Monday, August 12, 2013

I Spent The Day With Sly & the Family Stone

   On July 31, I was asked to interview Sly & the Family Stone. Not a gig that comes along every day, but there was a buzz about a big box set coming up, and I knew the collectors that contributed to the spectacular book of photos of memorabilia and other goodies in the box. Neal Austinson and Edwin & Arno Konigs are probably the most accomplished collectors of Sly Stone stuff in the world, and they put together a monster package that is coming out next month. In addition to laying out a masterpiece of Sly memorabilia, I was told that that Neal suggested me to do the interview, and I’m real indebted to him for that.
   The buzz from Sony/Legacy was that Sly was actually going to show up on Monday August 5th at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley for an all day interview session to promote the box set. It was also a time for the Family Stone to get back together, and the Stewart family to reconnect. Freddie Stone, the Reverend Frederick Stewart showed up with his wife Melody. Vaetta (Vet Stone) made it; their sister Rose arrived, and most were asking questions about how this thing actually could come together. Cynthia and Jerry drove up in a car together, and had a banter that could only come from partners in 45 years of friendship and work. Greg Errico came with his usual upbeat personality, and a halo of technicians were buzzing around, with Sony rep Marisa Jeffries keeping it all together and trying to get promo copies of the box set signed by everyone there.
   The techs had the group members sit in a semicircle of low couch seats, facing me off camera. I had to submit a list of questions days ahead of time, even though it is always the impromptu questions that get things really rolling. But hey, Adam Farber at Sony Legacy was cool with what I wrote, so it was all good. Cynthia, Vaetta, Freddie, Rose, Jerry & Greg settled in. Larry Graham was contacted but wasn’t available. Some folks still believe that Larry & Sly have some kind of beef, but in talking with Larry over the past couple of years, it is clear to me that he reveres Sly like the rest of us, but is wary of his missteps and the industry shenanigans, and is just waiting for the “right” moment to join the party.
   Not everyone was thrilled about getting back together, and there was a bit of awkwardness, so I opened with individual questions of each member, so they could get a groove without any side stuff. Greg got into how he studied the drummer Buddy Rich, and Freddie spoke on how the Haight Ashbury affected his life. I asked Cynthia if she was the only black girl in the Sacramento High marching band (there was one other), and Rose what took her so long to join the group (she had a day job at a bank!). Then they all spoke on how nurturing mom and pops Stewart were to them, how they were all welcomed into the “family” and allowed to do their thing. The discussion of the magic of the early group was just exhilarating. Their first shows at the “Winchester Cathedral” in Redwood City, the way Sly would ‘deliver’ songs to them, with his clear vision yet a trust in each one’s own ability to put a stamp on their parts.
   We had a ball with “Dance to the Music” and what it was like to redefine pop music – introducing an entire band in a 3 minute song – giving the goods to people “who only need a beat!” and becoming overnight stars as a result. When we got to Stand! and the social issues, folks got all up into it, with Freddie going on about the song “Nigger Whitey” and how important it was to get clear on what it means - equality. The song is not featured on the box set I was hired to ask the band about, but they all got into it. Freddie and the others also talked about how that song came about because they toured the country and witnessed the race hate from all directions, although in the Bay Area they had a different experience entirely.
   They also got way deep into the Woodstock session, and what its like backstage at an all night outdoor music festival. These folks all crossed paths with some incredible moments in history and going through it with them was as thrilling as advertised. Then the techs started buzzing around, “Sly was in the parking lot” is what I heard. The folks were ready for a break but the techs were hoping to get Sly to walk in on the set… they said “no break!” Freddie got up & said “we’re old folks, we’re taking a break!”
   So the techs herded folks around quickly and got us all back together just in time… I was out of questions by then, and started riffing on songs and issues and moments that meant the most to me – and the group was much looser – and then Sylvester the slippery one shows up! He rushed in, crossed the stage and gave every person a long warm embrace. Everybody was thrilled to have him back in the room! Then he goes back to the starting point across the stage, where he isn’t supposed to be, and tells the techs, this is where I’m staying…
   So we do the interview from there and it is just a HIGH! I start by saying “Sly we were just talking about the idea that is in much of your music that “you got to get through it to get to it!” Sly jumps in and starts riffing on “Nigger Whitey” and all the dramatics that the band went through and what it takes to be yourself through all the madness. It was a trip! He rambled a bit, scattered some ideas, but was always on point. Sometimes you had to rewind in your mind what he said so you could keep up with what he was telling you. The man lives on another level than the rest of us, but his heart is where we all know it to be, and we love him for it.
   After what felt like 5 minutes but was more like 40, they wrapped up the taping and I could finally exhale! But I head earned my paycheck because this was a group like no other, with a story like no other that deserved to be told like no other and I was proud to be a part of it. The techs took the band into a sound studio and they listened to some of their hits mixed in parts, like “Everyday People” “Hot Fun in the Summertime” and “Thank You Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin.” The look and sound of that session was surreal. It is why we collectors collect. In the hopes of connecting to a moment like this. For a moment, in the mix with SLY & the Family Stone, all was good in the world. At some point, some of this footage will be part of the promotional package for the Sly & the Family Stone Box Set “Higher” coming out at the end of August. It was a momentous experience, and I hope it can happen again (maybe with Larry, who Knows?) But if not, at least this gathering took place and the Family Stone took another step toward their immortality with this gathering.