Spaced Cowboy: Sly Stone at 80

Honoring the unorthodox genius of a soul icon

Sly Stone turns 80 today (Image: Wikipedia)

Sylvester “Sly” Stone turns 80 on March 15th, and I am as amazed to write that as you probably are to read it.

Not just in the I-can’t-believe-he’s-that-old/Oh-my-god-I’m-old-too! way that we all have. But because he is … Sly Stone. 

And you might have even thought, “Did he die and did I just miss it?”

You could’ve.

I mean we were all shocked Jerry Lee Lewis lived as long as he did, and Keith Richards continues to amaze us, but Sly not being with us at 80? I’d have taken that bet. Or at 70. Or 60. Or 50.

Sly’s nose found its way to cocaine in 1969 and he was thus enraptured with (or ensnared by) the devil’s dandruff. It could be apocryphal but there’s the story about Sly, so desperate to find a crack pipe while at his label’s office he locked himself in the rest room and tried to unscrew some of the plumbing to fashion a pipe. Sly had boasted about the glories of free-basing – so much better than a snort. 

There have been many Sly-on-the-skids stories, such as this from 2011 – long gone from the music business – when he was reportedly homeless, living in a white van parked in a shitty neighborhood of Los Angeles. In 2017, he was once again busted for cocaine possession. And then he pretty much disappears from the internet map.

I mean, there are Sly and the Family Stone social media groups – a Facebook group with 650,000 followers, a website, a Twitter page where three years ago his daughter, musician Novena Carmel posted “7 minute birthday party for Dad’s 77th birthday today! He just got a huge chocolate leather couch and is doing good! I told him all of you said hbd and he smiled. Now go listen to his music so your spirit can smile too —> Sly & The Family Stone for thooooose who don’t know.”

The latest bit I could find was from an Essence story in 2020 headlined “Sly Stone is Homeless But Happy.” He’s quoted as saying, “I live in a small camper. I just do not want to return to a fixed home. I cannot stand being in one place. I must keep moving.”  The writer adds: “His van is parked outside a nice couple’s home who make sure he eats and showers daily  He maintains the FBI is looking for him and enemies have hired a hit man to take him out.”


VIDEO: Sly And The Family Stone performing “I Want To Take You Higher” on The Ed Sullivan Show, December 29, 1968

But let me take you back to the glory days and the age of discovery, mine at least. 

I was a white kid growing up in a Maine college town in the 1960s and 1970s and we had exactly one Black person in our high school. I’m pretty certain Maine was the least integrated state in America. (It’s still 94.2 percent white, 1.8 percent Black.) Back then, I didn’t see many Black people on TV – well, there was Julia and Flip Wilson, right? – or the movies, aside from whatever classy Sidney Poitier film was up at the moment, not much.

My exposure to Black people pretty much came in one of three ways: 1) The civil unrest that roiled America’s cities as seen on TV, 2) through pro sports or 3) through pop music.  This isn’t a politics or sports site so I’ll skip most of that, aside from saying my Boston Celtics were the first team to have an all-Black starting 5 (Bill Russell, Satch Sanders, KC Jones, Willie Naulls and Chuck Cooper, 1964) and the first Black coach (Russell, 1966). And my “Boys of Summer,” the 1967 Red Sox, had a number of key Black players: George Scott, John Wyatt, Jose Tartabull, Reggie Smith, Joy Foy and Elston Howard. 

Now, the music: I heard Black artists on the AM radio of course – that was fully integrated and, from my perspective, colorblind. The Isley Brothers, Stevie Wonder, Ike & Tina Turner, James Brown, Bill Withers, Joe Tex were all mixed in with The Captain and Tennille, The Who, The Beatles, Mac and Katie Kissoon and Johnny Cash. 

The hits were free on the airwaves, but I bought albums by Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding and Sly and the Family Stone, the best rock ‘n’ funk band of the bunch. When you’re dealing with income earned from a paper route, as I was, every dollar was important so a leap of $3.98 or $4.98 for an LP was a hopeful investment. You couldn’t guarantee a good time, but you could hazard a guess that the percentages were in your favor. 

