Sly Stone, the reclusive, long-vanished funk-rock pioneer whose potent recordings in the late 1960s and early '70s defined the era and altered the course of popular music, may be about to strut back into the public eye.
According to several friends and associates, discussions are well underway about a Sly and the Family Stone reunion performance at the Grammy Awards on Feb. 8 in Los Angeles.
It would be Stone's first live performance since 1987, and his first major public appearance since Jan. 12, 1993, when Sly and the Family Stone were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It would also mark the first time since 1971 that the band has played in its original configuration. (Drummer Greg Errico quit the group that year and was soon followed by bass player Larry Graham.)
As songwriter, producer, bandleader and singer, Stone dazzled the world of pop music more than 35 years ago with a string of superlative anthems -- timeless songs, including "Dance to the Music," "I Want to Take You Higher," "Hot Fun in the Summertime," "Family Affair" and "Everyday People" (whose lyric "Different strokes for different folks" became a slogan for the Woodstock generation). By the early '70s, though, he had developed an all-consuming cocaine addiction, and he soon faded from the spotlight. Speculation on the whereabouts and condition of Sly Stone has been a pop pastime for decades.
Ron Roecker, a spokesman for the Recording Academy, wouldn't confirm that the reunion is on the Grammy-night schedule, which already includes an all-star tribute to Sly and the Family Stone. The tribute -- featuring John Legend, Maroon 5, will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas and Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, among others, performing a medley of Sly classics -- was announced yesterday by the academy. (All the artists appear on a Sly and the Family Stone tribute album that will be released the day before the Grammys.)
"The facts are what we put in the press release," Roecker said. "As far as anything else, it's all just rumor. But we do believe that he is attending the Grammy Awards."
He added: "It seems like the right time for him. We're thrilled that we'll be able to do this."
Stone's manager, Jerry Goldstein, could not be reached for comment.
Nor could Stone himself -- no surprise, given that he stopped speaking to the media in about 1987.
But sources close to the band said rehearsals are scheduled to begin next week in Santa Monica, Calif. They cautioned, however, that the reunion could implode at any point, given Stone's long history of erratic behavior.
Still, that there's talk at all about a Sly Stone coming-out party is a surprise.
"He's been in seclusion for so long, he's like J.D. Salinger," said Greg Zola, who is producing and directing "On the Sly: In Search of the Family Stone," a documentary about the elusive musician and his band mates. "He was so famous for a period of time, but he's just not around anymore. A lot of people who you'd think are in the know actually think Sly Stone is dead."
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.)
By 1975, the hits had dried up, and Stone's downward spiral quickened.
"He was so creative, one of the most talented guys I've ever met," said R&B great Bobby Womack. "It was inspirational being around him. He made some great music. He just wasn't happy in his personal life. He got to the point he wouldn't even listen to his own stuff. That's paranoia. As the drugs set in, the warm, creative side went away. And then it got worse and worse. He was a person out of control."
Womack added: "We used to be as tight as bark on a tree. But I haven't heard from Sly in 15 years. At least. The last time I saw him, I was driving down Hollywood Boulevard, and he was going the opposite way. I blew the horn and said, 'Sly!' He looked at me and just kept going.
"But then he turned around and said, 'Bobby, I can't do that to you, man.' I said: 'What was that about?' "
Stone, who'd once earned a reported $2 million per album, was cut loose by Epic Records in 1978. Warner Bros. offered a half-million-dollar contract, and in 1979, the label released Stone's "Back on the Right Track." It didn't even crack the Top 150 -- a disastrous showing for an artist who was once a fixture at the top of the charts.
Stone summarily retreated from the studio and the spotlight. His brother Freddie told Spin magazine several years later that Stone had "wanted to get away from the fast pace. He just kicked back. . . . He didn't want to be out in front anymore. The glamour didn't mean anything anymore. He wanted to be normal."
In 1981, Stone -- who'd been raised in a strict Pentecostal household and grew up singing gospel songs with his siblings -- reemerged to work with Clinton on a Funkadelic album, a summit that resulted in both artists getting arrested for possession of cocaine and drug paraphernalia.
