woes, it proceeded to redefine the band and the genre yet again. Of course, none of this interrupted their string of hits, with the single “Family Affair” giving the band yet another #1 hit, one that stayed in that position for over a month. From there, Sly and the Family Stone returned to a lighter, more jubilant sound for their next release, Fresh, released in 1973. “If You Want Me To Stay” provided the band with another hit record, one that achieved crossover appeal in both the pop and R&B sectors, thanks to another infectious bass groove and those trademark horns.
In 1974, the band released Small Talk, an album that featured their final Top-40 hit, “Time For Livin’” and “Loose Booty” which, although it was only a minor hit for the band would find its tracks sampled years later on the Beastie Boys album, Paul’s Boutique. Sly and family disbanded after this album, with Sly wanting to pursue solo interests. He would return to produce the 1979 offering, Back On The Right Track, then leave again to work with such artists as Funkadelic and Jesse Johnson. Sly was sadly struggling with substance abuse issues as this point and, as a result, he would drop out of the spotlight completely through much of the 80s.
Sly has made sporadic appearances since then, but always seemingly at the last minute. The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, with Sly, who was unexpected to attend, making a surprise appearance to accept the honors. Years later, the 2006 Grammy Awards featured a tribute to Sly and the Family Stone. Sly stepped onstage to reunite with his band and perform “I Want To Take You Higher,” but walked off the stage before the song was over, leaving more than a few people puzzled.
Whether or not that represented the last performance of Sly and the Family Stone is something that history will decide. Until then, they left an enormous legacy of music that was profoundly influential on so many artists, from Michael Jackson to Herbie Hancock to The Red Hot Chili Peppers, all of whom have cited Sly’s work as a major inspiration. Sly and the Family Stone not only defined the term “funk” for their generation, but for all that will follow.
If you’re a fan of this innovative and iconic funk group, we welcome your thoughts in our comments section.