In addition to Keith Richards, there is another legendary very elderly musician who is still alive against all odds. And against all odds, he still remembers quite a few parts of that life. It’s time for Sly Stone to be rehabilitated.
He was one of soul music’s greatest innovators, an icon of hippie culture who united black and white and led Woodstock to delirium. His songs were sampled and covered hundreds of times, he was a pioneer in the use of the drum machine, a role model for Prince and D’Angelo, among others. Between 1967 and 1973, the seven-member, multiracial and gender-mixed Sly and the Family Stone scored immortal hits under his leadership such as Dance to the Music, Everyday People, Hot Fun in the Summertime, I Want To Take You Higher and Family Affair. But he sank deeper and deeper into a spiral of drugs and other vicissitudes, appeared only sporadically in public in recent decades, as a shadow of himself, and never told his own story. Until now, in his recently published memoirs. Sly Stone is alive, to the surprise of many.
For years I was sent from pillar to post. “Talk to Sly about a book? Yes, if you transfer a thousand dollars first.”
On March 15 this year, Stone celebrated his eightieth birthday, making him slightly older than Keith Richards. And just like the guitarist of The Rolling Stones, Stone can still tell the story of his turbulent life, against all logic and laws of physics and biology. “Sly has lived a hundred lives, and they’re all in here,” writes The Roots’ Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson in the foreword to Stone’s memoir Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)named after one of his classics.
Die Questlove is also the director of the Oscar-winning documentary Summer of Soul (2021), about the almost forgotten Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, where Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone performed, among others. In that time document, Sly Stone and his band also revived in beautiful archive footage. Stone himself has been a ghost for decades, lost in the caverns of music history. There were stories of legal and financial problems, of prison and homelessness, dramas sprinkled with crack and cocaine. The man who once ‘Everybody is a star’ sang, had fallen low and disappeared from the radar.
Until journalist and author Ben Greenman, after years of digging, managed to get through to the maligned legend. ‘In 2012 I worked with George Clinton (the funk icon who founded the legendary bands Funkadelic and Parliament, ed.) to his autobiography’, Greenman explains to us. ‘Sly Stone and George were once blood brothers, and George put me in touch with people from his entourage. But Sly was still using a lot of drugs at the time, was constantly in financial trouble and was not well surrounded. “Talk to Sly about a book? Yes, if you first transfer a thousand dollars”: I was told that kind of thing. For years I was sent from pillar to post. Until Arlene Hirschkowitz called me in 2019. In the 1980s she was one of his girlfriends, meanwhile she had taken on the role of his manager. She tried to keep him on the right path. “Sly has kicked the habit and is ready to tell his story,” she said.’
Ben Greenman was also co-author of I Am Brian Wilson memoirs of the Beach Boy of the same name. So he knows how to refresh the troubled memories of troubled pop geniuses. Although Sly’s turned out not to be too bad. ‘Physically, Sly is not in the best of shape. His health is not going well. It is no longer possible to ever stand on a podium again. But his brain still makes miraculous connections, just like in his musical heyday. Artists of his caliber have very sensitive antennas. Or better yet: they are a kind of cultural antenna that catches everything that hangs in the air. You don’t make an album like 1968 Stand! – musically groundbreaking, idealistic, radical – if you are not very alert. That alertness still appeared to be intact, as did his talent for aphorisms, word games and punchlines.’
‘Even when I was young, I preferred jazz to blues. Jazz could be interesting even when it was boring,” Stone says candidly in the book while offering an anecdote linked to Miles Davis, the jazz legend he would inspire during his fusion period. In general, Stone does not mince his words, not even when it comes to his drug abuse and his unpredictable, destructive behavior, which increasingly took over in the early 1970s. There is room for regret, memories of lost years and missed opportunities (it didn’t click with Diana Ross, a planned meeting with Prince did not materialize), but almost nowhere is there any remorse.
“Celebrities who spend 300 pages apologizing for anything and everything from their past, I honestly find that bland and uninteresting,” says Greenman. ‘Sly is honest in his pragmatism. As he says at one point about drugs: “There was a culture and there was a mentality, but there were also professional demands.” Drugs were part of the creative process and Sly was enormously productive in the mid to late 1960s. That doesn’t justify the bad consequences, but it is his perspective at the time.’
Just as Sly Stone proved himself to be a masterful chronicler of the culturally swinging, politically turbulent years of which he himself was a center – with the Family Stone he made music to dance to and think about – so he looks with juicy quips and idiosyncratic analyzes back. On his friendship with contemporaries such as Muhammad Ali and Bobby Womack, on his clashes with both the revolutionary Black Panthers (who considered him too soft and too white) and the white establishment (which considered him too radical). The reflections on the present – his influence on hip-hop and other artists, his ambiguous relationship with the media – are witty and witty.
There are also gaps. So throws Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin) only little light on Stone’s experiences at the Woodstock festival in 1969, although a milestone in the group’s existence. “Well, they also played at four in the morning, in the pitch dark,” Greenman laughs. ‘And for artists like Sly, Jimi Hendrix or The Who, Woodstock was a show like any other at the time. A big show, of course, but also just one stop between various festival stations that summer. It was only after the film about Woodstock was released in 1970 that the true historical impact of that festival became clear to many.’
The historical value of Sly Stone’s memoirs, a piece of writing that no one expected, cannot be underestimated, Greenman believes. ‘Even at his lowest points, his creativity kept him afloat, the music kept him going. And Sly is well aware that this was the moment to secure his legacy, in his own words. The last chance to put his life in order so that other people can understand it.’
Questlove, who also published the book, is now working on a new documentary, entirely devoted to the life and work of Sly Stone. Momentum seems to be building. Is there any new music in there? “I believe the audiobook will contain an unreleased track. And Sly has a huge archive of demos. But will they ever be finished and see the light? I do not know. The story has been told, that’s what matters to me. That was my mission: to guide the audience towards the records that are there. Listen to them folks, they’re good.’
Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin): A Memoir
Written by Ben Greenman, with a foreword by Questlove, from AUWA Books.
Summer of Soul
Still available on Disney+.
Real name Sylvester Stewart
Born on March 15, 1943 in Denton, Texas.
Moved out to San Francisco, where he made a name for himself as a radio DJ and producer and founded the band Sly and the Family Stone in 1966.
Scores hits like Dance to the Music, Everyday People, Hot Fun in the Summertime, I Want to Take You Higher, Everybody Is a Star, Family Affair and If You Want Me to Stay.
Brings in 1971 the dark album There’s a Riot Goin’ On on which he plays all the instruments himself and experiments with drum machines.
Disappears almost completely off the radar in the 1990s, followed by a disastrous ‘comeback tour’ in 2006-2007, which also took him to the Blue Note festival in Ghent.
Allowed counts Miles Davis, Prince, Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers, D’Angelo and André 3000 among his admirers.