Carlton Stories - Sly & The Family Stone
My oldest sister Cookie (Michelle) and her then husband Anthony Moultrie took me to see Sly and the Family Stone in concert.
Prior to this show Sly had been arrested in midtown at a record store. Seems Sly was dressed in full cowboy gear complete with his trusty sidearm six shooter. Fake but realistic looking and in the mid 70’s just as it is today nothing and I do mean NOTHING scares white people more than a Black man walking around midtown with a pistol.
Before you know it the police descended on the record store and arrested Sly Stone in spite of the fact that he was scheduled to perform a sold out concert at Madison Square Garden in two days.
He supposedly told them, “….you’re going to be surprised when you find out who I am…”. Quite naturally he made bail and the show went on as planned.
He walked out that night in a floor length gold lame coat with matching slacks and silver boots. He opened with “Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin” and it was on from that moment forth. Keep in mind this is the ORIGINAL Family Stone; in addition to Sly on keyboards and lead vocals there was his brother Freddie (Stone) Stewart on guitar and co lead vocals, his sister Rose (Stone) Stewart on electric piano, Greg “Hand Feet “ Errico on drums, Jerry Martini on Saxophone and tambourine, the ever wonderful Cynthia Robinson on trumpet, and the mighty Larry Graham on bass and bass vocals.
This was the strongest unit Sly ever fronted.
About three songs in Sly alluded to his arrest and he then quoted a lyric from one of his greatest songs (“Poet”) from one of his greatest albums (“There’s A Riot Going On”).
He told the audience, “…I told them cops my only weapon is my pen…” – the first line from his song “Poet”. We cheered because everyone knew what he was talking about.
They ran through their greatest hits and by the end of the show I had snuck down towards the front of the stage (this was a regular practice of mine at any concert venue I went to! By my reckoning and logic there’s ALWAYS an empty seat in the first few rows.) by the time I’d made my way down to the front of the stage and around to the side where the band was leaving the stage…I got there just as Sly came off the stage. At that moment a large man came running towards him yelling, “...SLY! SLY! SLY!,…”.
Just at that moment someone touched my shoulder and thinking that it was my sister looking for me, I turned around. It wasn’t her. When I turned back around to face Sly I saw Sly rearing back with his fist and striking this man repeatedly. Then Larry Graham came over and together with Sly they both picked him up and threw him over a bannister. Sly then backed up with his arms outstretched and a frantic look in his eyes, yelling, “…nobody touch me! Nobody touch me!!....”.
The police and stage crew were all standing around puzzled not knowing what to do about this meltdown Sly was having. But nobody touched him. I was within spitting distance of Sly – no one pays attention to a kid – and I surely could have reached out and touched him. Looking back on it I wish I had.
I remember looking across the area where I was and I saw the pretty Cynthia Robinson with a worried look on her face getting into the limo. Her vibe seemed to be one of, “…lemme get the hell out of here…”.
I would see Sly and the Family Stone perform a few more times.
There was another appearance at Madison Square Garden in support of his hit single, “If You Want Me To Stay”. The opening act that night? A young band riding high on their hit single “Keep Your Head To The Sky” – Earth, Wind and Fire!
One of the most memorable was a performance in which they did NOT perform. I found out many years later they did show up, but I did NOT see them perform because I’d left.
It was a riotous engagement at the Apollo theatre where he was supposed to appear in support of his red hot single, “Family Affair”. He chose to show up three hours late and by that time the riot police in their blue helmets had shown up. I was 12 and had never seen those blue helmets anywhere other than on TV and they were always accompanied by people being beaten down with sticks. I know NOW that there was a slim chance of that happening in the lobby of the Apollo theatre that evening but at the time I was petrified. A lot of the patrons had left their seats and were raising hell, demanding their money back and wanting to kick the “family affair” out of Sly’s ass.
There were three major rules broken here by Sly:
1 - you don’t keep Black people waiting
2 – you don’t keep Black people waiting after they’ve paid their hard earned money to see you
3 – you don’t keep Black people who’ve paid their hard earned money waiting in the Apollo theatre.
Any one of these things can get you beat down to the point of family members not being able to recognize you, but all three in conjunction with each other?!
Had Sly walked in to the lobby at that moment from then on it would have been just, “And The Family Stone” because there would have been no more Sly.
By this time voices were being raised, additional police were filing into the theatre and I was scared. At that point all I wanted to do was get back home to the relative safety of 1634 Lexington Avenue.
I was told that Sly eventually showed up and as he sat down behind his keyboard he told the audience, “…hey I was doing my thing, you were doing yours. If you don’t like it your butts aren’t glues to them seats, you can get up and leave….”.
Apparently everyone stayed because many years later when I was at the house of Brooke Wentz, her boyfriend and I began talking music and when Slys name came up he casually mentioned that he was at the Apollo theatre show.
When I expressed shock and surprise and told him that I was there also but I left because when Sly didn’t show up, the riot police did.
He told me that Sly did indeed show up and to prove his point he pointed to a bowl of cassettes on the table and said,
“…I taped it. It’s over there in that bowl…”.
You could have knocked me over with a feather.
I asked him if I could make a copy and he gladly gave me the cassette! The sound is shitty, after all the recording was made in 1972 on a hand held tape recorded smuggled into the theatre but I am so glad to have it.
There is a BLISTERING funk filled “Thank You Fa Lettinme be Mice Elf Agin” opener, followed by “M’lady” and “You Can Make It If You Try” but the jewel of this 60 minute TDK audio nightmare is a sublime version of “Family Affair” that stretches out to about 8 minutes. Jerry Martini takes a saxophone solo that evokes John Coltrane and incorporates the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, “These Are A Few of My favorite Things”. If only this had been recorded properly, it’s a performance for the ages.
I would go on to actually meet Sly Stone on three separate occasions. Two of those occasions weren’t so much meeting him as running into him. This was during the 20 years in which he has disappeared off the face of the earth. Both times I ran into him it was in the unlikeliest of places and the first word out of my mouth was, “SLY??!!”. Each time he was more than gracious and actually stopped and talked with me. One time he was in the presence of two of the most beautiful women and the second time he looked like he was coming up out of a three day bender. I instinctively looked him up and down and asked him, “…are you alright?...”.
I detail each of these three meetings in my upcoming book, “All That Matters Is The Music”.
Sly Stone’s career is the epitome of what to do and what NOT to do. And much like Amy Winehouse and the great Lady Day Billie Holiday before her, his career is also a textbook example of the dangers of drugs and the damage it can do to ones creative spirit.
Nonetheless Sylvester Stewart aka Sly Stone along with the Family Stone have created music that will stand the test of time and our grandchildren will sing those songs.