Stone is at work but he keeps it on the sly
Living among the cool, sweet sloping vineyards here, Sly Stone is at least as secluded now as he was for three decades in the warm, celebrity-dotted Hollywood Hills. But he may be about to come down to his adoring fans for something more than his brief and elusive appearance at the Grammy Awards at the Shrine Auditorium last February.
The new Family Stone band, so named by Stone, will appear Saturday at the House of Blues in Anaheim. This is not the group Stone piloted through a string of hit singles and albums from 1968 to ’73. That legendary group began to implode even before its final hit at least in part because of Stone’s erratic behavior, both public and private.
Still singing the songs of the old, the new Family Stone is headed by Sly’s youngest sister, Vet Stone. It includes Cynthia Robinson, trumpet player from the original group; Lisa Stone, daughter of Sly and Vet’s older sister Rose; and seven other young players. Sly himself is not in the band’s lineup. But he’s planning on attending the Anaheim performance.
“I’ve been writing songs, new songs,” Stone, 62, said in an instantly familiar bass-baritone, relaxing in a seat beside his kitchen table. “Some are on tape, some on paper, and some on tape and paper.”
It’s been more than two decades since Sly has allowed the media to visit him, and almost as long since the last time he performed more than a song fragment in public. On a crisp New Year’s Day, he sat down for an interview at his large country home. After a handshake and a shared holiday greeting, he responded warmly and casually to a dozen or so questions. Wearing a knit cap and loose, comfortable clothing, he looked much mellower than the flashy, Mohawked specter who showed up at the Grammys. Asked whether he might join the new Family Stone on stage this weekend, he leaned his head on his hand and smiled suggestively.
Sly’s intimates, few in number, report that he rarely leaves his isolated property, except for the occasional shopping trip. Although he is said to be taking good care of his health, he hasn’t much availed himself of the equipment in his exercise room, instead working late into the night on his Korg Oasys keyboard synthesizer, in his studio.
Some of those labors may be showcased at the House of Blues on Saturday, and more completely on an album due this summer on Sly’s own PhattaDatta record label. (In the meantime, Sony BMG plans to begin reissuing the original Sly & the Family Stone catalog on CD in March.)
Years of reclusiveness were part of his response to negative media attention three decades ago. His reputation for missing performances also damaged his standing with fans and concert presenters, as did his cocaine-related convictions in the 1980s. Stone opted to retreat within the walls of his Hollywood Hills mansion, work on his music and let the world go by.
Sister Vet had in mind Stone’s unstoppable and prolific love affair with music when she helped him move north last year, after the Grammy salute to Sly. She positioned him not far from her own place in Vallejo, the small city where she was raised in the 1950s as Vaetta Stewart, along with Sylvester (Sly) and their three music-making siblings, Loretta, Rose and Freddie.
“I was taking him on the walk-through,” Vet recounted about Sly’s first visit to the house in Napa County, “and there’s this lake by the side.... And he pointed to it and said, ‘I could write a song right here.’ And I thought, ‘Whew! Wow! This is right, this is his home.’ ”
For both siblings, and others of the Stewarts, the move has been a family affair. “Before my mom and dad [died], they told me, ‘Go and get your brother,’ and that’s exactly what I did,” said Vet.
“I went to L.A., and told him what Mom and Dad told me, and he thought about it and said, ‘Find me a house. I’m ready to come home.’ ”
Does Vet consider the wine country an improvement over the Southland? “Oh, yes. The area, for one thing, is just beautiful. He’s got more privacy, it’s larger.... And he has space to put all of what I call his toys, his bikes [motorcycles] and things.”
“I see a lot of them now,” said Sly about the members of the extended Stewart family, “and they always have music on their minds. It takes more of the time up than conversation.”
Among his visitors for the New Year’s weekend was daughter Phun, a tall, graceful young woman resembling her mother, Cynthia Robinson. Phun, the mother of two of Sly’s grandchildren, sings urban contemporary music.
Her father has been credited (and his band extensively sampled) as a potent influence on hip-hop, as well as on funk, soul, jazz fusion and rock. The diverse artists who sought him out included Miles Davis, Bobby Womack and George Clinton. Contemporary R&B; stars John Legend and Joss Stone (no relation) are up for a Grammy this year for their recording (with Van Hunt) of Sly’s “Family Affair.” They performed the song on one of two albums of Sly & the Family Stone material recently distributed by Starbucks, and were among the medley of young artists who dominated the Grammy tribute. Of that performance, Vet said, “I didn’t think it was necessarily his platform. I thought it made stars of other people.”
Aside from reviving his own recorded output, Sly now wants to disseminate his new songs through his family. “My daughter, maybe my son, my nieces, and a grand-niece [are] all willing to do what it takes.” His sister Vet had considerable experience with his classic material, as a backup singer for the original Family Stone and later as part of the trio Little Sister, which Sly produced and wrote for.
Her new Family Stone is the only performing ensemble which Sly has authorized to present his music, and he assures that “they do it perfect.” He witnessed them in 2005 at L.A.'s Knitting Factory, for which he outfitted his sister in leather and transported her on the back of one of his motorcycles.
Longtime fans “tell me that [the older material] brings back memories that they thought they’d lost,” said Vet.
“It brings back clarity to them.... They tell me all types of stories. ‘I was getting engaged when this song came out,’ or ‘When I was getting divorced, Sly was singing, “For me to stay here/I gotta be me.” ’ “
The new Family Stone also plans to introduce some of Sly’s latest creations. “Before, my songs had a lot to do with dealing with unnecessary fighting, and that’s still the case,” said Sly, offering a sample from one of his new lyrics: “When you wind up/ Making your mind up/ That’s when you find up/ Instead of down.”
He hopes to give the public, including those who turn out to see Vet’s group this weekend, tangible proof that “I’m still doing music [that’s] still representative of the truth.”
Bay Area writer Jeff Kaliss is working on a biography of Sly & the Family Stone.