75. Sly & The Family Stone

Sly & The Family Stone is a rock band from Vallejo, California. Sylvester Stewart, and his siblings Freddie and Rose, were raised in a religious environment, and encouraged to express themselves musically. By 1964, Sylvester had adopted Sly Stone as a stage name, and was a disk jockey at the popular San Francisco soul music station KSOL. Sly and Freddie Stone were both local bandleaders, and decided to combine their bands in early 1967. Their first album A Whole New Thing was critically acclaimed but sold poorly. They achieved mainstream popularity with their first hit single “Dance To The Music”, but it was their first #1 hit “Everyday People” and the following 1969 album Stand which established them as major artists. In addition, the band’s performance was among the highlights of the Woodstock Music Festival.

The band’s rapid decline in the early seventies is often attributed to abuse of cocaine, PCP and other drugs. A dearth of new material after the band’s great successes in 1969 compelled Epic Records to reissue the band’s greatest hits in 1970. Sly Stone became unreliable, missing many performances, and behaving erratically. After a brief renaissance into a darker period of music making, Sly & The Family Stone faded into the annals of history.

SlyFeatPic

Sly & The Family Stone on Wikipedia

Sylvester Stewart, known as “Sly Stone” (b. 1943), singer, songwriter, keyboards, bandleader
Frederick Stewart, known as “Freddie Stone” (b. 1947), guitars, vocals
Rosemary Stewart, known as “Rose (or Rosie) Stone” (b. 1945), keyboards, vocals
Cynthia Robinson (b. 1946), trumpet, vocals
Jerry Martini (b. 1943), saxophone
Larry Graham (b. 1946), bass, vocals
Greg Errico (b. 1948), drums

Richard Supan Offers His Thoughts

“Interesting and sad story. Before becoming a performer, Sylvester Stewart was a disk jockey on KSOL AM 1450. You can hear a show of his online from that time period. I have two live recordings of Sly — from the Ed Sullivan Show and a recent Soul Train DVD release from Time Life. In both videos he is a dynamite performer. He looks very high in the Soul Train performance.

I also saw him perform live at the Stanford (Frost) Amphitheater around 1969-1970. I wanna take you higher. My favorite song is “Dance to the Music”.

Larry Graham left the Family Stone early due to Sly’s drug habit. His work with Graham Central Station, plus some solo efforts were also excellent funk.

A spinoff from Sly’s family, called Little Sister, did an excellent song called “Somebody’s Watching You”, a soul hit in its day. (Note: I prefer the Little Sister version over the Family Stone version).

A tragedy his career was cut short by drugs. I remember a wedding he had in Madison Square Garden and I think he married a white lady. I also remember a song he did in the late eighties with Jesse Johnson called “Crazay”, getting busted with George Clinton for cocaine possession, and recent appearances/tribute on T.V. He has remained much of a recluse the last twenty-five years.

From a historical perspective, Sly was perhaps the Bay Area’s greatest African American performer. His interracial band was unique for the time, and was different from the Stax groups like Booker T. & The M.G.’s. His songs had a lot of political messages in them (“Everyday People”, “Sing A Simple Song”, “Family Affair”). Most important to me in his contributions, his music had a lot of crossover appeal and brought some good soul/funk to white radio. In fact, in high school/college, I really did not consider him a soul performer, but more in the mainstream mode (not as much as Hendrix, but close).”

— Richard Supan

The Glory Days Of Adolescence

My parents divorced during the summer of 1968, and my mother moved us to south Palo Alto, on the corner of Oregon Expressway and Indian Drive, just a couple blocks from the Bayshore Freeway. One of my best friends lived a few blocks away, and my new environment was filled with young families, and children my age. I quickly made new friends who loved sports of all kinds, and entered Jordan Junior High School as a 7th grader.

The next three years were a wonderful time in my life. I played sports with my friends constantly: street football, over the line baseball at Van Auken elementary school, and shooting baskets everywhere. My adolescence coincided with the great musical era around 1970, and Mom would buy me the latest 45 single if I really loved it. My friends and I all loved music, and paid close attention to what was new and exciting. Before girls, before drugs, before responsibility — I remember it so fondly.

