Dance to the Music: The story of Sly and the Family Stone

When discussing the history of funk music, it would be impossible to have one without bringing up Sly and the Family Stone. Formed by Sly Stone, the band was an essential part of the growth of funk and soul, and to this day, they are still one of the most cherished groups in the genre.

The origins of the band begins with Sly (b. Sylvester Stewart), who started a band in 1966 called Sly & the Stoners, which included his brother Freddie Stone (guitar/vocals), and Cynthia Robinson (trumpet/vocal ad libs).

At the same time, Sly also formed Freddie & the Stone Souls, which he task his brother to lead and included Gregg Errico (drums) and Ronnie Crawford (saxophone). Noticing that they would basically be competing against each other, one of Sly’s closest friends, Jerry Martini (saxophone), suggested to Sly that he combine the bands to form one unit, which in 1967, is exactly what he did, and Sly and the Family Stone was born.

In addition to bringing in his brother’s group, he added Larry Graham (bass/vocals) and his sister’s gospel group, The Heavenly Tones, which included Vet Stone (b. Vanetta Stewart), Marry McCreary and Elva Mouton, who would sing backup for the band as the “Little Sister.” After the group performed a gig at the Winchester Cathedral in Redwood City, California, CBS Records signed the band to the label's Epic Records offshoot.

Their first album for Epic was A Whole New Thing, which was universally praised for its unique direction in the genre. But the album went nowhere commercially, which caused Epic to get involved to see why the album wasn’t doing well. Clive Davis, the owner of Epic, asked Sly to write and record a record, in which he came back with “Dance to the Music” in late 1967.

That single would be a turning point for the band, as, upon its early 1968 release, it became a smash, going all the way to the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 (#8). During the recording of “Dance to the Music," Rose Stone (keyboards/vocals) joined the group.

While the single blew up, the same-titled album only did moderately well, as the second single released from the record, “Life,” flopped. But the success of “Dance to the Music” prompted the group to embark on their first overseas tour in England. Later in ’68, the Family Stone returned to the studio and recorded and released “Everyday People,” which would become their first chart-topper.

The B-side to the sentimental “Everyday People,” “Sing a Simple Song,” also did well (#28 R&B), and both served as the lead singles to their sophomore LP, Stand!, which was released in the summer of 1969. Stand! would be the band’s Magnum Opus, as it peaked at #22 on the Billboard 200 and got them a ticket to perform at Woodstock.

But instead of bringing the group closer together, the success of Stand! caused internal problems amongst the band members. The most notable frictions was between the Stone brothers and Larry Graham, who was growing increasingly frustrated with the creative direction of the band, and the New Black Panther Party, who was demanding that Sly get rid of Errico and Martini and replace them with black members.

But the biggest blow to the group would come in the form of cocaine and PCP, which became a way of life for the band, especially Sly, after they relocated to Los Angeles in 1969. With drugs (Sly was known for carrying a violin case filled with drugs) and heavy partying now entrenched within the group, their recording output slowed to a crawl.

Eventually, the Family Stone released a new single towards the end of the year, the fun, drug-riddled “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)/”Everybody is a Star,” which would find its way to the top of the Hot 100 in early 1970. But the heavy drug use was beginning to really take its toll on the group, especially Sly, who spent nearly all of his time awake high on drugs.

This caused Sly’s attitude to change dramatically and it affected the music that was being produced by the band. By 1971, band members were beginning to get fed up with his erratic and moody behavior, and the first member to leave the band was drummer Errico. Sly got session drummers to fill his role until he settled on Gerry Gibson in 1972, who only stayed a year until he left and was replaced by Andy Newmark.

Band members weren’t the only ones getting frustrated with Sly. Epic Records was also growing irritated with the band’s lack of recording, which lead to the label re-releasing the band’s debut album, which was re-packaged as a greatest hits LP. The album easily soared to number two on the Billboard 200, but unbeknownst to Epic, Sly was in negotiations at the time with Atlantic Records on a solo deal, who would allow him to form his own imprint, Stone Flower Records.

While Sly was releasing solo material for Atlantic, his band was still with Epic, and in 1971, they released “Family Affair,” which was a darker single than their previous releases. “Family Affair” became their third chart-topper and was the lead single for their third LP, There’s a Riot Goin’ On, which was steeped in dark instrumentation, drum machines, and hopeless lyrics.

There’s a Riot Goin’ On was hailed as a masterpiece and it debuted at number one in the Billboard 200 in late 1971, but this would be the end of the line for the Family Stone commercially. Graham left the group in 1972 and formed Graham Central Station, and Sly’s next two albums, 1973’s Fresh and 1974’s lackluster Small Talk, performed poorly on the charts.

With funk evolving rapidly, Sly and the Family Stone found their sound becoming increasingly out-of-date, and after consistent roster changes, heavy drug use and declining fortunes, the Family Stone was gone from the charts by the dawn of the ‘80s.

Sly himself continued to record sporadically until 1984 when was urged to check himself into drug rehab, and after he was arrested for cocaine possession in 1987, he stopped recording altogether.