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Awesome Men Throughout History: Sly Stone

Sly

I’ve talked about crazy musicians before (and probably started those columns the same way I’m starting this one), but they’ve generally been underground or outsider artists whose, uh, quirks stood in the way of their potential success. This week’s Awesome Man is different, because Sylvester Stewart (aka Sly Stone) was wildly successful and is still regarded as a funk visionary, and he’s as weird and unstable as Hasil Adkins and Esquerita ever were.

Sly more than earned the praise he gets from people in the music industry. Raised in a deeply religious household that encouraged musical expression, Sly was a prodigy who had mastered the drums, bass, guitar, and keyboards by the time he was eleven, and was already an experienced musician when he was in high school.

Sly also understood the value of a fully integrated band—racially, sexually (both in terms of gender and preference), and stylistically—before a lot of other musicians, and was able to put those dynamics to work as a bandleader. His best known band, Sly and the Family Stone, was a psychedelic soul powerhouse that, along with George Clinton and James Brown, invented funk in the 1970s. Their biggest hits (“Dance to the Music,” “Everyday People,” etc.) might sound quaint now because we’ve heard them in so many commercials and movie soundtracks, but in his own time, Sly was dynamite.

Sly was also one of the first black musicians to sell a lot of albums as opposed to singles, and his songs never lost their groove, even as they got more socially and politically conscious.

As with many creative people, Sly was and continues to be his own worst enemy. With success came drugs and groupies, and Sly spent more time in the snow than Lindsey Vonn, if you catch my drift. His own record label had to bribe him with an extra $1 million in cash to finish an album, and his presence at his own gigs became erratic at best; my mom considers herself lucky because she went to a Family Stone concert and Sly actually showed up. George Clinton, certainly no stranger to drugs or odd behavior, once said that “Sly has done so much that he’ll never fully land on planet Earth again.” That’s like Ozzy Osbourne telling you to speak up because you’re mumbling.

Sly also had dictatorial, Captain Beefheart moments as a bandleader, once making Bobby Womack play for six days without sleep for the album There’s a Riot Going On.
These days, Sly is something of a recluse; he’s still writing music, but he rarely makes public appearances and it’s rumored that he lives in a van. Whether it’s down by the river or not, I can’t say. But, total headcase or not, Sly is a legit musical icon whose work is still relevant today (he’s widely sampled by DJs and rap groups), and he was definitely an influence on every black musician that came after him.

But enough talk. Let’s dance!

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.

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