In the mid-'60s, the division between the races was never more distinct. Despite the emergence of Motown and the assimilation of soul into the musical mainstream, most pop ensembles remained sharply segregated, with musicians of one race or gender rarely performing alongside musicians of another. While bands such as the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Love, and Booker T and the M.G.'s helped change the racial balance, it was Sly and the Family Stone that brought that fully integrated mix to the top of the charts thanks to hit singles such as "Dance to the Music," "I Wanna Take You Higher," and "Everyday People."
When the band took the stage at Woodstock on an August evening in 1969, that fusion of rock and soul made such an indelible impression that its place in music history was instantly assured.
Today, Sly remains an enigmatic presence, rarely seen in public, much less in performance. However, the band carries on, steered by its two surviving original members — saxophone player Jerry Martini and drummer Greg Errico. And though the other original member of the ensemble, trumpet player Cynthia Robinson, passed away last November, she leaves behind the daughter she birthed with Sly — Phunne Stone — to front the band with the same infectious enthusiasm as her father.
"Cynthia and I never quit," Martini insists while speaking by phone from his home in California. "From 1980 to 2000, I did sessions and I was living in Hawaii, but I never quit. I'd come back for HBO specials and different events, including our induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. In 2002, [drummer] Greg Errico and I put together the Family Stone again, and it's been going ever since. It’s been the Family Stone Experience, the Family Stone Project, but it's never been considered a tribute band because it included Hall of Fame members. And we're still going strong."
Today the band also includes bassist and musical director Blaise Sison, multi-instrumentalist Alex Davis, guitarist Nate Wingfield, Jimmy McKinney on keyboards, and Frankie J. on trumpet.
“It’s never stopped,” Martini insists. “Even when I lived in Hawaii, I had a Sly-type band. We have a song on the charts called ‘Do Yo Dance,’ and it’s getting a lot of airplay.”
The inevitable question is: What’s become of Sly himself? Known as one of rock’s true eccentrics, he was notorious for turning up late to shows and being an inconsistent artist at best, partly as a result of drug abuse and other personal vices. In recent years, the tabloids reported he was broke, homeless, and living in a trailer, having become a recluse avoiding the public eye.
“Dirt sells newspapers,” Martini says, dismissing those stories. “He’s an incredible musician and singer. We did a show in Tampa last November, and Sly showed up. He sat down at the piano and did ‘Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).’ A month earlier, he showed up at a gig in New Jersey and did ‘If You Want Me to Stay.’ He’s around. He’s not an invalid. He doesn’t look as good as he used to, but then again, neither do I. I’m the oldest of the bunch. I’m 73.”
So is there any chance Sly might someday reemerge and play with the band again?
“He doesn’t have to,” Martini argues, although he holds out hope that with the band’s 50th anniversary coming up this year, a reunion may be possible. “He already did it. If nobody sees him ever again, his songs will always be famous, and they’ll always be played. There are three generations of fans who still know all the songs. When we played in Australia last year, there were kids who had never heard the music, and by the third song, they were all singing along. The music is timeless. Sly doesn’t ever have to play another note, but his music will still live on."
The Virginia Key GrassRoots Festival, with the Family Stone, Donna the Buffalo, the Wood Brothers, and others. February 18 through 21 at Historic Virginia Key Beach Park, 4020 Virginia Beach Dr., Key Biscayne. Tickets cost $25 to $120 via virginiakeygrassroots.com.