Saturday, August 25, 2007

Sly's back.

"I do regular things a lot," he says. "But it's probably more of a Sly Stone life. It's probably ... it's probably not very normal."

News of Vanity Fair's interview with Sly Stone for its August issue appeared in early July, I think. I meant to write about it at that time and tie it in with what you were originally going to see below, but now that's a separate post. (Confused? I feel for you.) So pretend it's still early July for a second ...


Okay, now you say, "Wow, that's big news, Robert!" It sure is! And you heard it here first!

Yes, Sly Stone is back, and not just for an odd Grammy Awards appearance like the one he made last year. The VF article mentions the trainwreckiness of that appearance, which was meant to be a full Sly and the Family Stone reunion in the planning stages but ended up featuring the Family Stone minus one (former bassist Larry Graham called in sick at the last minute) vamping behind current music stars like Maroon 5 and of Black Eyed Peas, plus older rockers like Aerosmith's Steven Tyler and Joe Perry.

It was essentially a commercial for Epic/Legacy's Different Strokes by Different Folks, a remix/covers album featuring, Maroon 5, and Tyler, among others, recording their versions of the Family Stone's hits over huge chunks of the original songs. Originally released in Starbucks stores in July 2005—and given one of the angriest reviews I've ever seen on, whose writers generally adopt an encouraging tone of "You'll get 'em next time, slugger!" when they don't like an album—it was rereleased with two bonus tracks on February 7, 2006, the day before Sly's crowded Family reunion at the Grammys. When the new edition of Different Strokes came out,'s original angry review was replaced with one by Stephen Thomas Erlewine, one of the site's more evenhanded critics.

There was no way to tell that the Family Stone was onstage at the Grammys that night. There were a few lingering shots of keyboardist Rose Stone, Sly's sister, and brief glimpses of drummer Greg Errico, but that's it. Trumpeter Cynthia Robinson, saxophonist Jerry Martini, and guitarist Freddie Stone weren't given any camera time as far as I could tell, not even when Sly appeared near the end of the tribute sporting a blond Mohawk and huge sunglasses. He mumbled his way through parts of "I Want to Take You Higher" and played a few notes on his synthesizer, but right when it looked like his old confidence was returning, he walked to the front of the stage, pointed the microphone at the audience, sang "baby baby baby," then waved and made his exit. Sly Stone's comeback lasted all of two minutes.

It was definitely him onstage that night, but it was hard not to feel like you were seeing a ghost (or a robot). At that point it'd been about 23 years since Sly had released an album, the underrated but still somewhat dull Ain't But the One Way, and 13 years since he'd last made a notable public appearance, at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony honoring Sly and the Family Stone. But Sly didn't perform with the band at the January 12, 1993, ceremony, and according to Martini, he wouldn't even make eye contact with some of them.

Sly was assumed by many to be a recluse the past quarter-century, the Howard Hughes of R&B legends. Others thought he'd finally fried his brain from too many drugs in the '70s and '80s or that he'd died sometime in the '90s. But in Vanity Fair the man otherwise known as Sylvester Stewart gives his first interview in over 20 years and says he's ready to record new songs. (He's already been touring Europe this summer with a new version of the Family Stone. He looks sort of like a turtle these days, but that alternately inspiring and chilling voice of his is still intact, if not quite as powerful as before.) If you're a fan it's easy to say, Why record new songs? Sly's been gone for 25 years, and it's not like the last 6 of his recording career produced a lot of great music.

It's true. I bought 1976's Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I'm Back as an import back in college and sold it a year later. Sly bottomed out on that album, but Back on the Right Track (1979) and Ain't But the One Way (1982 ... or '83—I've seen both years listed in various places) each have their moments, including the best Sly and the Family Stone song not penned by Sly, Ain't But the One Way's "Ha Ha, Hee Hee," written by saxophonist Pat Rizzo. Its lyrics can be interpreted as an acknowledgment of Sly's downhill slide and a prediction of his early retirement. With Sly singing Rizzo's words, it's almost as if he's delivering the eulogy at his own funeral. "Ha Ha, Hee Hee" includes this eye-opening verse:

Ha ha, hee hee
Nothing to do
You beat the genius in you
But who cares if you are through
Or do
You'll never miss it

And he didn't seem to miss it, at least not until recently. There were rumors in 1995, the year I became a fan, that he was recording a new album, but nothing surfaced. Like I said, it's easy for fans like myself to cringe at the thought of new songs being written long after the fire is assumed to have died out, but since those last three albums left a lot to be desired, it's not like this is the equivalent of the Beatles holding a press conference in 1979 to announce that they're reuniting to record a better swan song than Abbey Road. I still haven't heard Sly's one official solo album, 1975's High on You, except for the songs "I Get High on You" and "Crossword Puzzle," both of which are strong enough and funky enough to warrant a High on You reissue from Sony/Legacy, which rereleased every Sly and the Family Stone album up through 1974's Small Talk back in the spring. Sony/Legacy's logic is that the original version of the Family Stone broke up after that album, therefore the "classic" period ended at that point. Maybe so, but it wouldn't have hurt to reissue every album Sly made for Epic Records back in the '60s and '70s, including High on You and Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I'm Back. I'm sure some eager rock journalist out there would've been happy to write the liner notes for either reissue.

Sly's new songs could turn out to be a waste of time, and he probably won't be able to reunite the original Family Stone in its entirety, but this is Sly Stone we're talking about. He's a towering figure in rock and soul history. And he's still here with us on earth, even if he lives on a different planet altogether in his mind. I'm willing to listen to whatever he ends up recording.

Below is a Sly and the Family Stone medley from ABC's Music Scene, probably from the fall of '69. The band performs parts of "Dance to the Music," "Hot Fun in the Summertime," "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey," and "I Want to Take You Higher." I especially love the reaction of the girl in the audience at the 3:55 mark during "Hot Fun." Sly and the Family Stone's music tends to have that effect on people, even today.


  1. I wish I'd seen the earlier review. I think Erlewine is Mr Allmusic.

    It's hard for me to believe that Sly has anything left to deliver at this point.... but I'll listen to whatever comes out.

  2. I read somewhere that Erlewine's family publishes the All Music guides. Maybe that information is on; I'm not sure. But I don't think his status as head critic on the site is blatant nepotism; he knows his stuff.