While summoning stories from his remarkable yet erratic life in music, Sly Stone admits he occasionally had to depend on the recollections of others because his own memory wasn’t always reliable.
At one point in his new memoir, Stone, now 80, remembers that during the hazy excesses of his 1970s rock stardom he briefly shared a Los Angeles mansion with a baboon that had the run of the place. He’s just not sure where the primate came from.
“I forgot where I got him?” Stone muses. “Baboon store?”
His book, co-written with Ben Greenman, overflows with wit and wordplay befitting a maestro whose funkiest song with his band the Family Stone was “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” — also the title of the book.
Born Sylvester Stewart in Texas and raised in Vallejo, California, across the bay from San Francisco, he studied music composition at a junior college while working as a radio DJ, becoming known for his whimsical patter and eclectic playlists.
Stone clearly recalls his early and evolving vision of a no-barriers style of music that would meld Motown pop-soul, James Brown’s funk, R&B, gospel and psychedelic rock. Shortly after forming in 1966, Sly and the Family Stone produced a string of sunny hits including “Everyday People,” “I Want To Take You Higher,” “Hot Fun in the Summertime” and “Stand!” that captured the hippy spirit of the times.
Stone’s band included Black and white musicians while featuring women not just singing but playing instruments — a rarity at the time. A triumphant set at Woodstock and a star turn in the subsequent film of the concert made him a household name.
“Rhythm, melody and lyrics carried inspiration to the people,” he writes. That inspiration became a lasting influence for generations of artists including The Jackson 5, Prince and countless hip-hop acts.
Stone’s music took a darker and more cynical turn as drugs took hold and the dream of the ‘60s devolved into political assassinations, racial strife and lingering war in Vietnam. He takes readers through the agonizing recording process of his 1971 classic “There’s a Riot Goin’ On,” on which he says he “sacrificed technique for feeling.” The album has an anguished tone, exemplified by the volatile funk of the single “Luv N’ Haight.”
Meanwhile at concerts, fans never knew whether they’d get one of his famously ecstatic performances, or if Stone would bother showing up at all.
He espoused Black Power, but not loudly enough for Black Panthers, who accused Stone of acquiescing to white America. Meanwhile, some white people thought he was too militant. While unafraid to be political, he remained defiantly nonviolent and never shook the notion that, yes, people can all get along. “We exist to coexist,” he writes.
That uplifting spirit returns, if only sporadically, for 1973’s “Fresh,” his last great album. The band splintered soon after and Stone entered a decades-long cycle of addiction, middling solo offerings, doomed tours and tax troubles.
Predictably, the memoir contains no shortage of occasionally humorous — but mostly bleak — backstage tales of debauchery and drug abuse. While on tour in his glory days Stone carried a violin case filled with cocaine. Later he said he went on PCP binges because “it threw your perspective off, which I liked.” Eventually he was overtaken by a dependence on crack cocaine that drained his talents, ruined relationships and led to regular stints in jail and rehab.
“Arrest records were the new records, and I was hitting the charts,” he writes. “Court dates were my new concerts, and I was still just as good as arriving on time.”
Hip-hop empresario Questlove, whose publishing imprint produced the book, writes in the introduction that “Sly has lived a hundred lives, and they are all here.” Fans will certainly appreciate the vivid accounts from recording studios, concert stages and star-studded parties. But readers looking for personal insights will come away disappointed. Stone is self-aware but not particularly self-reflective.
However, even during his gloomiest days, Stone said he relied on his compositions to keep the darkness out, always remaining true to “the larger idea of music as a spiritual force.”
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