wax Poetics
Sly and the Family Stone in 1968. (left to right) Freddie Stone, Sly Stone, Rose Stone, Larry Graham, Cynthia Robinson, Jerry Martini, and Greg Errico. Photo via Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

Rebel Music

Three albums deep—with America simmering with racial tensions—Sly and the Family Stone were at their peak with both songwriting and group dynamics when they recorded the musical and commericial eruption that was 1969’s Stand!

Cofounding guitarist Freddie Stone talks about the early days of the group, as well as the making of one of their biggest albums ever. 

published online
Originally published in Online Content, November 14, 2014
By Chris Williams

By the end of the 1960s, Sylvester “Sly Stone” Stewart, his younger brother Frederick “Freddie Stone” Stewart, their sister Rosemary “Rose Stone” Stewart, along with band members Cynthia Robinson, Larry Graham, Greg Errico, and Jerry Martini, had become cornerstones within the psychedelic soul genre, which would become the foundation that funk music was built on. Behind the scenes, Sly Stone was the lustrous architect behind this groundbreaking sound sweeping the nation. As the civil rights movement came to a close, the group decided to embrace a different creative direction both musically and lyrically. After releasing A Whole New Thing in 1967, the commercially successful Dance to the Music in 1968, and Life (also in 1968), they tasted mainstream success once again a year later. On May 3, 1969, Stand! was released by Epic Records. The record would spawn four singles, including the hits “Sing a Simple Song,” “I Want to Take You Higher,” “Everyday People,” and “Stand!”

During the recording of the album, each member played an integral role in the success of it through their eclectic vocal techniques, masterful instrumentation, and production methodologies. Stand! set the stage for the group’s ascendancy to superstardom and led to their contemporaries following their musical footsteps for unparalleled success. It became their highest-selling album until the release of 1971’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On. For the album’s forty-fifth anniversary, in 2014, we spoke with Frederick “Freddie Stone” Stewart about crafting one of the most definitive records in the history of music.

Freddie Stone of Sly and the Family Stone rehearsing for a performance on the television show Kraft Music Hall, June 27, 1968, NYC. Photo by Don Paulsen via Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.
Freddie Stone of Sly and the Family Stone rehearsing for a performance on the television show Kraft Music Hall, June 27, 1968, NYC. Photo by Don Paulsen via Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

What is the story behind the forming of the group?

Freddie Stone: Well, my mother and father were both musicians. My father played the violin, a little guitar, and jew’s harp, and he made those instruments. My mother played piano and guitar. They were Christian people. So we were brought up in the church. It was normal; at least it felt normal to us to play music. We loved church as kids. We used to be in church all the time. We grew up in a Pentecostal church. We played, played, and played, and by the time I was seventeen, church folks used to come to me and tell me, “You keep on playing for the Lord. He’s going to bless you.” I started playing music when I was twelve. One day, a guy approached me and asked me if I was interested in playing at a club one night. He told me I would make a certain amount of money. For a person that only went to church and went home, I felt that the Lord was going to bless me one day, but this guy was going to bless me tonight. [laughs]

So I started playing in clubs, and my brother Sly was already playing and doing his disc jockeying thing. While he was playing, I formed a group called Freddie and the Stone Souls. This is how Greg [Errico] and I met. He was just getting out of high school in San Francisco. Sly came to me one night, and at that time, he had a group called Sly and the Stoners playing at the same club as my group. His group was made up of older cats, and some of them were lazy, and my group was new on the scene. With me being four years younger, it made a difference as we were coming up together. My group was so energetic and excited to play. I had some great personalities in the group. Greg was a phenomenal drummer; Herb, Danny, and Ronnie Crawford were all great saxophone players, and I had Ted, a great bass player from Oakland. We all had a great time playing together. So one day, Sly came up to me and said, “Hey, why don’t we get together and have one group? I’ll tell you what. If you get the best players from your group, I’ll get the best players from my group, and we’ll start a group.” I thought about it for a while. Now, at that time, Sly was dynamite at creating music. He was a genius in the making, and that’s just the way it was. He was like that before he was on the radio. When he was young, he was great. So, what he said carried a lot of weight with me. I thought we were ready to do something for real. So I thought about the group thing long and hard, and because Sylvester was so good, it changed the standard of who I picked had it not been him. Because he was so good, the only one I could see going with us was Greg. I talked with the rest of the group and told them what I decided to do. Greg was the only one that could keep up with Sly. Sly brought Cynthia [Robinson] from his camp, and Jerry Martini knew Sylvester before I knew Jerry.

