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Sly Stone "performed" at the Grammys in 2006 with a garish, taped-on blond Mohawk. He left after singing a couple of verses with a ragtag collection of pop all-stars. For a man who has appeared in public only a handful of times in the last 30 years, his performance was so bizarre that it could've caused younger generations to ask, "That's the guy who got half a million people to sing along to 'I Want to Take You Higher' at Woodstock?"
And yet ... yes, Sly is that guy. He's an entertainer so electrifying that his batty behavior and legendary reclusiveness only add to his legend, since no one knows when, or if, he'll turn the magic on again. A new biography and a concert in Santa Rosa return this local icon to the spotlight this month — whether he'll show up to bask in the attention is another story.
For a few years in the late '60s, Sly and the Family Stone ruled the country. On anthemic albums like Dance to the Music and Stand!, the multiracial, multigender band embodied the ideals of the era in a way its contemporaries could only sing about, claiming an audience as diverse as the band itself. The group's wildly inventive music mixed hard James Brown funk with West Coast rock, vocal harmonies, and a Beatles-ish flair for studio creativity.
But it's hard to divorce the meteoric rise of Sly and the Family Stone from the stunning fall that followed. The original Family Stone was as tightly knit as the name suggests. But almost as soon as audiences were singing along to "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again)," the group was splitting at the seams in a haze of drugs and paranoia. After 1974's Small Talk, Stone more or less disappeared into seclusion.
You could hardly engineer a more perfect Behind the Music episode, and yet aside from a few magazine articles over the years and a collection of interviews by Chronicle music editor Joel Selvin in 1999, the band's story hasn't gotten its due in print. Now comes local writer Jeff Kaliss' attempt at a comprehensive book on the Sly and the Family Stone windstorm, I Want to Take You Higher.
Kaliss' tome isn't an iconic rock biography — it lacks the cultural context of Timothy White's Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley or the sheer poetry of Greil Marcus' classic Mystery Train (which has a chapter devoted to Stone's 1971 There's a Riot Goin' On). Despite boasting a long-awaited interview with Stone himself, Kaliss relies heavily on already-published material to fill its 181 pages, particularly Selvin's oral history and a tell-all August 2007 article in Vanity Fair. Yet the book is essential reading for anyone interested in a musician who reshaped popular music.
A chronological walk through Sly Stone's fascinating and ultimately tortuous career, I Want to Take You Higher traces his early years in Vallejo singing doo-wop through the Family Stone's megastardom to the harrowing tumble that culminated in his near-disappearance. Thankfully, Kaliss doesn't stop there. For real fans, the most interesting parts of the book are in its updates, which chronicle Stone's move to Napa and his handful of recent public appearances.
As competing versions of the Family Stone band have shuffled around the country, Stone has reappeared in the last year with the group led by his sister Vaetta. Sly and the Family Stone's scheduled concert in Santa Rosa on Oct. 17 is billed as the band's first Bay Area appearance in 30 years, and promises to include original members Cynthia Robinson (trumpet), Jerry Martini (saxophone), and Rose Stone (vocals). Recent blog accounts of Stone's performances with the band have pegged him as uneven at best, singing for 15 minutes and reviving his long-held penchant for making the crowd wait for hours until he's ready to go onstage. Still, even Stone at half-strength is worth the gamble on the ticket price: Do you really want to miss a glimpse if the real legend re-emerges after all these years?
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