Sly Stone, founder and frontman of the legendary Sly & the Family Stone, is equal parts musical visionary and cautionary tale. The man who brought us “Dance to the Music,” “Everyday People,” “I Want to Take You Higher,” “Family Affair” & the titular “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” is a songwriter and performer who rejiggered the genres of funk, soul, gospel, rock, and psychedelia.
Sly and the Family Stone was composed of multiracial and mixed-gender members (including kick-ass trumpeter/vocalist Cynthia Robinson, who famously sent home the “squares” in “Dance to the Music”). They entertained millions and fought the good fight against racism and war in the 1960s into 1970s counterculture. Their anthems about human bonding and the healing power of music hold up as funkified glories today.
Sly Stone (né Sylvester Stewart), born in 1943, rose to the heights of fame before experiencing the insecurities of celebrity and the exploitation that came with it. Drug abuse found its way into his life, ultimately shattering the band’s success. He’s been an elusive figure in recent years, with rumors abounding of his poverty (cheated out of $5 million in royalties – later awarded to him — he was living in a camper van). It’s a shattering story.
Happily, in a sweet piece of redemption, Sly has just written his memoir and the resulting Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin), co-written with Ben Greenman (who has also done collaborative memoir writing chores with Brian Wilson and George Clinton) has just been released by Auwa Press.
Sly’s personal take on his life and career has been long awaited by fans, but Stone held back until he felt whole and ready to share. His charismatic “Sly” persona (a name he adopted early on when a classmate’s accidental blackboard misspelling of “Slyvester” made something click in his mind) began to take a backseat. He touchingly stated, “For as long as I can remember folks have been asking me to tell my story. I wasn’t ready. I had to be in a new frame of mind to become Sylvester Stewart again to tell the true story of Sly Stone. It’s been a wild ride and hopefully, my fans enjoy it too.”
There is a lot to enjoy in Sylvester/Sly’s book. It’s accessible and charming while containing a lot of quirks and a sense of ongoing mystery to the man whose great love has always been music. He writes warmly of his family history, growing up in a religious home with siblings who joined him in the partly literal “Sly and the Family Stone.”
He was a musical prodigy from age 7, parlaying his gifts into being a successful DJ and producer before finding his true magic as a performer. “Sly and the Family Stone” spoke to a generation, realigned their psyches, and rocked the house at Woodstock.
Thank You contains a foreword by Questlove; the main narrative is bracketed by two brief interviews with latter-day Sly which show some of his reclusive idiosyncrasies. The main body of the book is filled with colorful intel about colleagues such as Bootsy Collins, George Clinton, and Billy Preston – a clear case of musical water seeking its own level. While the writing has a lot of stream of consciousness, his signature passion is well in evidence. One of the best aspects of the book is Sly’s insightful scoop on all the band’s albums (and their evocative covers).
His dependency on drugs (which set the band way back through his chronic lateness and no-shows) is acknowledged with refreshing honesty and without apology. The last third of the book plunges into the darkness of a life spiraling down via his addictions and mistreatment by producers and money managers, which he conveys with surprisingly little bitterness.
His near-vanishing act over the years made him a figure of mystery to music mavens; the media brutally characterized him as nearly homeless and bankrupt, barely alive. But with the help of his manager and his own ultimate willingness, Sly has been clean and sober for a number of years, living a life of quiet contentment surrounded by family, still with music in his marrow.
Stone gives a surprising amount of coverage to a single interview with David Letterman from 1983, providing a lengthy transcript and endearing pleasure at how the two men communicated in a witty talk show exchange. It’s available on YouTube and does a fine job of showing Stone at his best – wisecracking, clever, enigmatic, and utterly in love with his craft.
A lot of that sweet spirit is abundantly clear in Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin). His memoirs speak from the heart (with a certain cool reserve) while providing a time trip filled with melancholy, wit, and soul.