Sly & The Family Stone was huge in my neighborhood. Perhaps it was my best friend Tim’s father Bob Gex, who once again led the way by being the first to own Stand! or Sly & The Family Stone’s Greatest Hits. It seems premature to release a greatest hits compilation after just a couple of good records; in retrospect, I learned that the band’s output was inconsistent, and the greatest hits compilation was created to keep their music selling. There was a lot of love and camaraderie in my neighborhood. Compared to today, we had so few things, but we had what we needed. Mom was making seven or eight bucks an hour as an administrative assistant (with an Ivy League degree!) in the Psychology Department at Stanford University.

The Personal Descent Begins

Sly & the Family Stone’s early hits are is so happy and uplifting. His descent into drug addiction is well chronicled, and for a world famous pop musician, there’s no place to hide. Dark songs such as “Family Affair” and “Runnin’ Away” appeared before the band disintegrated, and Stone withdrew from society.

I was introduced to marijuana, then alcohol, in high school. Partying in high school was fun. Maybe a couple of problems, a couple of bad decisions here and there, but I did alright in school and escaped successful and unscathed. I was a good athlete, but only sixteen years old when I graduated. I took a year off from school to grow and try to play basketball in college.

The Corruption By Older Wealthier Friends

That was the year (1975-6) I was introduced to cocaine. A few of us were befriended by an acquaintance of our friend’s older brother. This man was essentially a trust fund baby, the son of a successful northern California doctor. He did not work, and he enjoyed the company of his young, wise-cracking new buddies. We, of course, were drawn to his cool car, his safe party house, and his ability to acquire beer and high quality herb. It wasn’t long before he introduced us to cocaine, suggesting that perhaps we’d like to try something different. Naturally, those first few experiences were nice. Take a little coke and it makes you feel happy, alive, alert, without the psychosis and the compulsion for more. But over the longer term, some of us dove deeper, while others were able to walk away from it. At this stage it was still fun.

But there were already signs of worry. Our rich friend was reckless, and used to engage some shady characters in his quest to develop good drug connections. One night, several of us were kicking back at his house, watching TV, when there was a knock on the door. I was closest to the door and answered. A couple of large black men pushed their way through me and headed to the back room. “Mike! It’s the black guys!”, I cried. Now I was behind the action. The two men walked back, one with his hand in his pocket. Maybe he had a gun, maybe not. They made themselves comfortable, holding us at bay, asking for money while stuffing bags of dope in their pockets. I went into our friend’s bedroom and saw a small gun sitting on his night stand. What if I had grabbed the gun? I could be dead. My whole life could have changed.

The older fellows in our group tried to fight, but were quickly intimidated by the intruders. I suppose the five or six of us could have taken them, but they may have had a gun. After no further incident, they left with whatever they could take. After that, our friend became more paranoid, and moved deeper into cocaine. Many of us began to drift away as best as we could; he only lived a block away from me. Others stayed around a bit longer.

A Childhood Friend Becomes A Dealer

My best friend from 5th and 6th grade, the only friend I kept in touch with from elementary school days in Atherton, had drifted back into in my life. There was a key episode in our lives, when me and a couple of friends were hoarding a quarter gram of coke amongst ourselves, and did not offer him a line to try. At that point he had not experienced cocaine. I think he always resented that, and shortly after developed his own connection to pure pharmaceutical quality coke. Although he came from a prominent, wealthy family, and didn’t need money, he became a small time dealer, inviting friends over at all hours of the night to play backgammon and snort coke. Over the years, because long sessions of cocaine and alcohol sometimes turned me into a manic chatterbox, I became persona non grata at these gatherings, and allowed to his place on rare occasion.

My first couple of years of college went pretty smoothly. I made the varsity basketball team as a freshman, and did well in school. I fell in love for the first time, and the all night cocaine binges were far and few between. No horror stories yet.

Things changed during my junior year, when the inevitable decline in my defenses against cocaine and alcohol began in earnest. I began to make more bad decisions, spent more time obsessed with acquiring and using coke. In the late seventies, Columbian drug cartels supplied American cities with massive amounts of cocaine, and it was easy to acquire. I played basketball so poorly during the fall of 1979, I almost lost my spot on the team. I knew drugs and alcohol were causing problems, and straightened up for the second half of the season. I played the best basketball of my career, averaging 6 points a game and leading my league in free throw shooting percentage. After the basketball season ended, I fell deeply back into addiction, missing a finals exam and barely passing one class. I needed to take a biology class over the summer to be eligible for basketball my senior year.

