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Sly Stone's Surprise

Stone's younger sister, Vaetta, acknowledges as much on her Web site, where she's selling T-shirts that say, simply: "Sly Lives."

"I don't think Sly has been hurting from his underground status -- I think he likes the mystique," said Rickey Vincent, author of "Funk: The Music, the People, and the Rhythm of the One" and host of a funk radio show in the San Francisco Bay area. "But it would be nice to see him make a triumphant return -- to be treated the way Carlos Santana was at the Grammys a few years ago, and the way George Clinton was treated at the Grammys."

Clinton thinks so, too.

A funk legend himself, Clinton was forced to rethink his approach to music after hearing Sly and the Family Stone's landmark 1969 album, "Stand!"

"He's my idol; forget all that peer stuff," Clinton said. "I heard 'Stand!,' and it was like: Man , forget it! That band was perfect. And Sly was like all the Beatles and all of Motown in one. He was the baddest thing around. What he don't realize is that him making music now would still be the baddest. Just get that band back together and do whatever it is that he do."

In its heyday, from roughly 1968 through 1971, Sly and the Family Stone created revolutionary music, an intoxicating mix of psychedelic pop, pulsating funk and social commentary. Among the first fully integrated groups on the American music scene, with blacks and whites and men and women together onstage, the seven-piece San Francisco band played the world's biggest venues while cranking out hit after cutting-edge hit.

Stone was an innovator whose work inspired Motown to find its social conscience, helped persuade Miles Davis to go electric, and ultimately laid out a blueprint for generations of black pop stars, from Prince and Michael Jackson to OutKast, D'Angelo and Lenny Kravitz.

"There's black music before Sly Stone, and there's black music after Sly Stone," said Joel Selvin, author of "Sly and the Family Stone: An Oral History" and a San Francisco Chronicle music critic for the past 30 years. "He completely changed what black music was. I mean, he changed Motown! Before Sly, the Temptations were 'I'm Losing You.' After Sly, they were 'Ball of Confusion.' It's a black and white moment.

"The album 'Stand!' summed up the times, with the humanitarian sentiments, in a perfect sloganeering way. 'Dance to the Music,' 'There's a Riot Goin' On' -- these were revolutionary documents. And Sly's statements last. They sound as good today as they did when they were recorded. There's really nobody like Sly Stone in the history of black music."

Lamont Dozier, part of the Holland/Dozier/Holland hit-making machine at Motown, said in an interview that Stone "took music in a new direction, another step forward. He definitely had some potent stuff, and some new stuff, in a new voice. It was this funky, street-y, but pop R&B music. I was very much a fan."

Said Vincent: "Sly was so far ahead of everybody else, he was flaming out when everybody was still trying to figure him out."

Indeed, even as Stone's star was ascending, he was deteriorating personally -- skipping concerts (he missed a third of the band's shows in 1970), blowing off record-label deadlines, acting increasingly ornery. He was abusive toward associates, band mates, friends and family members, too: Once, upon being caught with cocaine and a handgun, Stone -- whose real name was Sylvester Stewart -- told police that his name was Freddie Stewart. (Freddie was Sly's little brother and the guitarist in the Family Stone.)

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