The Family Stone, the California band that paved the way for modern funk, is back in the recording studio for the first time in 32 years. But missing is Sly Stone — the heart and soul of a band that blended race, gender, music, and politics in a glorious evocation of Sixties idealism.
“I’ll put it like this,” drummer Greg Errico says. “The B3 [Hammond organ] is on and running and idling, and the seat’s warm, and whenever [Sly] wants to come sit in it, he’s more than welcome. But he’s been a recluse for the last 20 years or so… I don’t understand it. Your guess is as good as mine.”
Stone, 59, the innovative producer, singer, songwriter, and keyboard player behind Sly and the Family Stone, has not recorded an album since 1982. Drug-related legal and medical problems have haunted him over the decades and he declined comment for this story.
Hailing mostly from the small northern California town of Vallejo, Sly and the Family Stone smashed cultural stereotypes with its black rock guitarist, white funk drummer, female horn player and blend of soul, rock, and R&B in hits like “Dance to the Music.” The band played at the 1968 Fillmore East concert, the 1969 Woodstock festival, and it was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.
The seeds of reunion were planted 18 months ago after the Family Stone gathered in New York to accept an R&B Foundation Pioneer Award.
“Everybody was there but Sly,” said Errico. “We [wondered], ‘Are we going to… put the group back together?’ Everybody decided to do it. We waited for [guitarist] Larry [Graham] for about three or four months. After saying, yeah, he wanted to do it, he never responded.”
Undaunted by the absence not only of Sly but also of his cousin Graham on bass guitar, five of the original members of the group have been in the studio recording some 16 new songs. The new tracks are being written and sung mostly by Sly’s brother Freddie Stone and sister Rosie Stone. Freddie Stone and Errico are producing the album, which does not yet have a label home.
The reunited group also includes Jerry Martini on saxophone and Cynthia Robinson on horn, all of whom backed Sly from 1967 to 1971 on such classics as “Everyday People” and “Stand!”
Graham went on to found the band Graham Central Station and has collaborated with Prince. Rusty Allen, who played on Sly and the Family Stone’s 1973 album “Fresh,” replaces him in the lineup.
Recalling the old days, Robinson said the group’s songs always originated with Sly, who would write the material before coming into the studio. “He and Freddie used to work together … at home, creating the songs,” Robinson says. Then he would give everyone their parts by playing riffs on his keyboards.
She recalled Sly’s striving for musical clarity in the, session that produced the 1970 single “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).”
“He made sure stuff wasn’t cluttered, that good lines weren’t covered up by other good lines,” Robinson said.
For now, the Family Stone plans no live shows until after the new album is finished, although several members — Errico, Martini, Robinson, and Rosie Stone — are performing with others in the San Francisco Bay area in a funk jam group called the Funk Family Circus (formerly the Stone Family Circus).
“If you think about it,” says Errico, “that’s a hard legacy to live up to, what we’ve done in the past.” Or as Robinson put it, alluding to the title of the band’s 1967 debut album, “This is a whole new thing again.”
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