Sly and the Family Stone made some of the most buoyant and thoughtful music of the late-'60s and early-'70s, uniting and transforming black and white music at a time of highest hope and deepest betrayal in America. Leader Sly Stone personified both extremes, as the truest of believers and a victim of his own disillusionment.
Stone was a musical child prodigy who recorded a gospel song at age four. In the mid-'60s he produced hit records for the Beau Brummels and Bobby Freeman before his dream blossomed into the colorful, freaky Sly and the Family Stone. Sly wrote the songs, created the arrangements and handled the production, but allowed each member to express his/her individual identity. The Family blended blacks and whites, men and women: Sly’s brother Freddie Stewart on electric guitar, sister Rose on electric piano, Sly’s high school friends Cynthia Robinson on trumpet and Jerry Martini on sax, Martini’s cousin Gregg Errico on drums, and thumping, popping funk bass pioneer Larry Graham.
It was on the band’s second LP, "Dance To The Music” ('68) that they really caught fire. The title song was a perfect representation of the live Family sound, a vibrant amalgam of positivity, fuzz bass, doo-wop, rock guitar and horns, gathered in the context of a traditional R&B revue.
The summer of '69 found Sly and the Family Stone rising to the heights of popularity and critical acclaim on the wings of their phenomenal album "Stand!,” which included the band’s first No. 1 hit, "Everyday People,” a song that defined the band’s social ideals in the way that "Dance” defined its musical thoughts. The charm of the nursery rhyme refrain cuts through centuries of cultural bias and reminds us of the simple truth that "we got to live together” or die separately. Also on the album was the orgasmic "I Want to Take You Higher.”
That same summer, Sly and Family Stone stormed the stage at Woodstock in rainbow get-ups, flashing of sequins and electricity and came away superstars. If the attendees weren’t high enough, when Sly cried out "I Want to Take You Higher” at the end of the band’s set, many feel the festival — and an era — reached their frenzied peak.
Unfortunately, Sly took his obsession with "highness” literally and came to confuse the easy high of drugs with the more difficult highs of music, love and the joy of existence. With the drugs came increasing paranoia and self-absorption that were expressed first and best on 1971’s "There’s A Riot Goin’ On,” where lassitude replaced spunk but Sly’s incredible talent still shined through the murk. Drummer Errico left during the production and Sly further damaged the family feel by playing most of the instruments on the album himself, isolated in a cocaine cocoon. Ironically, "Riot” was the "band’s” only No. 1 album. The dream and the reality then both fell apart, but the music remains.
While I speak with the thunderous voice of truth, this list of "the 10 best rock bands ever” isn’t a purely arbitrary designation yanked from my nether regions. First, the winners had to be an actual band, which eliminated most of the first wave rock ‘n’ roll greats of the '50s like Elvis and Chuck Berry, who were essentially solo artists with backup bands, other towering figures like Bob Dylan, and vocal groups. The bands had to be within the greater circle of "rock” music and generate most or all of their own material. I took into account musical and cultural influence, popularity over time (staying power), and the "It’s a Wonderful Life” factor: What damage would be done if the band were to be removed from rock history? — the greater the damage, the greater the band. Removal of any of the above 10 would render rock history unrecognizable.