Brothers Sly and singer/guitarist Freddie Stone combined their bands (Sly & the Stoners and Freddie & the Stone Souls) at the end of 1966. Sly and Freddie Stone, trumpeter Cynthia Robinson, drummer Gregg Errico, saxophonist Jerry Martini, and bassist Larry Graham completed the original lineup; Sly and Freddie's sister, singer/keyboardist Rose Stone, joined within a year. This collective recorded five Top 10 hits and four groundbreaking albums, which greatly influenced the sound of American pop music, soul, R&B, funk, and hip hop music. In the preface of his 1998 book For the Record: Sly and the Family Stone: An Oral History, Joel Selvin sums up the importance of Sly & the Family Stone's influence on African American music by stating "there are two types of black music: black music before Sly Stone, and black music after Sly Stone". The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.
During the early 1970s, the band switched to a grittier funk sound, which was as influential on the music industry as their earlier work. The band began to fall apart during this period because of drug abuse and ego clashes; consequently, the fortunes and reliability of the band deteriorated, leading to its dissolution in 1975. Sly Stone continued to record albums and tour with a new rotating lineup under the "Sly & the Family Stone" name from 1975 to 1983. In 1987, Sly Stone was arrested and sentenced for cocaine use, after which he went into effective retirement.
While attending high school, Sylvester and Freddie joined student bands. One of Sylvester's high school musical groups was a doo-wop act called The Viscaynes, in which he and a Filipino teenager were the only non-white members. The Viscaynes released a few local singles, and Sylvester recorded several solo singles under the name "Danny Stewart".
By 1964, Sylvester had become Sly Stone, a disc jockey for San Francisco R&B radio station KSOL, where he included white performers such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones into his playlists. During the same period, he worked as a record producer for Autumn Records, producing for San Francisco-area bands such as The Beau Brummels and The Mojo Men. One of the Sylvester Stewart-produced Autumn singles, Bobby Freeman's "C'mon and Swim", was a national hit record. Stewart recorded unsuccessful solo singles while at Autumn.
Vaetta Stewart wanted to join the band as well. She and her friends, Mary McCreary and Elva Mouton, had a gospel group called The Heavenly Tones. Sly recruited the teenagers directly out of high school to become Little Sister, Sly & the Family Stone's background vocalists. CBS Records executive David Kapralik signed the group to CBS' Epic Records label. The Family Stone's first album, A Whole New Thing, was released in october 1967 to critical acclaim, particularly from musicians such as Mose Allison and Tony Bennett.
Kapralik suggested that Sly try to write and record a hit record, and he and the band reluctantly provided the single "Dance to the Music". Upon its december 1967 release, "Dance to the Music" became a widespread ground-breaking hit, and was the band's first charting single, reaching #8 on the Billboard Hot 100. Just before the release of "Dance to the Music", Rose Stone joined the group as a vocalist and a keyboardist. Rose's brothers had invited her to join the band from the beginning, but she initially had been reluctant to leave her steady job at a local record store.
Sly & the Family Stone began to tour across the country, and were well-known for their energetic performances and unique costuming. The Dance to the Music album went on to decent sales, but the follow-up, Life, was not as successful commercially . In September 1968, the band embarked on its first overseas tour, to England. That tour was cut short after Graham was arrested for possession of marijuana, and also because of disagreements with concert promoters.
The lyrics for the band's songs were usually pleas for peace, love, and understanding among people. These rallies against vices such as racism, discrimination, and self-hate were underscored by the lineup for and onstage appearance of the band. European Americans Gregg Errico and Jerry Martini were members of the band at a time when integrated performance bands were virtually unheard of; integration had only recently become enforced by law. Females Cynthia Robinson and Rosie Stone played instruments onstage, rather than just providing vocals or serving as visual accompaniment for the male members. The band's gospel-styled singing endeared them to black audiences; their rock music elements and wild costuming—including Sly's large Afro and tight leather outfits, Rose's blond wig, and the other members' loud psychedelic clothing—caught the attention of mainstream audiences.
Although "Dance to the Music" was the band's only hit single until late 1968, the influences of that single and the Dance to the Music and Life albums were heard across the music industry. The smooth, piano-based "Motown sound" was out; "psychedelic soul" was in. Rock-styled guitar lines similar to the ones Freddie Stone played began appearing in the music of artists such as The Isley Brothers ("It's Your Thing") and Diana Ross & the Supremes ("Love Child"). Larry Graham invented the "slapping" technique of bass guitar playing, which became synonymous with funk music. Some musicians changed their sound completely to co-opt that of Sly & the Family Stone, most notably Motown in-house producer Norman Whitfield, who took his main act The Temptations into "psychedelic soul" territory starting with the Grammy-winning "Cloud Nine" in 1968. The early work of Sly & the Family Stone was also a significant influence on the music of Michael Jackson and The Jackson 5, The Undisputed Truth, George Clinton & Parliament/Funkadelic, Arrested Development, and The Black Eyed Peas.