The Nightmarish Senior Year in College

After a somewhat dicey summer, I willed myself into excellent shape during the fall, and vowed to stay sober throughout the season. I had become a good, smart basketball player, and earned the starting point guard position and co-captaincy of the team. But I could not stay sober. After two surprising wins in Los Angeles to open the season, I went out and enjoyed what seemed to be a few innocuous beers with teammates. By the seventh game that year, I had lost all sense of pride in myself, and stayed up all night before the game, drinking whiskey and snorting coke. I was exhausted, played poorly, and missed a key free throw in the final minute, which contributed directly to losing the game. Although they never admitted it, the coaching staff knew I was hung over, and I lost my starting position. About two weeks later, two hours into New Year’s Day of 1981, I was at a teammate’s home for a team party, and was bitten in the face by their guard dog in a drunken stupor, and never recovered. I hardly played after that. By the end of the school year, I had exhausted my poor father’s bank account; my parents were scared and didn’t know what to do. It is the single greatest tragedy in my life, the lost opportunity I will never forget. For years afterwards, I had a recurring nightmare that I was still eligible for one final season of basketball.

I barely managed to graduate, and moved back to Palo Alto. Shattered by bad experiences, I went the wrong way, still coveting overnight binges of alcohol, cocaine, and productive activities such as all-night Scrabble marathons. My college sweetheart finally lost patience, and issued an ultimatum. After a few months we parted for good. My next girlfriend, a young and beautiful Swede, experienced the depths of my addiction. History paints John as the boyfriend from hell. I tried a 28-day drug rehab in 1985, which was perhaps the turning point in life, though the results weren’t immediate. I began to stay sober on and off for a few months at a stretch. My work performance was mediocre at best; perhaps they tolerated my lackluster performance because of “potential”.

I Broke My Kneecap Playing Ping Pong

Around 1984, I hurt my knee playing ping pong. Believe it or not. I’d had a couple beers, and maybe a couple puffs of weed. Feeling loose and goofy, but very lucid, I was hot at the ping pong table, slamming everything returned my way with authority. On one return to the far side of the table, I dove headlong sideways, executing a perfect cross court winner, but I landed directly on my right knee. It hurt like hell, but after a few minutes, I kept playing long enough to finish the game.

I continued to play full court basketball for three more years before seeing a doctor. My knee was always a bit swollen after the accident, and eventually it became more painful and difficult to play. I finally went to the doctor, who X-rayed the knee and reported that my kneecap had broken into two pieces. Surgery was scheduled on my father’s 60th birthday, August 27th, 1987.

Buying Drugs In East Palo Alto

By then, few friends wanted to party with me. Cocaine use had become a solitary activity. I lived very close to East Palo Alto, an impoverished and dangerous area just across the Bayshore Freeway, a few minutes away. I learned that drugs were easy to acquire there. There were places you could go where street merchants would flag you down and ask what you wanted. Guys would just wave their arms and come running after you. It was frightening; at the very least you could get burned, sold a bag of oregano in the dark for ten or twenty bucks. One time a guy swiped my wallet off the front seat of my car. I had to beg him and his friends to give it back once he had taken the money.

I had lowered myself to making regular trips over there, to buy crack cocaine and marijuana on a street where a basketball friend lived. Thank goodness I never got into serious trouble. Sometimes I was pretty drunk when I went there, and I used awful judgement at times. Friends of friends who owed people money were murdered there.

Sly Stone acts erratically on the Dick Cavett Show.

The Knee Surgery Debacle

My beautiful young girlfriend was running out of patience, but was prepared to take care of me after the surgery. It was a significant surgery, not the typical knee arthroscopy. They had to remove the small (20%) piece of kneecap, then reconnect cartilage to the remaining bone. Then they used an arthroscope to shave the kneecap smooth after all the unnecessary abuse, caused by three years of neglect. The surgery was successful. The day before surgery, I went to East Palo Alto and purchased a couple bags of crack cocaine and marijuana to keep me company after the surgery.

I felt surprisingly lucid and calm after the surgery, so I rolled a joint with both crack and weed in it, and took a couple big drags, just an hour or so after arriving home. A few minutes later, my heart started beating very fast and hard, something that had never happened before. I was very uncomfortable and frightened, the panic only making things worse. Perhaps I should have realized I was already deeply intoxicated on a cocktail of anesthetics. My girlfriend was beside herself with fear; remember, this was just a year after the untimely death of college basketball star Len Bias to a cocaine overdose. I couldn’t calm down, so I got up and started hopping around the apartment on one leg….”Oh!, oh!, oh!, oh my God!” Happy birthday Daddy, your son is dead.

