Lovers Lane
Copernicus Center

Stage Buzz: The Family Stone @Rialto Square & Genesee Theatre

| October 2, 2015

family stone

“Dance To The Music,” “Everyday People,” “I Want To Take You Higher,” “Family Affair,” “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin), ” “You Can Make It If You Try,” “Hot Fun In The Summer Time,” “Everybody Is A Star.” And the list goes on and on. Between 1967 and 1975 the original line up of Sly & The Family Stone made some of the most important and influential records to ever make it to the pop music airwaves. Consisting of both black and white musicians Sly & The Family Stone broke just about every barrier there had been in both rock and soul music. Sly Stone, Larry Graham (who arguably invented the slap-bass technique crucial to the funk music style), Freddie Stone, Rose Stone, Jerry Martini, Cynthia Robinson, and Greg Errico made up the original and most important line-up of the group. But soon after they played an electrifying performance at Woodstock in August 1969, things started to come apart at the seams. By the mid 1970s, even though the hit singles continued, the group had fallen apart due mainly to Sly Stone’s well-publicized drug habit and his erratic behavior.

By the early 1980s, Sly had become a recluse, and the band members had all splintered into different project. In 2000, sax player Jerry Martini (who had continued to work on and off with Robinson, Errico and Graham) decided to reform The Family Stone without Sly. Graham chose not to participate, and Rose Stewart was only with the group for a short while, but Martini, Robinson and Errico have remained, along with new members keyboardist/ lead vocalist Alex Davis, guitarist Nate Wingfield and bassist/musical director Blaise Sison. Also on board is Phunne Robinson, who is the daughter of Cynthia Robinson and Sly Stone.

The group has had a steady climb back to the top, where they headlined shows at both Glastonbury in the UK and Coachella here in the US. Even without Sly on stage, fans have embraced the group in a big way- giving them standing ovations each night. They recently returned to the studio to record a new song (“Do Yo Dance”), which is steeped deeply in the tradition of classic Sly & The Family Stone material.

The group returns to Chicagoland as headliners of the 2015 Hippie Fest Tour, with appearances Joliet, IL, at Rialto Square Theatre (Oct 3rd) and Waukegan, IL, at The Genesee Theatre (Oct 4th). Jerry Martini recently joined IE for a revealing interview where he discussed his years with Sly and the motivation to reform the legendary Family Stone band.

You guys have been working without Sly, simply as The Family Stone for quite some time now.
How has the line up changed?
Jerry Martini: Well it has changed a little since we first went out. We now have Sly and Cynthia Robinson’s daughter, Phunne, as our female lead singer. That has added a whole new dimension to what we are doing with the camaraderie onstage and the mother and daughter reunion, so to speak.

I don’t think it was common knowledge that Sly and Cynthia had a child together…
JM: Well it they were always friends and it turns out they just had a child. Her name is Sylvian Phunne Robinson and Cynthia raised her, but Sly has always acknowledged her and she goes down and stays with him a lot over the years. He has other children but I know he has always showed a lot of favor to Phunne.

Alex Davis, is the person handling Sly’s vocals is new, right?
JM: He looks just like the young Sly and he sounds just like him. Even Freddie Stone, says,m‘Man, that sounds like my brother!”

You have Greg Errico on drums, and Cynthia Robinson on trumpet and yourself on sax, so there is a real piece of the original band in place….
JM: Well you have three member who are in the Hall of Fame and we are the only band out there playing those legendary songs with the people who recorded them. And we are the only band with the daughter of two members of the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame. It’s good and she can sing. She has a good voice. She can do songs in the original keys they were recorded in.

The new song is very classic Sly in its sound. Was that just a one-off recording to promote the tour?
JM: No, in fact, the interesting thing is the music producer has a last name that ironically happens to be Stewart. His whole family is from the Chicago area. They produced a Tom Joyner cruise that we played- that is how we met them. He had written the song and he sent us a demo of it. He has a full production facility where we did it all. We did a 5 day video shoot. He paid for it and arranged it and wrote it. He is someone who has studied Sly and he wrote a book about Sly, and his family happens to have the same name as Sly! As the song suggests, it is a second chance for us. We are all strong enough and healthy enough to get up and do it.