The success of Stand! secured Sly & the Family Stone a performance slot at the landmark Woodstock Music and Art Festival. The band performed their set during the early-morning hours of August 17 1969; their performance was said to be one of the best shows of the festival. A new non-album single, "Hot Fun in the Summertime"/"Fun," was released the same month and went to number two on the U.S. pop charts (peaking in October, after the summer of 1969 had already ended). In 1970, following the release of the Woodstock film documentary, the single of "Stand!" and "I Want to Take You Higher" was reissued with the latter song now the a-side; it reached the Top 40.
After moving to the Los Angeles area in fall 1969, Sly Stone and his bandmates became heavy users of illegal drugs, primarily cocaine and PCP. As the members became increasingly focused on drug use and partying (Sly Stone carried a violin case filled with illegal drugs wherever he went), recording slowed significantly. Between summer 1969 and fall 1971, the band released only one single, "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" / "Everybody Is a Star", released in December 1969. Although "Star" was another positive song in the vein of "Everyday People," the single's lead side featured an angry, bitter Sly & the Family Stone, who declared in unison that they could no longer pretend to be something they were not (peaceful, loving, and happy) and disrespectfully thanked the audience "for letting me be myself again. "Thank You" reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in February 1970.
To appease fan demand for new songs, Epic began re-releasing material. A Whole New Thing was reissued with a new cover, and several of the Family Stone's most popular recordings were packaged into the band's first Greatest Hits album. Greatest Hits reached number two on The Billboard 200 in 1970.
During this period, Sly Stone negotiated a production deal with Atlantic Records, resulting in his own imprint, Stone Flower Productions. Stone Flower released four singles, including one by R&B artist Joe Hicks, one by a group called 6IX, and two pop Top 40/R&B Top 10 singles by Little Sister: "You're the One" and "Somebody's Watching You", a cover of a song from Stand!. For unclear reasons, Sly gradually withdrew his attention from Stone Flower, and the label was closed in 1971. Little Sister's "Somebody's Watching You" is one of the first popular recordings to feature the use of a drum machine for its rhythm track.
After the release of Riot, additional lineup changes took place. In early 1972, Jerry Martini inquired to Sly and his managers about monies due to him; saxophonist Pat Rizzo was hired as a potential replacement for Martini if he ever became suspicious of the band's business practices again. Both Rizzo and Martini remained in the band. Later that year, the tension between Sly Stone and Larry Graham reached its peak. A post-concert brawl broke out between Graham's entourage and Sly's entourage; Bubba Banks and Eddie Chin, having heard that Larry had hired a hit man to kill Sly, assaulted Graham's associates. Graham and his wife climbed out of a hotel window to escape, and Pat Rizzo gave them a ride to safety. Unable to continue working with Sly, Graham immediately quit the Family Stone and went on to start Graham Central Station, a successful band in the same vein as Sly & the Family Stone. After a brief period with Bobby Womack as a stand-in bass player, Graham's place in the band was filled by nineteen-year-old Rusty Allen.
Its follow-up, Small Talk, was released in 1974 to mixed reviews and low sales. The first Small Talk single, "Time For Livin'", became the band's final Top 40 hit single. "Loose Booty", the second single, peaked at number 84.
Rose Stone was pulled out of the band by Bubba Banks, who was by then her husband. She began a solo career, recording a Motown-style album under the name Rose Banks in 1976. Freddie Stone joined Larry Graham's group, Graham Central Station, for a time; after collaborating with his brother one last time in 1979 for Back on the Right Track, he retired from the music industry and eventually became the pastor of the Evangelist Temple Fellowship Center in Vallejo, California. Little Sister was also dissolved; Mary McCrary married Leon Russell and worked with him on music projects. Andy Newmark became a successful session drummer, playing with Roxy Music, B. B. King, Steve Winwood and others.
Sly was signed by Warner Bros. Records and recorded Back On The Right Track (1979). Although the album featured contributions from Freddie and Rose Stone, Sly remained unable to return to the success of his late '60s and early '70s fame. He toured with George Clinton and Funkadelic during the late 1970s and early 1980s, and also appeared on the 1981 Funkadelic album The Electric Spanking of War Babies. That year, Clinton and Sly began work on a new Sly Stone album; however, recording halted when Clinton and Funkadelic disputed with and left Warner Bros. Records in late 1981. When Sly disappeared into self-seclusion, producer Stewart Levine completed the album, which was released as Ain't But the One Way in 1983. The album sold poorly and received mixed critical reception. Overcome by drug addictions, Sly Stone disappeared from the limelight and, at the insistence of his old friend Bobby Womack, entered drug rehabilitation in 1984. Sly continued sporadically releasing new singles and collaborations until a 1987 arrest and conviction for cocaine possession and use. After being released from prison, Sly stopped releasing music altogether.
