Soul visionary Sly Stone turns 70 today; while he and his band the Family Stone no longer perform together, their groundbreaking contributions to R&B can be heard in today's music.
I remember hearing Stone while growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. My parents were fans, and I still recall hearing "Everyday People" around the house. Thus Sly and the Family Stone served as one of my earliest introductions to soul music, and that initial exposure helped shaped my taste (and deep love) for R&B. Their brand of joyful music encompassed everyone's experiences, such as Stone's celebration of "Everyday People." "The butcher, the banker, the drummer and then / Makes no difference what group I'm in / I am everyday people," he sang. Few people could communicate a powerful message in a funky, simple, and direct way. "I am no better, and neither are you / We are the same, whatever we do" he argued. Ingeniously, he used a childlike "singsong" pattern when mimicking others' bigotry. After the band imitates people who judge each other based solely on appearance, he underscores the silliness of these pronouncements by singing "And so on and so on / And scooby dooby dooby." Nothing equals tearing down prejudice by mocking it, and "Everyday People" both uplifts and inspires reflection on our own beliefs.
As I grew and listened to more Sly and the Family Stone, I learned how their influence spread to pop music as well as soul. Stone and his group broke down numerous barriers--race, gender, and genre, to name just a few. I recall seeing late-60s footage of the band performing "Dance to the Music" on a TV show, and for a moment the camera lingered on the wildly dancing audience. Right in the front row, an African-American man and a white woman danced right next to each other, at one point glancing at each other and smiling. While this hardly seems shocking today, remember that not that long before, audiences were segregated, with whites sitting on one side while African-Americans sat on the other side of the aisle. Wielding great, foot-stomping music that everyone could enjoy, Stone broke down that seemingly impenetrable border separating music fans.
Until the mid-1970s, Sly and the Family Stone recorded one genre-exploding album after another, releasing singles that celebrated universal experiences ("Hot Fun in the Summertime"), functioned as a call to action ("Stand"), and delivered straight-up funk ("If You Want Me to Stay," "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)." Stone followed his own muse, setting trends rather than following them. This spirit encouraged me to hear other artists who transcended easy musical categories, such as Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin.
By 1975, Sly and the Family Stone had disbanded, and Stone released solo albums sporadically. Since 1982, Stone has lived in seclusion, rarely venturing out to perform live. His vital contributions to rock and soul music, however, cannot be denied.
So Happy Birthday, Sly Stone, and thank you for shaping my early music tastes, and showing me--and countless fans--that R&B music encompasses many styles and attitudes and often communicates universal truths.