We heard about a bass player in Oakland that could play. So I went over to Oakland to hear him play, and lo and behold, I see Larry Graham—and his mother is playing piano and singing—and he was on the bass. He was so, so good that it was unbelievable. I thought to myself that this guy was special. We ended up talking to Larry, and we made arrangements and Larry came along. Now, my sister Rose had been singing every once in a while with Sylvester. She was kind of iffy, but I talked her into joining our group. After we got started, my youngest sister Vaetta came later on. Our family had been singing for all our lives. It was just natural for us. We were fortunate enough to have the kind of musicians that got along well together: Black and white. The chemistry was natural, and it was just so easy until it was fun. It was always so fun. We had no expectations on what we could accomplish. When we got together to start rehearsing on the first day, we realized that we sounded really good together. We were happy that we were in a band that sounded good. We liked playing and there were no expectations to do a record. We didn’t expect to do anything great; we were just a happy band. This was the way we were raised in this small town in Vallejo, California.

My mother babysat all the children in the neighborhood, and they were all colors. We didn’t know anything about racism or prejudice. It was uncommon to us. When we began to look for musicians, we just looked for musicians that could play. It just so happened that it turned out the way it did. It was amazing how it turned out. God had His hands on it all.

Sly and the Family Stone on March 26, 1969, just months before releasing <i>Stand!</i>(clockwise from bottom left) Rose Stone, Cynthia Robinson, Larry Graham, Freddie Stone, Sly Stone, Greg Errico, and Jerry Martini. Photo via Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.
Sly and the Family Stone on March 26, 1969, just months before releasing Stand!(clockwise from bottom left) Rose Stone, Cynthia Robinson, Larry Graham, Freddie Stone, Sly Stone, Greg Errico, and Jerry Martini. Photo via Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

Your group’s previous album, Life, wasn’t as commercial as Dance to the Music. What direction was your group trying to take the sound for the next album?

When I look back at the Stand! album and where it sits in relation to the others, I see the songs “Stand!,” “Everyday People,” “Sing a Simple Song,” and “I Want to Take You Higher,” and I put it up against the Dance to the Music album—Dance to the Music was an experiment. Because our first album was one of those things where Sly did what he wanted to do with it, and not to say he didn’t do it with the others, but that first album was great. After that first album, we started to gain knowledge of commercialism. The task became to do our own thing, but make it commercial, if we wanted people to hear us. We grew as a group to do Dance to the Music and then Stand! For me, Stand! was where we reached our peak as a group. Stand! was the album that said this is what we’ve been wanting to tell you in the other albums, and we’re at a place now where we can. Plus, things were happening in our country at that time. We felt like we were taking a stand, and we wanted to encourage our fans to do the same, hence “Sing a Simple Song.” And we wanted people to remember who they were with a song like “Everyday People.”

How much did the influence of perils in American society contribute to the subject matter on this particular album?

