Waiting for Sly
Grammy producers are betting big that the reclusive Sly Stone will show up to perform on the telecast.
Sly Stone, right, hangs with Arista Records Clive Davis in the heyday of a groundbreaking career. (Artista Records)
The reason for the sweat: Ehrlich is betting big on Sly Stone.
For years, the Grammy producer has called and wooed Stone in hopes of bringing the mercurial music icon to the show. This year it worked. A tribute to Stone is a centerpiece of tonight's Staples Center show, airing at 8 p.m. on CBS. That's the good news. The problem is, um, well ... Sly Stone.
As a songwriter, singer, cultural maverick and high-integrity 1960s icon, Stone is about as cool as it gets — the Miles Davis of Woodstock, the man who carved the template for much of today's familiar confluence of hip-hop, funk, soul and rock. But he also has not done an interview since 1987, and his legendary no-show habits make him the fascinating pop-culture amalgamation of Howard Hughes and Prince. His last major public appearance was in 1993, when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Last year, he attended a Family Stone tribute band show at the Knitting Factory here in L.A., but wore a motorcycle helmet the entire time.
Needless to say, his return to the scene makes great television — if he actually shows up, that is.
"He is magic," Ehrlich said a week ago, "and there's that whole J.D. Salinger thing. People want to see him."
On Monday, Ehrlich seemed far less giddy. Rehearsals had hummed along all day (even when one of Keith Urban's amps caught fire, the veteran crew took it in stride). After dinner, when it came time for Stone's tribute, the day came to a screeching halt as a stage full of big-name musicians cooled their heels and waited for Stone.
An hour ticked by.
"I heard he's in the building," said Walter C. Miller, director of the show. "Well, supposedly, he's in the building."
Shows such as the Grammys are billed as forums for anything-can-happen music moments, but, of course, a live television broadcast of its scope is about as spontaneous as a NASA rocket launch. Four days of rehearsals, 21 stage managers and a legion of publicists are assigned to calculate the magic to the moment.
On Monday, Madonna, Jamie Foxx, Kanye West, Urban and the other big stars were on time and on marks. As Foxx said: "This isn't the Source Awards, right? You show up, you do it and you do it right. This is the Grammys. This is the real thing."
True, but rules of real life and the mortal world may not apply to Stone. The Family Stone shattered and sank in 1975. Among the reasons was Stone himself and his drug and health issues, but he was gaining the aura of an artist too fragile for the strength of his own music. His record label wanted more hits, his band was conflicted over his varied music paths, and there was even pressure in the late 1960s from the Black Panther party, which wanted him to more overtly choose one side of the racial line to stand on.
"His music was freedom," said Will.I.Am of the Black Eyed Peas. "Freedom of expression and to say things that people then didn't feel comfortable saying. Things about the relations between white and black folks, what they are and what could be. His music was joy too. I can't wait to see what he looks like."
The Black Eyed Peas star said that as he sat at the foot of the stage. Behind him was Maroon5, last year's best new artist Grammy winner, and John Legend, a favorite in the category this year. There was also British soul singer Joss Stone, Joe Perry of Aerosmith, R&B singer Van Hunt and others. Joss Stone was barefoot and flirting with Adam Levine of Maroon5 as the other artists on stage were noodling, comparing chords. Looking out at the Staples Center floor, all the folding chairs had placards with the faces and names of the stars: Tom Hanks was in the front row, and, not far behind him, Tony Bennett sharing a row with the Neptunes.
And the minutes ticked by. Will.I.Am left.
Finally, a voice came over the arena PA: "Security, please clear the arena."
The assembled musicians again ran through their medley of Stone hits and then ... there he was, in a hooded, camouflage rain slicker, matching pants and 3-inch platform boots. He came to a keyboard at center stage and made eye contact with no one. Still lean, but beneath the hood he seemed smaller than he was in the '60s.
The teleprompter told him how to reintroduce himself to the world: (SLY): Ow Ow Ow.
He sang "I Want to Take You Higher," and his voice was robust and clear. Looking straight down, his chin bounced on his chest. His left hand and wrist were in a cast. From under the hood, he peeked at the musicians next to him, grinned ... and then he was gone. Adam Levine stared at the long lost star like was a museum piece. Perry, beneath a black cowboy hat, smiled and shook his head.
Legend gave the first review of the performance: "It was great — I mean, hey, he showed up."
Afterward, John Cossette, executive producer of the show, looked a bit ashen. Stone sounded great, no doubt, but he also looked a bit ... nutty. "No comment. He's not doing this, he's not hiding out for 15 years to do what you just saw."
He was right. Stone came back and did it again. This time, his plastic pants were tucked into his boots and, at the song's close, he stepped away from the keyboard, bobbed his head and beamed. And then he was gone again.
Ehrlich, like a man who wants to recheck his lottery ticket, called for a third run-through. This time, though, when it came to the point where Stone should have dashed out on stage, there was a long lull and empty air. Finally, a crew member jumped up behind the keyboard and played the part of the enigmatic star.
Two out of three is good — unless the third one is live on the air in front of the world. But maybe it doesn't matter. Young R&B star Van Hunt said afterward that, on stage or not, Stone is a presence. "When he came out, I have to tell you, I didn't even look at him. I couldn't. I mean, it's Sly. I was afraid to look. I don't even think the guy is real."