'I Want to Take You Higher'
David Rubien, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, November 24, 2008
I Want to Take You Higher
The Life and Times of Sly & the Family Stone
By Jeff Kaliss
Backbeat; 210 pages, $24.95
Sylvester Stewart, a.k.a. Sly Stone, is such an important figure in
pop music that it's curious he and his band, the Family Stone,
haven't been the subjects of a major biography. Stone, an African
American from Vallejo, is one of the rare artists who was able to
unite disparate genres and deliver a fresh sound to a mass audience.
Though rock 'n' roll arguably was created by three black men in the
'50s - Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Bo Diddley - it was quickly
claimed by white artists as blacks were pigeonholed as soul or rhythm
and blues acts. Elvis Presley came along to capture the hearts and
hips of America's teens, handing them off to the Beatles and the
Rolling Stones. Meanwhile, huge-selling black artists like James
Brown, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and the Temptations were
considered something other than rock.
Sly Stone changed all that. Emerging from - but not really part of -
the San Francisco scene of the mid-'60s, he fronted a band of blacks
and whites, men and women, that fused funk and psychedelic pop with
irresistible hooks and lyrics that spoke of a post-racial bacchanalia.
Describing Sly & the Family Stone's appearance at Woodstock - where
they roused a few hundred thousand hippies out of their sleeping bags
at 4 o'clock in the morning - Jeff Kaliss writes, "They not only
played to the times, but they actually looked like the ideals held
dear by their fans: black and white, male and female stood side by
side on the stage, arrayed in fantastic fashions and hairdos,
rallying the crowd to get 'higher.' "
At a scant 210 pages and without Stone's participation (except for a
few brief quotes at the end and a foreword), Kaliss' "I Want to Take
You Higher" can't promise to be more than an overview of the musician
and his "Life and Times." But within that narrow scope, it succeeds,
elegantly delivering a clear snapshot of a raucous period.
Unfortunately, much is left out of the frame - including, mainly, an
in-depth analysis of Stone's incredible music and a full parsing of
its cultural significance. Also, Kaliss delivers few details about
Stone and his entourage's rapid descent into the maelstrom of drugs,
guns and paranoia that within five years terminated the career of a
For those sordid details, readers may want to seek out Chronicle Pop
Music Critic Joel Selvin's 1998 "Sly and the Family Stone," part of
the "For the Record" series of oral histories. That book obviously
supplied much of the source material for Kaliss, who frequently
quotes from it - sometimes to the point that a reader might wonder
why Kaliss didn't bother to do his own homework. For example, on the
matter of drugs, Kaliss writes that Family Stone saxophonist Jerry
Martini "told Joel that the band at one point had in tow a physician
who 'was really impressed with the music business (and) felt that Sly
needed ... psychosedatives.' " Seeing as Martini was one of the few
Family Stone members generous to Kaliss with his time, it's not clear
why the author didn't discuss this with him directly.
Whereas Selvin's book consists exclusively of quotes from Stone's
associates (but not from Stone himself), Kaliss supplies authorial
context, sketching a vivid picture of 1950s Vallejo and the deep
churchgoing culture young Sylvester drew from for his early junior
high school forays into music.
As Kaliss points out, Sylvester was also listening to rock 'n' roll,
and his high school band the Viscaynes was mostly white. By the time
Stewart - already nicknamed Sly - wrote a Top 10 hit for Bobby
Freeman, "C'mon and Swim," in 1964, he was recognized as a
multitalent who could sing, play most instruments and, as a producer,
make other musicians sound very good. Stewart also was a highly
popular disc jockey on KDIA-AM, and he parlayed some of that buzz
into getting local gigs with the band that became the Family Stone,
consisting of brother Fred on guitar, Larry Graham on bass, Greg
Errico on drums, Cynthia Robinson on trumpet and vocals, Martini on
sax and later sister Rose on keyboards and vocals.
Over a span of eight critically acclaimed albums starting in 1967,
the Family Stone had a string of hits, including "Everyday People,"
"Hot Fun in the Summertime" and "Family Affair." Stone was a huge
influence on everyone from Stevie Wonder to George Clinton to Prince
to jazz man Miles Davis. Then the drugs took hold, the band fell
apart and Stone became a recluse. He's remained one - with rare,
halting, extremely anticlimactic forays into gigging - for more than 30 years.
One of the selling points for "I Want to Take You Higher" is that
Kaliss scored the first in-person interviews Stone granted anyone in
20 years. Kaliss devotes a fair amount of build-up to these two
chats, but they don't really amount to much more than a few short
platitudes from Stone, like "I don't care what nobody says or
nothin'. If I didn't get the most out of something, I wouldn't do
it." Or, "I hope it's still that I'm doing music, and still
representative of the truth."
The capital-T Truth about Sly Stone remains to be written. For now,
though, "I Want to Take You Higher" is an entertaining summary.
E-mail David Rubien at firstname.lastname@example.org.