My Own 9/11 Experience

After an hour or so, things calmed down. I can’t remember whether she threw out the drugs, but she was through with me. A couple weeks later, she went on a week-long trip to Cabo San Lucas with her mother. And apparently, I hadn’t fully embraced my fear of death yet. On September 11th, 1987, I spent the night alone with my full complement of drugs: beer, cigarettes, marijuana and crack cocaine. After several hours, around midnight, my heart began to race again, only this time it wouldn’t stop. An hour passed by, and with my heart still racing, I took a long, limping walk around the dark streets of Crescent Park, wondering if this would be the end. After a couple more hours, my heart was still racing abnormally fast. I called 911 and requested an ambulance. I can still remember the female paramedic taking my vital signs (blood pressure: 190/110, heart rate: 110) and screaming at me how stupid I was.

The fear of death finally got my attention. I lost my girlfriend for good, which was probably for the best. Even though my family loved her, the road had always been rocky. I sought out help from a fellow alcoholic at my workplace, and began a six year period of near complete sobriety, with the help of my great friend and A.A. sponsor George C. George C. is no longer with us; after leaving his job and moving home to Louisiana, he died tragically in an accident. He had been sober over twenty years at the time. I owe him so much. By then I feared losing my job for mediocre performance. Being drug tested helped me to stay sober. But there were still five or six more one night episodes when I acquired coke, alcohol and cigarettes (no dope), and spent the night alone in my addictions. I’d then clean up the next morning, and spend another six, twelve, eighteen months sober before slipping once again for a single evening. This was the only period in life where I “successfully” would use for one night, then get right back on the wagon.

But not without one more brush with death; at a minimum, a brush with serious fear and discomfort. During this productive and happy period in my life, I had met Cheryl, the woman who would become my wife. In my great wisdom I decided to have one last cocaine party with a couple of my closest friends, planned for November 1st, 1991, a so-called bachelor party before my upcoming wedding. I arranged to purchase some good cocaine for the occasion. I acquired what I needed the afternoon before, Halloween Day. Cheryl and I were scheduled to attend a Halloween dance party at The Decathlon Club, the health club where we met. Once I scored the coke, I went home to check out the goods. Just a couple lines, that’s all. I never made it to the party. Cheryl waited and waited. Then she called my parents and asked if they had heard from me. She called the highway patrol trying to find me. By this time I was locked away in a motel room for hours of self indulgence. Around four in the morning I called her. By then I had snorted as much coke as I had ever used in one binge, and though a gram and a half doesn’t compare to some stories I have heard, I was feeling uncomfortable and afraid.

I returned home a bit after five, flushed the remaining coke down the toilet, and pleaded with Cheryl to forgive me. I begged her to continue with plans to marry, and promised I would never use drugs again. That was November 1st, 1991, the last time I ever used cocaine.

The Long Lasting Impact On Our Lives

I’ve been married now for twenty-three years, and that evening had a lasting impact on our marriage. She no longer trusted me, and she began to withdraw, less willing to give herself completely to the marriage. I grew frustrated with the lack of attention I received, and after another couple years of sobriety, made a conscious decision to begin drinking and smoking again. I drank and smoked on and off for the next twelve years, and although these were perhaps my most successful and happiest years of partying, it pushed Cheryl further away. She didn’t understand the difference that cocaine made, turning a party night into a death knocking on your door, all-out affair that doesn’t end until the drugs are gone. My consumption was moderate in middle age, just beer drinking and a maintenance buzz, so it was pretty mellow. But Cheryl continued to withdraw further away from me, until there was significant distance between us. I was very lonely, and so was she. Key avenues of communication were lost in the process.

Early on the morning of January 2nd, 2006, I took my last drink and smoked my last cigarette. I haven’t had a drink since. Assuming all goes well for a couple more weeks, I will celebrate five years of sobriety. A.A. plays a significant role in the friends I keep. Still, Cheryl didn’t trust that it was really over until recently, when she realized that perhaps she needs to make adjustments for the marriage to work. It has been a rocky road these past few years, filled with disappointments and resentments. One must conclude that drugs and alcohol, especially cocaine, have had a lasting and damaging affect on the marriage, even though I only used cocaine four or five times since we met in 1989, and never since 1991.

