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No Sly, but Family Stone still dances to the music

@graffonmusic, Facebook.com/Gary Graff on Music

Posted: Saturday, July 6, 2013

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Sly and the Family Stone's legacy may be the stuff of myth, legend, controversy, titillation and litigation.

But when it comes to dancing to the music, drummer Gregg Errico says nobody does it better.

"If you were to ask a young person about the name (of the band), they wouldn't necessarily recognize it. But they'll recognize the songs," says Errico, who was with the group from 1967-71 and is currently part of the Family Stone band that travels the world, playing all of its late 60s and early 70s hits.

"They recognize 'Dance to the Music,' 'Everyday People,' Hot Fun in the Summertime.' They know those songs and they love those songs, even if they don't now the name Sly and the Family Stone or who we were."

With a lineup that mixed races and genders, Sly and the Family Stone made its stamp on music history -- recounted on the forthcoming "Higher!" box set, due Aug. 4 -- with 11 albums and six Top 20 singles that fused pop, rock, psychedelia R&B and funk styles into a fresh, seamless sound that united audiences both black and white and laid the groundwork that would later be followed by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind & Fire, Prince, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and many more. It also developed a reputation as hot, if not always reliable live band, and its appearance at the original Woodstock in 1969 was not only a festival highlight but is considered one of the great live performances of all time.

"It was a challenge to put together a group like this," recalls Errico, 64, who was playing with Sly's brother Freddie Stone in the Stone Souls before joining the Family Stone. "We just put the thing together wtih the intent to play music and be satisfied with what we're doing and create something new, too. That spirit was definitely there, to do something new.

"Sly had a vision of that, and we all joined together and bought into it and had a blast doing it, too. You don't realize when you're doing something that it will have an impact and a future like this has had."

Debilitating drug use and internal dissension started taking its toll in the early 70s; Errico was the first to leave, while original bassist Larry Graham parted after fistfight with Stone in 1973. Most of the original lineup was out by 1975, while Stone himself has become a recluse -- dubbed "the J.D. Salinger of funk" by the Associated Press -- who pops up only occasionally, such as for a 2006 Grammy Awards tribute, where he sported a Mohawk, and on the 2011 all-star collaboration album "I'm Back! Family & Friends."

Ericco says there have been "many attempts" to turn things around, but acknowledges that "nothing really worked. (Stone) was on the course that he was on. He was doing what he was doing, and that was that. I felt helpless to do anything about it, so I left. He had gotten into a position where I guess you could say he had the keys to the car, which we all gave him in support of achieving this idyllic thing we were after -- which it did, but I guess there was the downside, too."

With the 70-year-old Sly a mystery and, according to some reports, homeless in Los Angeles, the group's legacy bolstered by inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1993) and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame (2007), its former members use the Family Stone as a way to keep the music alive -- literally. That hasn't come easy, either; there have been a couple of permutations of the group, one featuring Sly's sister Rose on vocals as well as trumpeter player Cynthia Robinson and saxophonist Jerry Martini. Errico acknowledges that "there's always things, especially in music groups, to deal with, management issues and trademark and stuff like that."

But in the end, he says, the music always wins.

"The one thing that does work is we show up and perform, and it all comes together," the drummer explains. "It's just the love of it. We're blessed to be in a situation like this. We really have a good time with it."

Errico says the group, which recently performed at Britain's famed Glastonbury Festival, expects the "Higher!" box set to give the Family Stone "a new shot in the arm," and the group -- which also includes Robinson, Martini, Sly's younger sister Vet Stone and niece Lisa Stone -- hopes to create some new music as well.

"Our bass player, Blaise Sison, his nephew is Bruno Mars," Errico notes. "I said, 'Blaise, ask him!' (Mars) is a fan of the group, so I said, 'Ask him to write us a song.' But, of course, he's too busy working on his own stuff right now, but maybe one day he'll get around to it. But the answer is yeah, we definitely want to do some new stuff, and I'm sure we will."

The Family Stone performs at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, July 6, as part of the Concert of Colors at Orchestra, 3711 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Admission is free. Concert of Colors runs Thursday through Sunday, July 4-7. Call 313-582-5266 or visit www.concertofcolors.com.

Web Site: www.concertofcolors.com

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