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Another of the new books we’ll be publishing in the spring is There’s a Riot Goin’ On by Miles Marshall Lewis. If you don’t want to know the result, look away now:
The first thing Sly Stone ever did with a major paycheck — issued by Autumn Records when “C’mon and Swim” went gold in ’64 — was to put a down payment on a home for his family, moving them from Vallejo into a huge house on the outskirts of San Francisco, 700 Urbano Drive. Freddy lived there with their parents; Big Daddy Stewart was able to retire from janitorial work. (A money green (booty green?) Jaguar XKE roadster was another early baller purchase.) The Family Stone first convened at 700 Urbano the day after Cynthia walked out on the Stoners. The group: Sly Stone (organ, guitar, harmonica), Freddy Stone (guitar), Larry Graham, Jr. (bass), Cynthia Robinson (trumpet), Jerry Martini (sax), and Gregg Errico (drums). Jerry and Gregg were Italian-Americans, Cynthia female. Rose Stone would join shortly after the commercial failure of A Whole New Thing, on electric piano and vocals.
“It was deliberate,” Martini later said. “He told me about it before we even started the band. He was so hip on that. He was so far ahead of his time. He intentionally wanted a white drummer. There was a shit-pot full of black drummers that could kick Gregg’s ass and there was a lot of black saxophone players that could kick mine. He knew exactly what he was doing: boys, girls, black, white.”
Another notation on Sly’s connection to hiphop concerns the dress code. Performing a six-song set on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert in 1973 — including, tellingly, no songs from There’s a Riot Goin’ On — Sly wears a big ol’ SLY belt buckle, a decade before the name-plate became a hiphop fashion staple. Don’t think for a minute that Afrika Bambaataa and his Zulu Nation missed that. Notice as well, if you get the chance, the B-boys in the audience of the show, popping and locking their arms in syncopation just like the late Fred “Rerun” Berry (a/k/a Mr. Penguin) on any given episode of What’s Happening!!.
And while we’re halfway talking hiphop, note that the sartorially adventurous André 3000 (not to mention Lenny Kravitz and Prince) has absolutely nothing on Sly Stone, and he no doubt knows it. Gold lamé shirts with flower-print trousers; orange Edwardian ruffled shirts and leather pants; assorted crocheted hats and suede vests with dangling buckskin fringe; jumpsuits and rhinestone-studded tops; velvet boots and brooches; goggles, scarves, and sequined cowboy hats—Sly didn’t fuck around. Freddy and the Stone Souls challenged fashion, even for the wigged-out sixties, and Sly encouraged carrying that revolutionary spirit over to the Family Stone. The group’s look—boys, girls, black, white, and those crazy threads—got them noticed as much as their musical blend of psychedelic soul.
Sly and the Family Stone started out playing covers of popular tunes like “Try a Little Tenderness” and “Shotgun,” then moved onto their original material during sets. The nascent band used to segue Otis Redding’s popular “I Can’t Turn You Loose” into their own “Turn Me Loose,” soon to be on their first album. The group’s first public performance took place in 1967 at the Winchester Cathedral, a Redwood City venue run by their first manager, Rich Romanello. They developed a following in the Bay Area, cutting their teeth at Winchester Cathedral, the Losers, Frenchy’s. By June ’67, Sly had moved on from deejaying at KSOL, later taking a new daytime shift at their competitor across the dial, KDIA, in October. He’d resign two months later.
Sly and the Family Stone cut “I Ain’t Got Nobody” for the local Loadstone Records, which created a regional buzz. David Kapralik signed Sly and the Family Stone to Epic Records out from under an interested Atlantic Records in late 1967, after hearing about them from Epic promotions man Chuck Gregory and taking in an early show at the Winchester Grill. Kapralik shot from the Columbia Records sales department to their A&R (at 29), and soon had the reigns of sister company Epic’s A&R as well. He was lateralized out of the department for attempting to fire John Hammond, the legendary A&R guy responsible for signing Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, and Billie Holiday. Technically an independent producer, agreeing to give Epic first dibs on any acts he found, Kapralik took Sly to the International House of Pancakes and offered him a record deal. New Columbia Records president Clive Davis immediately reinstalled Kapralik to head up Epic A&R, where he could apply the full force of marketing and promotion to break Sly and the Family Stone.
Kapralik finessed the sextet a three-month contract at the Pussycat à Go Go casino/stripclub in Las Vegas. The group began cutting A Whole New Thing in Cali on days off. James Brown caught the band there, brought his entire entourage along. Bobby Darin was a big fan; the 5th Dimension too. The six soon had to hightail it out of Vegas with a police escort; the owner of the Pussycat à Go Go got into beef with Sly over Nina, a (white) girl he was seeing, threatening him with a blackjack. (But not before Sly could announce to the audience, “We are going to pack up and leave because I can’t have my woman here and we are being racially persecuted, so rather than do what they tell us, we are going to leave,” to uproarious applause.) The group would soon pack their bags again, for New York City.