Sly Stone Goes to Woodstock
Sly Stone, born Sylvester Stewart, was a multi-talented musical prodigy who mixed rock, jazz, soul and other influences to create a new music that would become one of the first instances of modern funk outside James Brown.
Born in Texas, his family quickly moved to Vallejo, California in the Bay Area. There Sly adopted the multi-cultural, multi-racial aesthetic that would formulate his, and his family's, attitude towards performance and music throughout his career.
His first band, the Viscayne's--named after the popular Chevy Biscayne, except with a V for Vallejo--was formed with several friends when he was in high school. The group, which sang doo-wop, consisted of Sly, who was black, Frank Arellano, Filipino, Charlene Imhoff, a white skinned blonde girl, Charles and Vern Gebhardt, of European descent, and Maria Boldway, a black haired mix of Spanish, Mexican, French, and Native American. About as multi-racial as you could get.
Sly would demonstrate his tastes for lighter girls, too, when he started dating Maria "Ria" Boldway. An interracial relationship was taboo in the fifties, even in the Bay Area, and Sly and Ria had to date on the down low. Sly couldn't pick Ria up to go on dates because her father would immediately put a nix on the relationship so Filipino Frank would pick her up and then take her to somewhere else to meet Sly.
In an interviewer with Jeff Kaliss, Sly Stone biographer, Frank recalled how Ria's father would tell Frank to have her home by midnight. After handing her off to Sly he would arrive at their prearranged meeting place well before midnight and end up waiting until two or three in the morning before Sly returned Ria. Then Frank would have to take Ria home and face the wrath of her father for bringing her home past curfew.
There were other problems too. Frank recalled Sly describing the racial situation to him once. According to Kaliss,
"He felt," says Frank, "that he was on a ladder, and that he was trying to climb up the ladder. And there were people above, pushing him down, and there were people below him, grabbing his legs and pulling him down. And that was his struggle, more or less. It is tough being black, I guess. But I'm glad he realized there were people of his own race trying to pull him down, and people of other races pushing him down. I never had that much of a problem."
But for all of his struggles with the race situation in America, Sly Stone rarely used race as the inspiration in his lyrics. In his song "Everyday People" he did touch on race when he wrote:
Makes No Difference What Group I'm In I Am Everyday People Then It's The Blue Ones Who Can't Accept The Green Ones For Living With The Black Ones Tryin' To Be A Skinny One Different Strokes For Different Folks
It would be a theme associated with Sly & the Family Stone despite the rarity of his actually addressing the issue. The group, perhaps inspired by Sly's upbringing in the Bay Area and the multiracial community there, would be one of the first racially integrated rock & roll groups to rise to popularity.
Another possible influence for Sly's approach to race was the fact that he grew up during Civil Rights Movement in the fifties and early sixties. Race, and race equality, was a major issue in the news and in American life during the time.
Whatever the inspiration, racial equality became part of the mixture of attitudes and ideas that Sly Stone espoused as he rose to fame in the late sixties. Though he came from the Bay Area, and identified with many of the hippy ideals, he never really participated in the culture of Haight & Ashbury that influenced so many people of that time. He, and his band, adopted bright, garish costumes, wild hairstyles, and loud attitudes as part of their stage persona, something that was in contrast to the drugged down serenity of the flower children.
Despite the dissimilarities, Sly & the Family Stone would become a major player as featured performers during the Woodstock Rock Festival in 1969.
They arrived at Max Yasgur's farm in Bethel, New York at about three in the morning of the seventeenth. They were tired, grouchy, and as band saxophonist Jerry Martini said, "full of mud."
We got out there and looked at the audience, who were all in their sleeping bags, and when we started playing, they all jumped out of their sleeping bags. We felt the vibe between the audience and the band, and honest to God, all the hair on my arms stood straight up.
The band played nine songs, performing for half a million people gathered on the rolling hills of rural New York. They stood on the stage in the rain--according to trumpeter Cynthia Robinson Sly got shocked by the equipment in the wet--and sang at dawn. Five blacks and two whites, a mix of races performing in the most historically idyllic music show in history. They weren't the only mixed-race band to perform, though, as Jimi Hendrix's band was also integrated.
It was perhaps the peak of Sly & the Family Stone's career. They had just come off the release of their bestselling album Stand! and put on one of the most electric live performances in the industry. But it wouldn't last. Sly, and most of the band, who had previously only gotten high on wine and marijuana began heavy abuse of PCP and cocaine. They began to show up late, or not even at all, for live shows. Sly became increasingly isolated from the rest of the band. The recording process that gave their first albums such excitement--recording the entire band playing at once--was replaced by meticulous overdubbing with Sly playing most of the instruments.
By 1976, even the diminished version of the band that survived was finished. Sly & the Family Stone officially broke up and Sly all but disappeared into drugs and isolation. One of the greatest experiments in rock & roll history was over.
But the influence of the group was immense. Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, Prince, Michael Jackson, and countless others drew inspiration from the group's music. Their songs have been used in numerous movies and television shows as the soundtrack of peace, love, and equality. Ultimately, their work earned them a place in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame to which they were inducted in 1993.