Sly and the Family Stone: one of the most incendiary groups of the 60s. One whose music never fails to get you dancing – even just a little bit in the driver’s seat of your car (maybe that’s just me). One that set the Woodstock festival alight with an unforgettable set that’s still considered legendary.
It all had to start somewhere.
Like Prince, Sylvester “Sly” Stone was identified as a musical prodigy very early on. By seven, he was exceptionally skilled on keyboards. By eleven, he’d mastered guitar, bass, and drums. In high school, he chose to settle on guitar and joined a doo-wop group called The Viscaynes. Stone was one of two members of color in that group, which helped inspire his later vision of a multi-cultural band.
In that same vein, when he worked as a disc jockey at San Francisco’s KSOL, he wasn’t shy about including white artists like the Beatles and the Stones in his otherwise soul-heavy playlists. Calling upon his exceptional “ear,” he worked as a producer for a San Francisco-based label. During that time, he produced a wide range of local artists including his future Woodstock stagemate, Grace Slick’s early group, the Great Society.
Additionally, he was working on the side, playing keyboards for everyone from Marvin Gaye and Dionne Warwick, to the Righteous Brothers, and Jan and Dean. All of this was building up Stone’s amazing musical chops.
In 1966, he formed Sly and the Family Stone; by the summer of 1969, the group was on top of the world. Miles Davis was a huge fan, appreciating the jazz-oriented style and work ethic that the members of the group applied to their songs.
The band already had a number of singles in the Top 5, including “Everyday People” (1968) – and right before Woodstock, two more would enter the charts (“Hot Fun In The Summertime” and “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin”).
Simply put, they were huge.
Woodstock promoter Artie Kornfeld admitted that once Sly agreed to play the festival, things really took off, especially in encouraging other artists to come on board.
Sly and the Family Stone’s performance at Woodstock is considered one of the defining moments of the festival. They took the stage around 3 in the morning on Sunday, Aug. 17, following artists including Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead. For 50 minutes, they electrified the crowd, performing hits including “Stand!” and “Dance to the Music.” But it was their epic version of “I Want to Take You Higher” that left an indelible impression. Kornfeld recalls the lighting system being flashed up and down to the chorus. He claims it as his favorite memory of the weekend.
Like old silent movies that have suffered over the years, some of the audiotapes of the festival didn’t fare so well in the aftermath. Perfect example: Sly and the Family Stone’s epic set. When Rhino Records set about assembling each and every moment of the Woodstock festival on their incredible new collection, they discovered that Sly’s tapes had been cut into little pieces (who knows why). They painstakingly reassembled those pieces, and luckily, we now have a lasting record of every single searing musical moment they left on the Woodstock stage.
Sly’s message of inclusion and empowerment was a perfect adjunct for the Woodstock ethos. Best of all, you could dance to it. You still can.
Photo: Musician Sly Stone performs at the 1969 Woodstock Festival on August 17, 1969, in Bethel, New York. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)