Since the mid-1990s, various Family Stone members have collaborated on projects with other members of the band. On May 25 1997, Sinbad's Soul Music Festival was held in Aruba. One of the performances reunited four members of the Family Stone: Larry Graham, Rose Stone, Cynthia Robinson, and Jerry Martini. Robinson and Martini joined Graham Central Station when Larry Graham revived it later that same year, and the band toured with Prince, a noted admirer of Sly & the Family Stone. On her own, Rose Stone provided guest vocals to Fishbone's 2000 cover of "Everybody Is a Star", which also features vocals by Gwen Stefani. The cover was included on the album Fishbone & the Familyhood Nextperience Present: The Psychotic Friends Nuttwerx, released on March 21, 2000.
In 2003, the members of the original Family Stone, except Sly Stone and Larry Graham, reunited to record a sixteen-song studio album. By 2005, Vet Stone, Cynthia Robinson, and Rose Stone's daughter Lisa Stone were in a band simply called Family Stone, whose debut album is being produced by Sly Stone. The band was formerly called Phunk Phamily Affair and was renamed by Sly in December 2005. Jerry Martini also maintained a band called FamilyStoneExperience. Several Sly & The Family Stone alumni joined the tour, including Greg Errico, Cynthia Robinson, Dawn Silva, and Gail Muldrow. FamilyStoneExperience joined several festivals with James Brown and George Clinton. Both acts served to carry on the legacy of Sly & the Family Stone, and performed both Family Stone songs and original material as parts of their respective repertoires.
Following the Grammy performance, Rose Stone, Cynthia Robinson, and Jerry Martini decided the time was right for a reunion tour. Together with modern funk musicians, they took the stage as The Original Family Stone. Their tour was scheduled through 2007, and has taken them to over seventy-five cities through Europe and the U.S.
During a series of European dates in July 2007, Sly Stone himself joined the Family Stone on tour, although he only briefly appeared onstage during the performances. . The line up for the European shows in July included four original members of the Fresh era line-up: Sly Stone, Cynthia Robinson, Pat Rizzo, and Sly's sister Vet Stone. During the tour, Sly seemed to improve his performances and a Paris concert was the first one to get positive reviews from critics.
A Sly & The Family Stone tribute album, Different Strokes By Different Folks, was released on July 12, 2005 by Starbucks' Hear Music label. The project features cover versions of the band's songs, songs which sample the original recordings, and songs that do both. The artists included The Roots ("Star", which samples "Everybody Is a Star"), Maroon 5, Arrested Development ("Everyday People"), John Legend, Joss Stone & Van Hunt ("Family Affair"); the Black Eyed Peas' will.i.am ("Dance to the Music"), and Steven Tyler and Robert Randolph ("I Want to Take You Higher"). Epic Records' version of the tribute album (with two additional covers: "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey" and "Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Again)") was released on February 7, 2006. The version of "Family Affair" included on the album won the 2007 Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals.
Sony BMG, the current owners of the Epic Records catalog, commemorated Sly & the Family Stone's 40th anniversary in 2007 by re-issuing the band's first seven albums in limited print runs on compact disc, remastered and expanded with bonus tracks, leaving their late '70s material, still without reissue. The remastered albums were made available for purchase both separately and as part of a boxed set entitled The Collection, and can also be purchased through digital download as well.
The tribute began halfway through the Grammy Awards ceremony, and was introduced by comedian Dave Chappelle. It featured Nile Rodgers, Joss Stone, Van Hunt, and John Legend performing "Family Affair"; Fantasia and Devin Lima performing "If You Want Me to Stay"; Adam Levine and Ciara performing "Everyday People"; will.i.am performing "Dance to the Music"; and Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith with Robert Randolph performing "I Want to Take You Higher".
After the first half of "I Want to Take You Higher", the Family Stone took the stage alongside the other musicians, and Tyler called backstage "Hey, Sly; let's do it the way we used to do it!" Sporting a blonde mohawk hairdo, sunglasses, and a silver lamé suit, Sly Stone emerged and contributed vocals and keyboards to a continuation of "I Want To Take You Higher." Three minutes into the performance, Sly tossed a wave to the audience and exited the stage, leaving the Family Stone and the guest performers to complete the number alone.
Sly's unusual appearance and brief performance garnered highly mixed reviews and was covered throughout the press. An Associated Press report referred to Sly as the "J. D. Salinger of funk" and simply referred to the performance as being "bizarre". MTV News was less positive about the tribute performance: "The Grammy performance—Sly's first with the original Family Stone since 1971—was a halting, confused affair and a complete disservice to his music." Several people, however, were more positive about the performance, including another AP report, which stated that "nineteen years after his last live performance, Sly Stone proved he's still able to steal the show."