And while it sounds stupid now, as a kid it dawned on me that, “Yeah, everyone of any color is part of the American mosaic, at least the pop music mosaic.” Well, maybe I didn’t know the word “mosaic” but I realized there was a big playing field – not in my hometown, but out there – and Blacks were most definitely on it. (My grasping of the Black blues roots of bands like The Beatles, the Stones, the Animals, The Who and The Kinks came later in life.)

Sly and the Family Stone was the first integrated rock group – Blacks, whites, males and females. Maybe a model for big band Talking Heads days later, I don’t know. There were three siblings in the band – aside from Sly, guitarist Freddie and keyboardist Rose. 

I never saw Sly and the Family Stone live. But Joe Perry did. The Aerosmith guitarist told me, “They knew how to take a whole arena and just tear it up.” They were the pinnacle. Perry was lucky to see Sly and his band. Sly made George Jones look punctual. He arrived late or not at all for many a concert – 26 of 80 were scrapped in 1970. 

I was vaguely aware then of Sly’s erraticism, if not his intense drug habit. He and the band never came near my home state – again, maybe because it was so white (not a primary market) or maybe promoters read the tea leaves and wouldn’t chance it with the – to be polite – mercurial front-man and his habits.

But Sly and the Family Stone’s Greatest Hits was on my turntable a lot in 1971. It made me happy, made me want to dance, made me want to be part of the band, which I was by proxy in my bedroom. I made me part of that mosaic, playing a mirror star in my bedroom. It brought me – at least psychologically – out into the urban world.

I knew some of these songs through the radio, but Jesus, to have them all on one album. It started with “I Wanna Take You Higher,” which I already knew from the Woodstock album, but five-plus minutes of a declaration I could fully support. “Higher” could be interpreted in a drug sense or an emotional sense; for me it was emotion. Pot hadn’t even crept into my life then.

And the hits just kept on coming, “Everybody is a Star,” “Stand!” “Life,” “Fun,” and “You Can Make It If You Try.” That was side one. Flip it and it kicks off with “Dance to the Music” – four singers, all telling us what they’re going to do – bassist Larry Graham “I’m going to add a little bottom, so the dancers just won’t hide.”  Cynthia Robinson kicks it off with an exhortation to do what the song title says. I love the closing bit where Sly tells us “Cynthia and [saxophonist] Jerry [Martini] got a message that says…” and Cynthia yells, “All the squares go home!”

Then “Everyday People,” with its racial bonding message: “Different strokes for different folks/And so on and so on and scooby-dooby/We got to live together.”  “Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin,” spookily covered by post-punkers Magazine at the dawn of the ‘80s. Sly was called by some the King of the Black Hippies.


VIDEO: Sly & The Family Stone “Stand!”

But by 1971, the optimism had taken a darker turn with There’s a Riot Going On – the band was fractious and Sly reportedly played most everything on the record (shades of Prince) and the songs reflected the racial tension across the country. But Sly and the Family Stone’s days, those intra-band conflicts we all here about. Their days were numbered and in 1975 Sly released his first solo album, High on You (the high now coming across differently given what we we learning) and then Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I’m Back!, the first of several albums where the title desperately tried to reinstate Sly Stone’s importance in the music world. I’m sure there were many polarizing responses to Sly’s declaration. Then, there was Back on the Right Track in 1979. Really? No, I mean it this time! Eh … He played and toured with George Clinton and Funkadelic in 1981 and released a stiff, Ain’t Nothing But the One Way the following year.

But Sly has been pretty much Missing in Action since, though maybe the “Action” part of that doesn’t work. Maybe just “Missing.” 

Sly and the Family Stone was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. Other band members spoke but, gig shock, Sly kept everyone waiting as the Family Stone jammed on “Thank You’.” Said Rose: “As usual, it’s just us.” But wait, wait! Finally, Sly slinks on wearing a blue leather jumpsuit and says, “I believe everything’s been said, probably … thank you all very much. I love you personally and see you soon.” Then, he was gone.

It’d be nice of this was a redemption story – he’s gone beyond and now he’s back – but that would fantastical fiction. We can dig that Sly inspired D’Angelo, OutKast, Clinton and Prince. And I guess what we still do is listen to the old tracks, zoom back to that era and enjoy ‘em, blocking out was to come. 




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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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