Through most of the 1970s there was only one Sly in the showbiz firmament—Sylvester Stewart, not Stallone. Yes, that Sly of the Family Stone, which first popularized soul with monster crossover hits like Dance to the Music, I Want to Take You Higher and Family Affair. It was also the group that disappeared before the acceptance of the disco-pop trend it helped make possible. And that's not all of the bad news. After three silent years, Sly Stone ended the decade with a comeback LP, Back on the Right Track, that's going nowhere on the charts. But there's good news too: It's that Sly, 35, managed to get on any track at all.
In 1977 Stone and his seven-member "Family" dropped out and begged off their Epic Records deal. Sly's career was a rubble of rumor, myth, tired funk and nasty habits. "Some people actually believed that I could not finish a project," he says incredulously. The skepticism was warranted. In his prime, Sly was one of music's most notorious late-or no-shows, and then he had a run-in with angel dust. He also was divorced after three years from Kathy Silva, with whom he had the famous Garden wedding—Madison Square—during a sell-out Family gig. The only thing that didn't stop was the Sly Stone legend. Among the bizarre fables on the rock vine: He had repeatedly had cocaine-related nose operations.
"I was pissed off at a lot of things," Sly explains of his retreat from recording. "So much got on my nerves. Now I'm three years older. Some things have diminished to where I can handle them." Less cryptically, he denies rumors of the nose surgery and of a fling with Doris Day, whose Que Será Será he cut in 1973. But as for the deadly animal anesthetic PCP—angel dust—he is fiercely repentant: "It scatters the brain and hurts people." Coke? Sly says he doesn't snort anymore, but has openly experimented with smoking, or "free-basing," it. (The technique, a new rage in the drug vanguard, involves smoking the powder left from the chemical reaction of coke, ether and water.)
Stone lives in the San Francisco home he bought his parents, but often stays in a cottage on the Mandeville Canyon estate of his manager, Ken Roberts. Though he boasts that ex-wife Kathy "would be here in 10 minutes" if he called her, the more vulnerable Sly now concedes, "I'm afraid of getting my heart broken. I get threatened, man, I cry." He says he once interrupted their divorce proceedings to ask Kathy to massage him on the courtroom floor. He claims he gives her "whatever she wants"—vaguely recalling that she had once asked for "$1,500 a week, a month, whatever"—but that he is not bound by any legal agreement. Sly says he sees their "overly hip" son, Sly Jr., 6, about two months a year. The boy, who was 9 months old when his parents married, lives with his mother at her folks' L.A. home.
Stone is surrounded by a loyal inner circle like brother Freddie and singer Cynthia Robinson, both from the Family. Pastimes include martial arts ("I have the strongest hands I've ever met") and fast cars ("I'll race with anybody"). Having spent much of the last three years writing and listening to music, he snarls, "I didn't have to do this album for the money. I just gotta. I feel the music, the most of anybody."
The spirit first moved young Sylvester in church in Vallejo, Calif. His father was a janitor, his mother a gospel singer who initiated him into music and taught him guitar by age 9. Sylvester became quick-fisted, street-wise "Sly" by running with a tough crowd and carrying a butcher knife to classes. "You had to. I'd been beat up and threatened 'cause I was black." After high school he studied music at Vallejo Junior College while becoming a slick-tongued soul DJ and record producer named Sly Sloan. He then turned to "Stone," he explains, "as in rocks, solid, solidified." In 1967 Sly, with younger brother Freddie, Larry Graham (who left in 1973 to form Graham Central Station), Cynthia, several other musicians and sister Rosie, made up the integrated Family Stone. The Family quickly established itself as a top festival draw from Woodstock to the Isle of Wight.
Sly's dream now is to restore the Family. To avert another derailment at the record racks, he plans to write two disco tunes for the next LP. "People will have to bite," he says. "I'm not necessarily wiser. Just a little less stupid."
Yet can he rise from the rubble of rumor, tired funk and bad habits?