50 Years of Peace & Music | 20. Sly & The Family Stone

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock festival, August 1969–2019

Day Two, Performer 12
Sly & The Family Stone
Performed Sunday morning, August 17, 4:00–5:00 am

Sly Stone dances across the Woodstock stage as Cynthia Robinson flips a peace sign and Jerry Martini and Gregg Errico play on. Not shown: Freddie Stone, Rosie Stone, and Larry Graham). Photo © Jason Lauré.

Sylvester “Sly” Stone: vocals, keyboard, harmonica
Freddie Stone: guitar, vocals
Jerry Martini: saxophone
Cynthia Robinson: trumpet
Rosie Stone: keyboard, vocals
Larry Graham: bass
Gregg Errico: drums

Woodstock set list:

  1. M’Lady
  2. Sing a Simple Song
  3. You Can Make It if You Try
  4. Everyday People
  5. Dance to the Music
  6. I Want to Take You Higher
  7. Love City
  8. Stand!

The Saturday night/early Sunday morning rock show continued with an inspired performance by Sly & The Family Stone, who managed to get the pre-dawn audience on their feet for an impassioned call-and-response of “Higher” during the song “I Want To Take You Higher.”

Born in 1943 into a Christian family from Dallas, Texas, Sylvester Stewart and his siblings were encouraged to perform sacred music from an early age. In 1950, the family moved to Vallejo, California where they performed (even recording a 78 RPM single) sacred music as “The Stewart Family.” Influenced by the emerging R&B and rock music they heard on the radio, Sylvester and his brother Freddie began playing guitar in bands in high school, with Sylvester finding a small amount of local success with a Doo-Wop group known as The Viscaynes. Around this time, Sylvester became known as Sly Stewart, due to a grade school classmate’s misspelling of his name.

By 1964, Sly Stewart had transformed himself into San Francisco R&B disc jockey Sly Stone. He mixed white performers like the Beatles and Rolling Stones into his playlists and worked as a record producer on the side. In 1966, he formed his own band, Sly & The Stoners, which merged the following year with his guitar-playing brother Freddie’s band Freddie & The Stone Souls to become Sly & The Family Stone. The band included Sly and Freddie, Cynthia Robinson on trumpet, Gregg Errico on drums, Jerry Martini on saxophone, and Larry Graham on bass. Seeing no need for two guitarists in the band, Sly gave the guitar duties to Freddie, while he took over the role of frontman and organist. It did not take long for the band to amass a following, with their funky dance grooves igniting audiences in and around the Bay Area.

Sly & The Family Stone’s debut album, A Whole New Thing (1967), received critical acclaim but did not sell well.

Signed to Epic Records, The new band’s first album, A Whole New Thing, was released in October 1967 to critical acclaim but poor sales. Clive Davis encouraged Sly to write and record a song specifically for single release, and the resulting song, “Dance to the Music,” reached #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 in February 1968, and the album of the same name sold relatively well. Around this time, the Family Stone expanded when Rose Stone joined the group as a vocalist and keyboard player. The band continued to tour behind their hit single and album, and while they continued to fire up their audiences, their third album, Life, released in the summer of 1968, failed to capitalize on the success of the previous album.

Things would change in the fall of 1968 with the release of their next single, “Everyday People.” This plea for unity was an instantly massive success, giving the band their first #1 single and propelling the fourth Sly & The Family Stone album, Stand!, to #13 in the Billboard 200. The album went on to sell three million copies. The band was one of the hottest in America by August of 1969, when they took to the stage at Woodstock. Their high-energy stage show was the perfect vehicle with which to dance the night away, and the crowd was pumped up and ready.

Sly & The Family Stone’s fourth album, Stand!, was released three months before Woodstock and became one of the most successful albums of the 1960s, ranking at #118 on Rolling Stone‘s list of 500 greatest albums of all time.

Unfortunately, there were issues. Sly Stone was already beginning to earn a well-deserved reputation for unreliability in a live performance setting. Living up to this reputation, Sly attempted to hold off actually taking the stage, forcing further delays to the already well-behind Saturday schedule. As the story goes, it took Woodstock production manager and emcee John Morris slamming Sly up against a backstage trailer and threatening bodily harm to convince the reluctant Stone to go on with the show.

At 4:00 on Sunday morning, Sly And The Family Stone finally made it onstage, opening up with a powerful and dynamic rendition of “M’Lady” from the previous year’s Life album. With the briefest of pauses, the group went into the first of several tunes to be played from Stand! with “Sing A Simple Song.” At this point, the group stopped to work out some equipment issues, Sly attempting to convince the audience that it would be best if the group waited “until the shit works right.” The crowd were having none of this of course (and one can’t imagine John Morris was thrilled either), so the group marched on with an impassioned and appropriate version of “You Can Make It If You Try,” the closing track from Stand!

From here, the remainder of the show kicked into a major-league high gear with a long medley. This began with “Everyday People,” which segued into another of the group’s mega-hits, “Dance To The Music” from the 1968 album of the same name. With the crowd on their feet, the proceedings got even hotter as the group jumped into “Music Lover,” also from Dance To The Music. Now fully switched-on and in command, Sly engaged the crowd in an ecstatic call-and-response chant of “Higher!,” their voices nearly louder than those of the Family Stone.

The medley wound down into a rendition of “I Want To Take You Higher” from Stand!, a most deliciously low-down and funky way to end the main set. Delirious, the crowd demanded and received two encores with “Love City” from the Life album, and the group’s current hit single (reaching the top 30 in the US), the title track from Stand! Sly & The Family Stone captivated the Woodstock audience with their funky rhythm section, powerful horn section, and soulful vocals. Many people consider their Woodstock performance as the best of the festival. A new single, “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” released immediately after Woodstock, went to #2 on the U.S. pop chart, further solidifying the band’s success, as did the inclusion of “I Want to Take You Higher” in the Woodstock documentary and soundtrack album.

But, as is often the case in the music industry, their success also fueled their downfall. Sly Stone developed a legendary cocaine habit and gained a reputation for missing shows or leaving the stage early. He also brought unsavory characters into the band organization, further alienating other band members. They continued to create ground-breaking music and influence other musicians, but the writing was on the wall.

The band broke up in 1975, with only Cynthia Robinson continuing to perform with Sly. The other members went their own ways. Freddie Stone recorded at Motown for a time and wrote for other musicians, later becoming an ordained minister. Larry Graham formed his own band, Graham Central Station. Rose Stone was a solo and backup singer, working with Michael Jackson, Phish, and Ringo Starr. Gregg Errico, Jerry Martini, and Cynthia Robinson all worked with other artists and joined forces to create The Family Stone. Cynthia died in late 2015.

Sly Stone continued to record solo albums for a time (the last being 1983’s Ain’t But The One Way), then dropped out of public view as he struggled with cocaine addiction and legal troubles, finally making a strange appearance on-stage at Sly & The Family Stone’s 1993 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. It was reported in the early 2010s that Sly was homeless and living in an RV in the suburbs of Los Angeles. He recently won a multi-million-dollar lawsuit against the band’s former manager for fraudulent practices. He occasionally performs live, but Sly’s career is an excellent example of a music business cautionary tale.

 

Next performer: The Who

Wade Lawrence & Scott Parker

WADE LAWRENCE is the museum director and senior curator at The Museum at Bethel Woods. SCOTT PARKER is an independent scholar, rock historian, and author. He is one of the driving forces behind the Woodstock Complete project and has written extensively about Frank Zappa.

Wade Lawrence & Scott Parker – who has written posts on WoodsTalk | Bethel Woods Center for The Arts.


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