What was the motivation to reform the band?
JM: I put it together after I moved back to the mainland from Hawaii. Before this, Cynthia, myself and Larry Graham were on the road for three years from 1997- 2000 with Prince. We were in the middle of Prince’s show where he would do a complete 45 minute Sly & The Family Stone set. We played in 40 different countries all over the world. And that was kind of the start of it. After the 3 years with Prince I decided to put it together. I went through several version before I had the right people. I found my “Sly” person working in a group called The Copy Cats. He can do Sly, Larry Graham, Ray Charles, Bill Withers. He is very good.

What about Rose Stewart, Sly’s sister who was in the original line up?
JM: She was working with us initially, but she went back to LA. She is a big session person in LA and we weren’t making enough money to pay her what she need to be paid. So, we is now working with Elton John and she pays her handsomely.

Freddie Stewart, the band’s original guitarist and Sly’s brother, is a minister now. Is he completely out of the music business?
JM: He does not play secular music anymore, but he comes to certain events. I actually play with him in his church occasionally. Him and I are very close. He’s been out of the business for 30 years. When it was time, he made a change and he did the right thing. He’s a credit to his profession. He has always been a great musician and he plays in the church sometime, but his calling right now is behind the pulpit. I totally respect that. And there is an open door for him to come and play with us.

The much ballyhooed reunion of Sly & The Family Stone at the 2006 Grammy Awards was kind of a let down. There were a whole group of people on stage, not just the Family Stone; and Sly only appeared for a few minutes before walking off during the middle of the song. What happened there?
JM: They stuck us up in the back, it wasn’t really a reunion. But there were a lot people on that stage that I love and respect and they did our songs. We had Steven Tyler up there and Jeff Beck on guitar. Steven even jumped on stage and played with us once when we were doing a show in Boston. He happened to be in the audience. I though him a tambourine and he started singing. He is an extraordinary talent, and so is Jeff Beck.

You still have a good relationship with Sly Stone, don’t you?
JM: Oh yeah. Sly and I have been friends since the 50s. You don’t just unfriend each other. He has gone in a different direction and he just writes songs now. He has had a lot problems with his neck and back and it wouldn’t be healthy for him now to be running around the country. We only had a couple of days off so far this year. I am 73 and I am the oldest original member, and the oldest now. Greg is six years younger than me.

There is always talk that Sly is going back out on the road. If that is the case, couldn’t you just put it back together with him?
JM: There has always been an open invitation to him to do that. Cynthia has said ‘ I may not always be his woman, but he will always be my man…’ It’s always open to Sly. If Sly ever wanted to come out and play with us, he could come.

In the late 1970s, Sly moved from Epic to Warner Brothers Records. It was still called Sly & The Family Stone but it was not the same band was it?
JM: I played on everything, including the Warner Brothers stuff. Cynthia was on that too. In 1980, I moved to Hawaii. I would fly back and forth and play on special events when I needed to.

Sly’s music is still a staple on radio today and in TV commercials. You hear it everywhere and there has been renewed interest recently with the extensive box set that SONY released last year. The music has stood the test of time, and it was the music he made with The Family Stone. After that band, he had very limited success.
JM: I agree with you. It was the original band that created that original sound. He was smart enough to chose the musicians he did when he formed the group. People would tell him he should have hired a black sax player, and he would always say, “Jerry Martini is who I need for this band.” He knew what he wanted and knew what he needed. It was a mixture of rock and funk. He was a visionary. He was one of the most important people of the century, musically. If you really study his lyrics you will realize that. He will be famous long after he dies, just like a renaissance painter. Sly was a renaissance songwriter and visionary of the 60s. It does not matter what he is doing now. People can’t always live up to their own lyrics. He said it and he did it. Just love the guy for what he did. He gave us such great music. Don’t worry about if he is over here or over there or if he is in trouble and all of that. People are always looking to put a little bit of dirt in there. I am sick of all that myself. When people ask me about him, I just say listen to his lyrics. Don’t ask if he is living in a van anymore. I learned my lesson. The newspapers will take care of that stuff.

