The phone rings, and it’s Sly Stone.
He has brought his own emcee, his daughter Sylvette Phunne Robinson, who ushers in the interview from Los Angeles with a rap about her father. Sly then gently dismisses her. “OK, Phunne, it’s not your interview.”
And then the artist born Sylvester Stewart 65 years ago in Texas moves to center stage to explain why, at this relatively late date, he has chosen to make one of the most unlikely comebacks in pop history.
“I could sit back and get royalties like people do at my age,” he says. “But then I noticed that a lot of things were not being said.”
That he all but left music 30 years ago is one of pop entertainment’s great losses. That he’s still alive is an upset. That he’s back performing and touring with several of the original Family Stone members is something just short of a miracle.
But then Sly Stone was always big on busting expectations. At one time, he revolutionized popular music in a way that still resonates; shards of his sound and influence can be seen and heard everywhere, though rarely are they pieced together as effortlessly as Sly and the Family Stone once did on indelible hits such as “Everyday People,” “Dance to the Music,” “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” and “Family Affair.”
For a decade, Stone’s multiracial co-ed septet from northern California broke down barriers of how a band should look and sound. It bridged Motown and Miles Davis, rock and funk. Then, in 1975, Stone checked out. Once the most incandescent of stars - he stole the show at Woodstock, charmed talk-show host Dick Cavett and got married at Madison Square Garden - he dropped out of public life. He was arrested in 1987 and convicted in 1989 for cocaine possession. Drugs took a terrible toll. His Lazarus-like appearances at the 1993 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction and at the 2006 Grammy Awards, in a blond Mohawk, did not inspire confidence that he was healthy, let alone capable of making music again.
But in the last two years, Stone has begun piecing together the Family Stone, including original members Jerry Martini on saxophone, Cynthia Robinson on trumpet, and sister Rose Stone on vocals. He began playing club and festival dates, usually showing up for a handful of songs and the occasional lead vocal while a large band churned out passable versions of his songbook. The physical toll exacted during his long hiatus is apparent in his hunched-over posture, his frail walk. But he also appears coherent, and his vocals and keyboard playing show flashes of the old power. From all reports, the drugs are in his past.
On the phone, Stone is feisty if a bit scattered, and chuckles frequently in a baritone rumble. He also digresses into some weirdness that no number of follow-up questions can truly unravel. He speaks of acquiring what he thought was a plastic skeleton that he hung as a hat rack on his door, only to be told by the FBI that it was the remains of a missing person. He speaks of packing a gun to early gigs just in case promoters “started making me do things I didn’t want to do.” And he whispers conspiratorially - “I’ve never told anyone this before” - of behind-the-scenes shenanigans in Chicago (imagine that!) that prevented him from performing on the day of the infamous Grant Park riot in 1970.
Blame for that debacle was laid at the feet of Stone, and turned him into a pariah in the concert industry, a performer with a reputation for blowing off gigs. It was the beginning of the end for his band.
The decline was etched in the druggy grooves of “There’s a Riot Goin’ On,” Stone’s 1971 masterpiece. It was the polar opposite of its ebullient 1969 predecessor, “Stand,” a veritable greatest hits that became the talk of the music world. “Riot” was slower, darker and stranger. The running time of the title song was listed at “0:00”: The riot, it implied, was in your head. And Sly’s.
“My dad used to tell me, `If you work for it, you will have good consequences,’” Stone says. “So I thought what I was doing could be kinda big. And for a little while, the fame was what I expected it to be. But I soon realized there were other things involved in it. There was a down side, and the down side caused me to be very willing to just get off the scene. You get further down than you realize. Jimi (Hendrix), Janis (Joplin) and on and on. I’d see that kind of stuff (and their premature deaths), and I’d go, `Whoa.’ I’d start looking at the circumstances and realize I had to back off.”
Stone is vague about what happened next. But he insists he never stopped writing songs, hundreds of them. And his classic music never lost its freshness date, embraced for its forward-looking innovation by subsequent generations. During his early `70s electric period, Miles Davis invoked Sly. Parliament-Funkadelic, the Ohio Players, Rick James and countless funk artists were inspired by him. Several generations of hip-hop performers sampled Stone’s songs. When Prince toured in the late `90s, he recruited Family Stone band members such as Martini and Robinson and devoted a portion of his set to Sly Stone songs.
The Family Stone, which consisted of Stone’s family members and childhood friends, never expected him to return. But they embraced him when he re-entered their lives.
“Things that get broken get put together in increments,” Robinson says. “I’m thrilled to be involved with his music again.”
It’s all happening so fast that Martini says he won’t be able to make the Chicago concert May 3 because his other band is committed to playing a judge’s wedding in central California.
“Sly’s been out of the picture for so long, and there was a lot of controversial stuff that has gone on, but the bottom line is that he’s making a major effort to be heard again,” Martini says. “We all went away, but we never stopped playing. Sly never stopped writing. We’re going through our musical second childhood right now.”
Stone is setting his sights on recording his new songs with a reunited Family Stone. But first he realizes he must rebuild his credibility as a live performer. Reviews of his early shows have been mixed. His stamina is in question. But his spirit appears more than willing.
“I want to record as soon as I get the next break” from touring, Stone says. “As soon as the word gets out that I’m serious. `I’m gonna be at the gig, buddy.’ I understand that people have a little skepticism about whether I’m going to show up. For a long while, I thought it was the style.”
He laughs. “I was told for a long time, you stay underground, and when you finally come up for air, you’re gonna be in demand. I can’t stay underground much longer. Otherwise I’m gonna get too old to appreciate what’s going on. It’s time to get going. There’s more work to do.”
Sly Stone in his glory at Woodstock 1969
Sly interview from the wilderness years
Sly as jazzy elder statesman, live in 2007