July, 2015 Update

At the time I thought it was my last drink. After five and a half years of sobriety, I returned to smoking and drinking, in the midst of reconciling the pain after an eighteen month separation and serious affair. It started as wanting to try drinking again, but this time it was less playful and more intense. After a year or so relatively carefree experiences, I started to drink heavier than in previous years, and my wife and I argued and fought more than ever before. I became paranoid about my health, and how others perceived me. In late February 2014, I stopped once again, and am currently sober again. My confidence is high once again, and life is once again enjoyable.

It was only a month ago that I thought seriously about trying again. I resisted temptation, with the help of my friends, but it’s a lifelong battle.

Beep

Nearly all of my close friends escaped relatively unscathed from the hard partying lifestyle we fell into. Some became recovering alcoholics, and others transitioned out of the lifestyle as they accepted more responsibility in their lives. The rich older friend disappeared from my life before I left college. There is no love lost.

The last time I saw my elementary school friend was around 1995. He had inherited money, and lived in a lovely neighborhood in Portola Valley. He was so smart, always among the smartest kid in every room, while at the same time arrogant, and very insecure about his looks, that’s for sure. His siblings used to kid him about being fat. By then he had stopped dealing coke, and cocaine was years away from being a part of my life. I never asked him about it, or indicated I wanted any. He looked terrible. He had gained lots of weight, and his skin was a ghastly purplish color. He disappeared into his room several times during my visit, and I knew he was still using. His brother called me on the phone a few weeks later, asking about his sick brother, and whether I had any suggestions about what to do. Then, a couple months later, the brother called once again to say that he had died. At age 37, JGB weighed 354 pounds when he passed, collapsing in front of his bathroom mirror after taking one last whiff of his beloved cocaine.

Epilogue

Even in small doses, just a few years of using a gram or so per week, cocaine can have a devastating impact on one’s life. It destroyed my confidence and self esteem, and compromised my marriage. Imagine if you were Sly Stone, with money and fame, surrounded with sycophants and dealers and thuggish criminals, eager to keep you high all the time. Imagine how much dope those guys were using. Should we sympathize with a young man with all that pressure on his shoulders? Given the pressures and temptations, it’s no surprise that some of our greatest musical heroes became casualties along the way. It must require a great sense of self to navigate through the lifestyle of the famous rock star.

Sly & The Family Stone Song Notes:

1. Clean versions of “Dance To The Music (Live)” and “Music Lover / Higher (Live)” can be found on The Woodstock Experience: Sly & The Family Stone.

2. “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin) (Single)” is the familiar radio version of this essential funk/soul tune. It is hard to find on digital media; a less common take is found on current greatest hits compilations. I recorded this from a YouTube video, but it can also be found on vintage Sly & The Family Stone’s Greatest Hits records.

Sly & The Family Stone Songs:

Everyday People, Sly & The Family Stone ✭✭✭✭
Everybody Is A Star, Sly & The Family Stone ✭✭✭✭

Dance To The Music, Sly & The Family Stone ✭✭✭
Hot Fun In The Summertime, Sly & The Family Stone ✭✭✭
Runnin’ Away, Sly & The Family Stone ✭✭✭
I Want To Take You Higher, Sly & The Family Stone ✭✭✭
I Want To Take You Higher (Single), Sly & The Family Stone ✭✭✭
Family Affair, Sly & The Family Stone ✭✭✭
Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin), Sly & The Family Stone ✭✭✭
Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin) (Single), Sly & The Family Stone ✭✭✭

Music Lover / Higher (Live), Sly & The Family Stone ✭✭
Dance To The Music (Live), Sly & The Family Stone ✭✭
Somebody’s Watching You, Sly & The Family Stone ✭✭

Sing A Simple Song, Sly & The Family Stone
If You Want Me To Stay Sly & The Family Stone
Stand!, Sly & The Family Stone
M’Lady, Sly & The Family Stone
You Can Make It If You Try, Sly & The Family Stone
In Time, Sly & The Family Stone
Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey, Sly & The Family Stone
(You Caught Me) Smilin’, Sly & The Family Stone

Related Songs:

People Everyday (Reprise), Arrested Development ✭✭✭✭

Somebody’s Watching You, Little Sister ✭✭✭

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