Sly Stone says he wants to make a comeback
Can the reclusive Sly and the Family Stone singer recapture the magic?
A LONG TREK: Sly Stone has four concerts booked and dreams of a world tour, but tickets sales have been sluggish. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
"I'm sorry I'm late," he said with a somber expression as he walked into the empty, off-hours Temple Bar in Santa Monica and pulled off his gray wool gloves. Late? Stone was technically tardy by all of 13 minutes, but the apology had the ring of a larger truth.
FOR THE RECORD:
An article on Sly Stone in Sunday Calendar transposed the dates of his two Southern California shows. Stone performs at the Anaheim House of Blues on Friday, April 25, and at the club's Sunset Strip location on Saturday, April 26.
Sly and the Family Stone became famous for making some of the most euphoric, genre-busting music of the late 1960s and early 1970s -- songs such as "Family Affair," "Stand," "Dance to the Music" and "I Want to Take You Higher" -- but the group's leader was also notorious as the slipperiest of stars: There were missed concerts, ugly drug escapades, arrests, promoter feuds and nasty infighting in the band. The music of the Family Stone was transcendent in the 1960s, but, by the middle of the following decade, the dream was over and Stone was on his own and living on vapors.
There were comeback attempts and albums with somewhat pleading titles ("Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I'm Back" in 1976 and three years later "Back on the Right Track"), but the arc of his story was turning grim, and he became more and more reclusive.
Now, he says, he wants to rejoin the world of everyday people.
"I am ready to show people what I can do," Stone said, sipping a double margarita and smiling that familiar toothy grin, although the 1960s towering afro is long gone along with his funky saunter. His posture and movement show the damage of the years when he was living especially hard. Stone's chin never leaves his collarbone when he talks and there's a tremor and hitch to his collarbones. The hunched 65-year-old R&B icon apologized to the photographer who had come to shoot his portrait.
"I'm like this because I fell off a cliff," he said, referring to a spill he said he took "walking in my yard" in Beverly Hills.
There's a sense that Stone went over the edge plenty of times in the years when he was a J.D. Salinger of funk.
It's hard to pin down the facts with Stone, and it wasn't made easier by the fact that he did a chunk of this interview with his hands on a keyboard and speaking into a vocoder synthesizer that turned his words into trippy music -- it was like carrying on a conversation with Disneyland's Main Street Electrical Parade. "Can you understand me? Can . . . you . . . understand me? That's goooooood."
Stone, who rarely does interviews, did this one for a reason that's of considerable importance to him. He wants to mount a world tour and he's back with some of the original Family Stone members: trumpet player Cynthia Robinson, saxophonist Jerry Martini and Sister Rose Stone. Right now he's got just four dates booked, the first of them Friday at the House of Blues on the Sunset Strip, followed the next night at the chain's Anaheim site.
More than that, he wants to prove himself to the music industry, get in the studio with many of the stars he's influenced and hook a young audience.
Stone always has been one quirky cat, but he seemed neither scattered nor feeble this day. He said the only real regret is letting down fans in the past. "I got in fights with promoters, and I had a real attitude then -- well, I kind of still do but not the same -- so I walked away. But I forgot the people in the audience, the people who loved the music. The music meant a lot to people, and it comes with a responsibility."
Stone's longtime manager, Jerry Goldstein, is still with him, but this year the singer brought in Charles Richardson, an old friend, to be his personal manager, and that led directly to the new club shows, which include May dates in Minneapolis and Chicago. Stone has also been increasingly active in the studio, including sessions with funk giant George Clinton and has, according to Richardson, "20 years' worth of amazing material that he can work on." The singer himself says much of that work has been influenced by the hip-hop era.
Richardson said that promoters have made it clear that Stone is a commodity if he can prove with the club shows that he and his band can bottle up the old magic. Sales to the shows have been sluggish. "If Sly shows he can go the distance, we're told that the world is his oyster," Richardson said. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member has also reached out to two other original Family Stone members -- his brother, Freddie, and drummer Greg Errico -- and they may join the revival effort after the club dates, Richardson said.
SYLVESTER STEWART was born in Denton, Texas, where the official town motto is "north of ordinary," but he grew up in Vallejo in the Bay Area, which in the 1960s could have been called "east of weird." His music career was a family affair right from the get-go. He was the second of five children, and he and Freddie, Rose and Vaetta were a gospel group called the Stewart Four and even cut a single in 1952.
"When I was 4, I had a job singing with Sam Cooke on a church show in Oakland Auditorium," Stone said, his fingers trailing across the keyboard as he talked. "I remember people ran down the aisles, and I didn't know about the consequences or applause or celebration. I didn't know what music did to people. So I started running. It scared me. That was the first chance I got to see the response you could get from an audience by performing. Since then, I got that same feeling in a way, sometimes. You know: Run."