Sly Stone

(b. 1943)

A multi-racial, mixed-gender band that melded Soul, Funk, Rock, and Psychedelia, Sly Stone and his group the Family Stone had their heyday in the late 1960s and early 70s, with a streak of hits combining positive messages, sing-along choruses and infectious dance grooves.

Born Sylvester Stewart, Stone was raised in the San Francisco Bay area, where he got an early start in the music business, forming a Gospel group with three of his siblings. Dubbed the Stewart Four, they performed at local churches and released a 78 rpm single. A prodigious talent, he could play keyboards, guitar, bass, and drums by the time he was a teenager, and played with numerous bands. He studied trumpet, composition, and music theory at a local college, while working as a DJ at an area radio station KSOL, and recording for the local Autumn Records label, where he also produced records for other artists.

??Sly and the Family Stone came together in 1966, and quickly signed a deal with Epic. The following year they released their debut album, A Whole New Thing, which was a critical success but not a financial one. CBS exec Clive Davis asked Stone to create something with more pop appeal — and the result was the single "Dance to the Music" which reached No. 8 on the Pop chart and launched the band into the national spotlight.

The band grew into a popular live act, heavy on costumes and showmanship. There was no one lead singer; the lead vocals were often shared, which helped convey the band's message of togetherness and brotherhood. A 4 a.m. appearance at the 1969 Woodstock festival galvanized the crowd and gave the band’s profile a significant boost. That same year they released their first No. 1 record, Stand!, with the hit singles “Everyday People,” “You Can Make it If You Try,” and “I Want to Take You Higher.”

Additional hits followed, but it wasn’t long before things went south. Mercurial and increasingly erratic, Stone began to miss shows; drug use among some band members became heavy and relationships frayed. The shift was evident on the 1971 record There’s a Riot Goin’ On, which showcased a darker, more dissolute sound – still, the record went to No. 1, and is now considered a Funk classic. More records followed, with a changing lineup, but as the decade went on Stone further unraveled, and his output eventually stopped. He has made various public appearances in the years since – typically ill-fated ones, such as an incoherent 2010 appearance at the Coachella festival. As of 2011, he was living in a van in Los Angeles, according to news reports – and, apparently, still working on new music.

Related Lessons

Funk Asserts Itself

Grades: High
Subjects: Social Studies/History

How did 1970s Funk respond to African-American life in the decade following the Civil Rights movement?