The Family Stone: “It won’t get any better than this”

With careers spanning over 40 years, Sly and the Family Stone have become undoubtedly one of the most influential, game-changing bands to have graced the world of music.  Chart-topping singles such as “Dance to the Music,” “Everyday People” and “Hot Fun in the Summertime”, and groundbreaking albums such as Stand (1969) and There’s a Riot Goin’ On (1971), are all arguably so innovative that they were decades, centuries, thousands of light-years ahead of their time.  Sly and the Family Stone were simply masters of feel-good music that traversed and fused many genres together.  Sadly, tensions within the band got the better of the members, causing them to split and go their separate ways.

However fear not, The Family Stone are back with a 2011 worldwide tour.  And not only are three of the original, founding members are together, but they’ve added some new folks to their family unit.  Founding members include Jerry Martini on Sax, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Cynthia Robinson on trumpet, and fellow Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee and R&B Pioneer Award recipient Greg Errico on drums.  The new additions are Trina Johnson on vocals, Blaise Sison on bass, Nate Wingfield on guitar, and taking the empty chair of Sly Stone is Alex Davis on lead vocals and keyboard.

Late at night on September 6  Philip Javens caught up with The Family Stone in their dressing room at Ronnie Scott’s in London to talk about their legacy, their purpose and influence as a band, their relationship with Sly, Cynthia’s advice, Jimi Hendrix, their love for London, the future for The Family Stone, some Glastonbury Festival 2013 performance talk, and the possibility for a family reunion…

Well, what can I say?  I’ve renounced my faith and have had to readmit myself back to music school after seeing them live, as The Family Stone were out in full force to preach the word of peace, love and funk.  They literally broke the rules for Ronnie Scott’s audience discipline-in-enjoyment philosophy as Greg Errico told me, “This is traditionally a jazz club.  I’ve been told that they never get up and dance or anything like that you know.  It almost felt sacrilegious.”  After all these years, The Family Stone still portrays the same potency of bliss and unification within their music to their audiences, “It has no boundaries of geographical separation.  Music is powerful, it really speaks to everybody.  It’s one of the instruments that brought the world together, in some degree.”

As a founding pioneer for the all important drum beat that has paved way for many R&B tracks that we know and love today (but more importantly the utmost gentleman), Greg explains the necessities for the band and what he loves about the new line-up in The Family Stone. “We play for the moment, you know.  And also, it’s really a magic that happens when you get the right chemistry.  We tried to put together a few times with different configurations, and this is the one that really works. 

“And you know when it’s right; it’s when you don’t have to discuss it anymore.  It just comes, it’s just there.”  It seemed important for me to ask whether he felt if the new family were connected on that higher level, “We’ve been hitting home runs since May.  It feels good.  That’s what we have now, we had that chemistry back in the day, you know.”

What fascinated me was their level of execution and cohesion as a band without Sly himself, after all it’s hard to deny that Sly was a big part of it, arguably a lot of it is his work.  So how do they function? What are they trying to do?  Dame to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and quite frankly one hell of a silver fox, Cynthia Robinson discusses with me her thoughts, “With or without Sly, his music is well received.  We try to stick to the original music and writings as close as possible.” 

Sly & The Family Stone – “If You Want Me To Stay”:

As a witness to their London performance, I can assure you they did it to the beat whilst funkin’ out their classic tunes with upmost precision.  Jerry Martini, who has a voice fit for a spaghetti western film or Duke Nukem game, added, “We’re not trying to improve on the original side of The Family Stone, we’re just trying to emulate it.  It won’t get any better than this.”  As the first inter-racial/inter-gender band in Rock & Roll, The Family Stone’s website states that their songs’ are “bringing you peace, love, and social consciousness through musical harmony.”  I asked Jerry to elaborate on this, “All the messages that we’re giving away was already given by Sly.  All we’re doing is carrying the torch.”

It was evident to see that their relationship with Sly is nothing but great love and admiration, as Jerry enthusiastically compliments, “He was a fucking genius.  None of us are as good as Sly, not one of us.  He was a fucking genius and one of my best friends in my entire life.  We can’t improve on what he did.  What we have tried to do is make it as close as possible to what he wrote.”  Jerry reminisces with a smile and looks into the distance. “Him and I go back to when we were kids.  I’m older than him.  I was born October 1st, 1942.  He was March 15th 1943.” I quip that that’s not much older.  “Not a lot. But if you look at us, people would say that it is.” I don’t think so – Jerry continues to smile.

For such an influential band that has arguably changed the global setting of music, I needed to ask if they knew, at the time when making these songs, that they’ll have such a powerful effect on the world?  Jerry darted in, “Yes.  We knew we were ahead of everybody else.  Guess what, it’s like three generations later and they’re playing our songs in all the movies, all the different soundtracks.  Our music in not going to die, it’s great.”

Speaking to one of the new additions to the band, guitarist Nate Wingfield hits on a poignant note, “It really was way ahead of its time.  It was way ahead of its time, but it was on time.”  The music of Sly and the Family Stone featured all the right elements and innovative risks to carry forth truly original songs with deep, positive messages about peace and togetherness, especially in a time of prejudice and a social movement for the black population of America, and also the outcry against the war in Vietnam. 

