Story Highlights• Sly and the Family Stone albums being re-released
• Group made "truth music," says Rose Stone
• Group hit top, then crumbled; Sly Stone struggled
• Sly Stone recently played Vegas concert; comeback in works?
By Todd Leopold
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(CNN) -- On March 31, Sly Stone played a live show at the Flamingo Las Vegas.
Stone played for more than 30 minutes and then, according to comedian George Wallace, who booked and presented the musician, "went down the center aisle and thanked everybody."
He beat the odds, too: Vegas bookmakers were offering 45-1 that Stone, who has missed dozens of concerts over his career, would be a no-show yet again.
Could one of rock's most reclusive, sometimes bizarre, geniuses be back?
It would be fortuitous timing for the leader of Sly and the Family Stone, as the group's first seven albums -- including 1969's landmark "Stand!" and 1971's "There's a Riot Goin' On" -- have been remastered and re-released by Sony/Legacy. The re-release comes just over 40 years after the band formed at the one-time Sylvester Stewart's house in San Francisco.
The band, which combined pop, R&B, psychedelia and nascent funk into a still-influential brew, was "A Whole New Thing" -- as its first album asserted -- from the beginning.
"I think we realized back then we were doing something different," says Greg Errico, the band's drummer, in a phone interview. "We knew it was unique."
Indeed, Sly and the Family Stone was like nothing that had ever appeared in pop music. Besides the mix of musical styles, there was a mix of people: Stewart, his brother Freddie and sister Rose, Cynthia Robinson, Larry Graham, Errico and Jerry Martini, a blend of races (all but Errico and Martini were black) and sexes.
The arrangement was indicative of Sly's vision of the peace-and-love times, says Rose Stone.
"He had a vision [of] how we are as a family," she says in an interview. The siblings had played together for years; the band was simply an extension of their sound, she adds. "To us it was family music."
Sly Stone had already established a career in the music business, first as a Bay Area DJ and then as a record producer, handling the Beau Brummels ("Laugh Laugh") and the Great Society (Grace Slick's pre-Jefferson Airplane band), among others.
"A Whole New Thing" was followed by 1968's "Dance to the Music," which spawned a hit single in the title track. The next year, the group hit No. 1 with the single "Everyday People," which coined the phrase "different strokes for different folks."
"The message was as integrated as the music," says Phillip Naylor, a Marquette University professor who teaches a course on the history of rock and roll, noting the sharp arrangements and optimistic lyrics.
The group became one of the biggest in the country, giving an acclaimed performance at Woodstock and following the album "Stand!" with a No. 2 single, "Hot Fun in the Summertime." It happened so fast, says Rose Stone, that it took months before the group realized what had hit it.
"At the time, Woodstock wasn't what it ended up being. It was just another gig ... [though] it was quite an experience in many ways," she recalls, remembering the sun coming up over a sea of people. "It didn't hit us that we were famous until we sold out Madison Square Garden [more than once]."
'Poison' in the way
At this point, the story curdles -- as did the times.
"Something happened in 1970, after Woodstock," says Naylor.
The band was falling apart, Errico recalls. Sly Stone moved to Los Angeles and fell in with a different crowd. He was being pulled apart, his dream of integration dying. He started doing more drugs, and he started missing shows.
Sly's splintering outlook can be summarized in perhaps the group's greatest single, the bitter "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" backed with the optimistic "Everybody Is a Star."
"He sat down to write a song and poison spilled out," writes Dave Marsh of "Thank You" in his singles compendium, "The Heart of Rock and Soul."
It went to No. 1 anyway, Marsh adds.
Then the band went almost two years before the release of "There's a Riot Goin' On," one of the bleakest albums ever to top the charts. On the album, Sly Stone sounds disconnected, drugged-out; the music is painful, if funky. The lyrics to the song "Family Affair," which became the group's third No. 1 single, are representative: "One child grows up to be/Somebody that just loves to learn/And another child grows up to be/Somebody you'd just love to burn."
The album was largely recorded -- often not with his bandmates -- at Stone's rented mansion in Los Angeles' Coldwater Canyon, where he would play for days, high on narcotics, amid "lots of guns, rifles, machine guns [and] big dogs," recalled the home's owner, John Phillips of the Mamas and Papas, in a memoir.
"That was the point I left the band," says Errico. "There were a lot of forces pulling him a lot of different ways, including chemicals. Before that we lived in the same city. We stuck together."
After "Riot," Graham and Errico left. The band put out "Fresh" (1973), which hit with the song "If You Want Me to Stay," but after "Small Talk" (1974), the group disintegrated. Sly became one of rock 'n' roll's great casualties, occasionally popping up in the news for drug arrests or side projects, practically unseen until his bizarre appearance at the 2006 Grammys in a bleached-blond Mohawk haircut, metallic greatcoat, sunglasses and a giant "SLY" belt buckle. He played keyboards on "I Want to Take You Higher" and vanished before the song was over.
The music has never been more influential. Larry Graham's plucked-bass playing became a funk model; the group's arrangements have been sampled countless times. Rick James, Prince, Public Enemy and the Roots are among Sly and the Family Stone's many musical children.
Rose Stone isn't surprised. Describing the group's output as "truth music," she adds, "Truth never changes. Truth always sets people free."
Wallace is hopeful for Sly Stone's future.
"He was totally on his game," he says of the recent concert. "After the show, it was like, 'Oh boy, I'm back.' " (Sly is scheduled to play a San Jose, California, festival on July 7, according to a press release issued Tuesday by Franco Presents concert promoters.)
Errico and Rose Stone, who have their own projects now -- Errico as a producer for musician Jamie Davis, Rose Stone with film, TV and gospel work -- are more cautious.
"He's fragile, but I believe he still wants to kick some musical booty," says Errico, who has stayed in touch with the frontman. "Sly tells me that he wants to get back up to speed and get the original group back together.
"It saddens me that it splintered," he adds. "I hope it can be what it should be, or leave it alone."
Sly and the Family Stone had three No. 1 hits: "Everyday People," "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" and "Family Affair."
SLY & THE FAMILY STONEFormed: December 1966, San Francisco, California
Original members: Sylvester Stewart (Sly Stone), Freddie Stewart, Rose Stone, Larry Graham, Greg Errico, Cynthia Robinson, Jerry Martini
Albums: "A Whole New Thing" (1967); "Dance to the Music" (1968); "Life" (1968); "Stand!" (1969); "There's a Riot Goin' On" (1971); "Fresh" (1973); "Small Talk" (1974)
Hit singles include: "Dance to the Music," "Everyday People," "Hot Fun in the Summertime," "I Want to Take You Higher," "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)," "Family Affair," "Runnin' Away," "If You Want Me to Stay"
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