How heartbreaking with it for the band members when they saw Sly coming off the rails when the group was at the height of its career. It must have been so disappointing. Had he kept it together Sly & The Family Stone could have remained as big as The Rolling Stones or The Who, don’t you think?
JM: Absolutely. My answer to that was I got on a plane in 1980 and moved to Hawaii and didn’t come back until the year 2000. Although, I did fly back for certain gigs and specials and went on the road with Prince, but mainly I just walked away and let the dust settle. I took time to reflect on everything and when I came back and I looked at Sly I was not looking at where he is now. I was looking at what he did. He was a visionary during the tumultuous period of the 60s. He was singing songs like “Stand!”. The lyrics were amazing.

When you look at songs like “There’s Riot Going On,” he was very much ahead of his time.
JM: He was. It was only him and Bob Dylan that were really telling it like it was. Everyone else was singing about peace and love. He was singing things like “There’s Riot Going On,” He loved Bob Dylan’s lyrics. He loved black music; white music; country music; he loved ethnic music. He was into everything that was creative. The young Sly was the most creative person I had ever met.

He began as a DJ in San Francisco, and then wasn’t he a record producer for Autumn Records?
JM: Yeah, he produced the Beau Brummels. He was involved with Tom Mitchell and Bob Donahue.
He was only 19 when he wrote those songs. We go back to the 50s. He had like 300 songs. I would go over to his house and hear these tunes. He was so good, I basically quit writing myself.

Woodstock had to be an amazing milestone for the band. When you watch the film it is clear Sly & The Family Stone gave the most electrifying performance of the festival. After Woodstock there was no stopping the success of the band. Was it hard keeping it all together?
JM: After Woodstock everything changed. We went from playing $5- 10,000 gigs to playing shows were we made 10 times as much. We took off but history will explain all the rest, We don’t need to go into what happened after that. It’s been talked about it over and over.

You guys still had a good run a few years after Woodstock. It seemed to fall apart after the much publicized wedding at Madison Square Garden in 1974.
JM: Yeah, it did. Sly moved to LA. When he was in San Francisco, we were a very close knit band. Like a family. We were always together. We were all in the Bay Area and it was really Sly & The Family Stone. When he moved to Los Angeles, everything changed. Even though we still had great records, but everyone would fly in and do their parts.

You worked with Larry Graham when you did the Prince tours. Any chance he would be
part of The Family Stone?
JM: No, no chance. He still hires me and Cynthia to play shows with him on occasion. He does his own thing with Graham Central Station and he does mostly Sly songs and a lot of his own stuff. He will always be Larry Graham a founding member of Sly & The Family Stone and a good friend of ours, and we will probably always play together from time to time. I played with Larry before I met Sly. He was 14 and I was 18. His mother used play nightclubs and she was an organist and he played bass for her. He invented slap bass technique with her. They did not have a drummer so he had to be the drummer while he was playing bass. He is very talented and he and I are still very close friends. Everything is where it suppose to be. Our bass player studied Larry Graham and has all his parts down. Our guitarist studied Freddie’s parts, too. Everyone sticks to the plan and that is why this band does sound like Sly & The Family Stone.

Another aspect of the Sly success was the horn section of that the band had, you and Cynthia. The style you guys play is very unique. They could not have taken the Stax horns or the Motown horns and made it work with Sly. Your horns were more rockin’ and less of that standard R&B vibe. Do you agree?
JM: Yes! You are 100% right and that is showing a lot of insight. That was exactly plan. We wanted to rock those songs. I had band after Sly called Rubicon and they almost made it. But in the end I lost everything with that band, and that is when I moved to Hawaii. As far as our records, when it came to the horns, it was all Sly. I gave him my style, but he arranged those horn parts. He was the man who built the puzzle. Everything fit like a puzzle. He was so innovative. Nobody bumped into each other with our stuff. There were no standard horn parts or standard harmonies. We didn’t do that. We had our own sound.

-Bruce Pilato

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