“Sly and the Family Stone was about freedom” at the very core – it was liberalism.  It fused together multiple instruments, genres, races, and gender into various political contexts of themes and issues, and it worked.  “Sly was fearless, you know.  He didn’t do things that everybody else did, or was cautious, or nervous.  He got up, got in your face and had a great group behind it, and everybody got it.  The Family Stone gave us a new way to listen to how people grooved.”  I couldn’t agree more with the man.  “As Miles Davis said one time, ‘Sly Stone is my only peer’.”

It’s a tough act to follow.

I asked Cynthia if she has any advice about how to achieve such a result, “You gotta do you your homework before you get there, in terms of being able to execute whatever that is you been doing – you need to work on it.  The real job about in playing in a band is actually the rehearsal.  The show is like (she clicks her fingers) a minute compared to the amount of time you have to rehearse in order to get it right.  That’s the only way you’re gonna be able to build shops anyway – to be able to play at ease for an hour and a half.”

But, at the end of the day the members of the original Family Stone are people like everybody else who have however had extraordinary lives – it was interesting to ask what their definitive moment was?

Cynthia: “When Sly told our manager that ‘you keep on telling us that we’re stars, so let us be stars’ – it really hit me.”

Jerry: “Woodstock (1969), absolutely.”

Jimi Hendrix was at Woodstock, and I had to know (as a bubbling enthusiast) what their relationship with him was due to the stark similarities in music.  “Jimi was a friend of mine; I was on the road with him when he died…” Jerry looked away. It must have been quite hard for a musician to lose one of its own. “Absolutely, he’s like one month and 27 days younger than me.  God bless him.  He was a genius, and we all loved him.” 

I later found out through Nate Wingfield that Sly was on the way over to meet Jimi Hendrix in regards about a possible collaboration with him, and with the late, great jazz trumpeter Miles Davis.  Such an astounding trio of musicians.  Maybe that’s what God’s voice would have sounded like? I guess some things are just not meant to be.

So, as visitors to the UK, I had to ask what they thought of London.  New front man of the band Alex Davis (who strikingly looks, sounds and plays like Sly with astonishing talent) portrays his love, “London is a home, it’s a part of me that I always wanted to visit but only imagined.  Being here for whatever short time we are, I’ve enjoyed everything.”

Jerry muses his opinion about London, “They’re so far ahead.  I’ve always thought that London was more advanced than New York City.  New York City is supposed to be the capital of the world in jazz and music, and I want to tell you online here that I think London has everybody beat – very ahead of everybody.”  Safe-to-say, we’re at the top of our game.

Although, what of the future of The Family Stone?  Are they going to venture into producing new songs? Are they going to collaborate with any artists?  I asked Cynthia if they got plans to write any new material for the future, “We been talking about doing it, I’m sure I’ll probably be able to contribute some thought.” She later jokes, “I get a good thought every five years, so I’m overdue.” And overdue they are.  The simple fact is that there hasn’t been any new music like this for a long time.  The simple fact remains that the community of the world needs The Family Stone.

Soul sister vocalist Trina Johnson forwards her wishes for the band, “I would love to see a nice new album with some new great music, still with that same positive spin, positive vibe, and getting that younger generation.  I think we can take it to another level.”

Jerry – “We have a lot of plans.  I can’t disclose that right now. But yes we do.”

Alex mentions to me his wishes, “My view of the band? Yes, I would like to do some more material that hasn’t been released by Sly.  I would like to see the band do some solo writing. I’m also in the process of doing some writing of my own.”   So is that a hint for some new material?  “Oh yeah!  As long as we’re still breathing.”  He gives me a cheeky smile, “I advise you to keep an eye out for us because we are going to be doing some very positive things.”

In terms of collaboration, I ask for whom they wanted to bring into the family.  Cynthia mentioned, “Steven Tyler.  He’s a very good entertainer, singer, and a lot of energy.  Has a big heart.”

So it’s hard to not see that The Family Stone are looking to the future with a bright optimism that illuminates an exciting future of new material, collaborations and live events.  It seemed only fitting to ask if they have any plans to play at Glastonbury 2013. “Oh yeah, we would love to.  We’re in the process of getting in touch with those types of venues.  But we would love to do Glastonbury,” Alex replies.  Cynthia adds, “Have us back as soon as possible because we love it here.”   Their manager, whom is sitting near me, overhears and quickly tells me that its articles like these that spurn the interest to make things happen.  So, Michael Eavis if you’re reading this, MAKE IT HAPPEN!

The band’s inspirational approach to music has literally changed the outcome of music over the years.  However, on a lasting note it seems only right to ask if there will ever be a chance that Sly and all the other original members of The Family Stone will ever get back together for a family reunion.  Nate smiles, “You know what, I always think there is a chance.  Each member of The Family Stone still loves the music.  Each one of them are still as funky as they ever were.”

Still, The Family Stone are back in full force carrying the torch for Sly’s music across the world once again, touring in aim for future things to come.  You never know though, Sly may well join.  I hear he’s being experimenting in his laboratory; “You know we were rehearsing [with Sly], and he was playing [us] some new music of his, and we were listening to it.  Sly is still Sly. He’s still Sly.”

You can keep up to date with The Family Stone on their website here, and see their tour dates here.

Note to Reader:

Blaise Sison disappeared before I could interview him.

Greg Errico was stolen from me by another reporter before I could get to interview him further.

I also found out that most band members agree that The Family Stone’s most definitive single was “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” – incidentally, it was the first time anybody heard of the slap bass technique by founding member Larry Graham.

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