As Stone's career faltered, his legal problems mounted. In 1983, he was charged in Illinois with possessing a sawed-off shotgun; was found barely conscious in a Fort Myers, Fla., hotel room, apparently a result of a cocaine overdose; and was then arrested during the middle of a show in Fort Lauderdale on charges that he'd stolen a ring from a hotel owner. (During one court hearing that year, bailiffs had to shake Stone awake.)
In November 1987, on the eve of a two-night comeback engagement at a small club in Hollywood, Stone told a Los Angeles Times reporter that he was clean, saying: "I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm fine. I'm straight, I'm clean. What else can I say?" The night after the first show -- which was declared a disaster by a Times critic -- Stone was arrested outside the club for having failed to pay $2,856 in child support. He was also charged with cocaine possession.
"It's amazing he's still here," Errico said in an interview last fall. "But he is. I always say that a cat has nine lives, and Sly has nine cats. He's a character in every respect."
In 1989, after failing to show up for a court date in Los Angeles, Stone was declared a fugitive. The FBI arrested him in Connecticut and extradited him to Los Angeles, where, in a two-week span at the end of the year, Stone pleaded guilty to driving under the influence of cocaine and then guilty again to two counts of cocaine possession.
Since then, the world has heard very little from -- or about -- Sly Stone. Just a single song recorded with Earth, Wind & Fire, a national advertising campaign for Toyota that used "Everyday People," and the 1993 appearance at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, where the six original members of Family Stone (drummer Errico, bassist Graham, saxophonist Jerry Martini, trumpet player Cynthia Robinson and the siblings Freddie and Rose Stone) walked onto the stage, sang a bit of "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)," said their thanks . . . and then waited for Sly to surface.
"As usual, it's just us," Rose said, looking at her watch.
Sly finally materialized, in an electric-blue leather jumpsuit, and gave a brief speech, which concluded: "See you soon."
Bucking Hall of Fame tradition, he didn't stop afterward to pose for pictures with his band mates, instead disappearing into the night -- and into the ether, for 13 years of radio silence.
There are rumors, of course: He's broke! He's dead! He's homeless! Insane!
Stone, who is 61 or 62, or maybe 64 ("I've lied about my age so much, I'm not quite sure how old I am," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1987), is either living: In a mansion in Beverly Hills; in a dingy apartment in the San Fernando Valley; on the streets of Hollywood; in a nice place in Pacific Palisades; or elsewhere in Southern California.
"He's in Malibu," said Clinton. But Clinton isn't completely sure, since he couldn't get Stone on the phone -- even after Stone left a message for his friend to call.
In 1986, Stone was living in an apartment in Toluca Lake, Calif., when his landlord filed a lawsuit, alleging that Stone and a roommate were making excessive noise -- and that they'd refused to leave the apartment after being served an eviction notice.
His health is also unclear. Stone's manager, Goldstein, recently told an associate that Sly is "frail." When Stone surfaced at his father's funeral in 2002, he was reportedly in bad shape.
"Sly went down the aisle of his brother's church with his mother on his arm, and nobody recognized him, because he has a hunchback," Selvin said. "He deprived his body of too much nutrition over the years."
There are reports -- unconfirmed, as with much in the murky, mysterious world of Sly Stone -- that he's done recording sessions and then gone in and erased all the tapes.
"He's got hundreds of songs that he's sleeping on," Errico said. "He's been writing the whole time. Where are all those songs? But I haven't heard one in 20 years. He's written and destroyed who knows how many great songs over the years with all the insanity he's been through."
But Stone is said to have been recording recently with his sister Vaetta, who performs in a Family Stone tribute band. Last year he even surfaced at one of her shows, in Los Angeles.
Zola, who's making the documentary on Sly and the Family Stone, was at the club that night and saw Sly Stone with his very own eyes.
"This adventure to find Sly, it can feel hopeless," he said. "There was a period of time where I really wondered where he was. But he was there! It was remarkable."