Sly Stone’s New Memoir: Wise Words from The Maestro

Sly stone

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.

-Ellen Fagan

Photo: Getty

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22 comments on “Sly Stone’s New Memoir: Wise Words from The Maestro

  1. Patricia R (Patty) McMillen

    Thanks for this, Ms Fagan. Any idea if Questlove is still planning the documentary on Stone that he promised would follow “Summer of Love”?

    • Ellen Fagan

      Thank you, Patty! Last I heard – earlier this year? – it was in the works & I made a mental note to keep a look out for its release. I know nothing beyond that, but…fingers crossed!

  2. Mark Hudson

    Thanks Ellen, look forward to reading this. A spectacular talent who went off the rails in a spectacular fashion. So good to see that he survived!

    • Ellen Fagan

      Thanks Mark, I so agree! This opportunity to tell his story feels miraculous.

  3. It’s amazing how much great music Sly and Family put out in such a short time. It’s nice to see he’s not too bitter. His struggles with substance abuse and the industry kind of mirror Arthur Lee of Love. Visionary guys, ultra-talented, but crushed by powerful forces that didn’t value their well-being.

    I try not to think of how much MORE great music could’ve been made, and be grateful for what we got.

    • patriciarmcmillen

      Agree…the “greats” are/were, after all, sensitive and fallible human beings who often use(d) their own pain, and desire to help followers avoid similar pain, as material for their art. Up to us to appreciate and support them in every way we can.

    • Ellen Fagan

      Absolutely correct, David & Patty. The “artist’s temperament” can’t cover all bases, of course, but the people who give us these musical gifts are to be cherished & honored. Sly deserved a better fate than he got. Glad he is able to express himself on his own terms today.

      • Janet Richardson

        I love all of their music. Sly is a rock Icon. He is also a genius. I love to sing along.

  4. Letterman: “I heard a rumor that you were involved at one time with Doris Day…”

    Sly: “I wouldn’t date that lady, I’m too afraid. Black folks gotta be cool!”

    Letterman’s face after that, priceless LOL

    • Ellen Fagan

      Another great clip from the Golden Age of Letterman!! 🙂

      • Patricia R (Patty) McMillen

        Fwiw —last night I re-watched The natural (movie w Robert Redford, fictionalized story of a real ball player named Eddie Waitkus who took time off from a promising MLB career after being shot by a mentally unstable fan)…Letterman’s repeated attempts to get Sly to open up about his “time off” (rebuffed by Sly) were strongly reminiscent of those of the newsman (played by Robert Duvall) in the movie, badgering Redford about his “mysterious” past. I felt bad for Sly, who was just not going to let his guard down in national TV…I guess now imma have to read the book!

        • Ellen Fagan

          Sly handled himself so well here, Patty… that’s a fabulous comparison to the Duvall character. But he still seems fond of that particular interview. Always a bit of a man of mystery.

          • Patricia R (Patty) McMillen

            Yeah pretty surprising. But the performance afterwards spoke volumes about sly’s professionalism and raw talent. Thanks so much for posting it!

  5. Janet Richardson

    Sly is Icon. Love his music. I am thankful he finally got what was owed to him. Genius

  6. Lisa Sansone

    Ellen that was a very informative and entertaining review. Now to get the book!

    • Ellen Fagan

      Thanks so much, Lisa! He is quirky, mysterious, charming…& happily still here to tell the tale.

  7. Eric C Gray

    Really good review, Ellen, thanks. I had the chance to see Sly and the Family Stone, probably in 1969 or 70, at the Felt Forum in Madison Square Garden. A terrific show.

  8. Ed Seckler

    Wondering if Sly is asked why he was always late (sometimes by multiple hours ) for his concerts?

  9. David Delgado

    Usually when I read a biographical story about Sly, it usually says he grew up in San Francisco. Not true; he grew up in Vallejo, CA, in the San Francisco Bay area, and I know this because he was a year ahead of me at Vallejo high school. He graduated in 1962. I look back at those times and I’m now impressed I saw him almost every day at school or walking around downtown, all of us unknowing of what a music legend he was to become. Prior to Woodstock and before he became nationally known, I was lucky enough to see his band play a couple of times at a club called Frenchy’s in Hayward, CA.

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