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'You're What I Wanted': Assembling The Family Stone

Sly & The Family Stone in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., in 1968. Left to right: Sly Stone, Cynthia Robinson, Freddie Stone, Rose Stone, Jerry Martini, Larry Graham. (Courtesy of the artist)

Correction:

A previous audio version of this story refers to "Everyday People" as Sly & The Family Stone's "first big hit." That song was the group's first to reach No. 1 on the Billboard charts but "Dance to the Music," which was released earlier and reached No. 8, was considered the group's groundbreaking song.

"I think he was looking for good musicians, and he knew quite a few. He sees the heart of a person."

That's how Cynthia Robinson, founding member of Sly & The Family Stone, characterizes the charismatic frontman's choice of backing players. The band, which pioneered a blend of funk, soul, jazz and pop, began in 1960s San Francisco as a kind of blended family: black and white, men and women.

It was something of a first for a major American rock band, whose legacy remains strong and is celebrated on a new box set titled Higher! Robinson, the band's trumpet player, says she doesn't think race or gender entered into decisions surrounding the lineup. Saxophone player Jerry Martini, however, says he believes that Stone's choice of bandmates was intentional.

"I said, 'You know, I know a lot of other African-American sax players that can just burn me.' He goes, 'But you're what I wanted,'" Martini says. "I didn't say, 'Is it 'cause I'm white?' or anything like that. But I just saw him as a visionary person who knew the group that he put together represented a lot of society."

Stone himself acknowledged in a 2009 interview with KCRW that he had in mind a mix of race and gender. That mission wasn't always easy: Jerry Martini says he remembers a point when Stone was pressured by the Black Panthers to kick the white members out of the band.

"I was in the airport when they approached and they told me to get ... out of the way," Martini says. "Sly always, always stood up for me, and in many instances, he saved my butt. When I got hit a couple times ... he just stood there ready to fight."

Standing up for others is exactly the message that Sly & The Family Stone intended to convey.

"He made things very simple: To stand for what you believe in," Robinson says. "That could be in any culture; you're going to need to do that. So he knew how to touch upon subjects that meant something to masses of people."

After playing some of the most beautiful and meaningful music of the era, the band dissolved in the late 1970s, partly because of Sly Stone's drug abuse — he rarely showed up for shows. Years later, he was arrested for cocaine possession.

Cynthia Robinson and Jerry Martini say they have no hard feelings; the two still play the old hits in a band called The Family Stone. As for a proper reunion with Sly Stone, Martini says, "I have my fingers crossed."

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's hear now from a legendary band, Sly and the Family Stone. They had their first No. 1 hit with this song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYDAY PEOPLE")

SLY AND THE FAMILY STONE: (Singing) I am everyday people. Yeah, yeah...

MONTAGNE: And with "Everyday People," the band pioneered a blend of funk, soul, jazz and pop. Its legacy is now celebrated in a new box set named for another one of its hits, "Higher."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIGHER")

STONE: (Singing) Take you higher. Hold my hand, and let me take you higher...

MONTAGNE: Sly and the Family Stone began in '60s San Francisco as a kind of blended family - black and white, men and women - something of a first for a major American rock band. Trumpet player Cynthia Robinson was there at the beginning, and she doesn't think gender or race were deciding factors for band leader Sly Stone.

CYNTHIA ROBINSON: I think he was looking for good musicians, and he knew quite a few. He sees the heart of a person.

MONTAGNE: But saxophone player Jerry Martini believes that Sly's choice of bandmates was intentional.

JERRY MARTINI: I said, you know, I know a lot of other African-American saxophone players that can just burn me. He goes, but you're what I wanted. I didn't say, is it because I'm white? - or anything like that. But I just saw in him - as a visionary person who knew that the group that he put together represented a lot of society.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THANK YOU")

STONE: (singing) I want to thank you for letting me be myself again. Thank you for letting me myself again...

MONTAGNE: Sly himself acknowledged, in a 2009 interview with member station KCRW, that he had in mind a mix of race and gender. And it wasn't always easy. At one point, Sly Stone was pressured by the Black Panthers to kick the white members out of the band.

ROBINSON: They did approach him, and I don't think they got what they were looking for. (Laughing)

MARTINI: Well, I was in the airport with him when they approached, and they told me to get the - out of the way, and then Sly always, always stood up for me. And in many instances, he saved my butt. You know, when I got hit a couple times and he pushed me in front of him - and he just stood there, ready to fight.

MONTAGNE: And standing up for others is exactly the message that Sly and the Family Stone wanted to convey.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAND")

STONE: (Singing) Stand, yeah, for the things you know are right. It's the truth, that the truth makes them so uptight. Stand. All the things you want are real. You have you to complete and there is no deal...

ROBINSON: He made things very simple. To stand for what you believe in - that could be in any culture, you're going to need to do that. So he knew how to touch upon subjects that meant something to masses of people.

MONTAGNE: After playing some of the most beautiful and meaningful music of the era, the band dissolved in the late 1970s, partly because of Sly Stone's drug abuse. He rarely showed up for shows. Years later, he was arrested for cocaine possession. Cynthia Robinson and Jerry Martini say they have no hard feelings. The two of them still play the old hits in a band called The Family Stone, with a singer who sounds a lot like Sly. As for a reunion with Sly?

MARTINI: Well, if you could see us right now, you'll see I have my fingers crossed.

MONTAGNE: The box set, called "Higher," is out later this month. You can hear it in its entirety now, though, on our website, NPRmusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANCE TO THE MUSIC")

STONE: (Singing) Dance to the music. Dance to the music. Dance to the music... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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