It influenced us a lot. After Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, I remember we were driving through Detroit, and we were pulled over by the military. We were put up against the wall with rifles pointed at our heads, while they searched our car to find something in it. They ended up finding a gun, but it was a blank gun. I was scared to death, but they let us go. After his death, everything changed. That was just the type of impact that Dr. King had on the world. It was time for us to get a little bit more serious about things. Dance to the Music was about having fun and being happy, but when it came to Stand!, the things that were happening across the country changed us as people. It’s amazing because, as entertainers, you feel like you would miss a lot. We would go to places in the South, and we didn’t know what was going on in these Southern cities. We would always bypass it because we were entertainers. I didn’t know that there were certain doors Black people weren’t allowed to go through. After this, we would begin having conversations amongst ourselves, and Sly being the genius that he is, he was putting these thoughts into songs. Sly was uncanny at knowing how to put together certain words and phrases to say what needed to be said. He used to call our mother to get pointers on certain things. [laughs] He would ask her spiritual questions, and she would give him the answers he needed to write the songs he wrote. He was truly gifted.

Around this same time, I tried drugs for the first time. I remember we were playing the Fillmore East in New York City in 1968, and Jimi Hendrix was on the marquee. We were going to go on, and Jimi was coming on after us. On that particular night, I had a very sore throat. Someone came to me and asked me, “How are you doing?” I replied, “I feel pretty good, but my throat is sore.” He said, “You should try this.” He laid down a couple of lines of cocaine, and that was the first time I took drugs of any sort in my life. I never heard any cursing in my home, and there was never any alcohol there. We came from a Christian family. But I ended up trying the cocaine, and, immediately, my sore throat was gone! Not only was my sore throat gone, but that particular night, I thought I played better than I ever played in my entire life. I thought I’d danced and sang better than I ever had that night too. It was raining, and we ended up dancing outside the Fillmore East and people were following us and we ended up around the building. When I went back to talk to that guy, I asked him, “What was that you gave me for my sore throat?” He said, “Cocaine.” From that point on, I made excuses for why I needed to get more cocaine. For me, this lasted for ten years. I lost my family because of it. I didn’t get set free until 1980. It’s amazing the things that can happen to you when you’re naïve. When you’re dealing with things in the world, things can befall anybody, whether if you’re naïve or not.

Wax poetics

Since you had a heavy background in gospel music before recording secular music, I wanted to focus on the influence that gospel music had on your group, and how it impacted your overall recording style on this particular record.

Whenever it came to recording, everyone pretty much did what they wanted to do. I know that Cynthia and Jerry really liked the horn parts that Sly would write for them. They could’ve done it on their own, but they wanted Sly to write it for them. Everyone else would play what they heard during our sessions. The way my sister Rose, Sly, and I played, our mother and father had a great influence on us that we couldn’t shake, and we didn’t want to shake it. My mother and father came to California from Texas. They had this country style of playing music. On the one hand, their style was country, but on the other hand it was funky. My mom’s sister played piano and her other sister played guitar in church. Music was on both sides of my family. Billy Preston was the first musician that I played with when I struck out on my own, before I got my own band. Sly and Billy were close. I went to L.A. and played lead guitar with Billy. I’ve been fortunate enough to be around great musicians: Larry Graham, Jerry Martini, Cynthia Robinson, and Greg Errico. When you’re around great musicians like that, it just helps you become better. This is what they did and what Sly did. I’ve been blessed to be around some beautiful people. I played with Billy Preston for six months in Los Angeles. I remember one night I was playing a gig with him, and Tina Turner walked in. When I left Billy, I formed my first group. I remember I met B.B. King when our group was in Cleveland. He said he had heard about us, but when I talked with him, he gave me one of the formulas by which he plays his solos. He didn’t have to do it, but he did. All these influences helped not only me, but our group in making this album.

Who was responsible in coming up with the melodies and harmonies for this album?

Ultimately, it was Sylvester. As far as the group contributions go, Sly, Rose, Vaetta, and I always sang a certain way with each other. So some things were already set in place as far as the harmonies. We knew what parts I was going to take or what parts Sly was going to take and whether or not he was going to do any backgrounds, or what part Rose or Vaetta was going to take. This was already set before the group started because of our vocal ranges. Sometimes, some group members felt like a certain note should’ve gone in one direction or a sound should’ve been on the bottom instead of on the top, but little did I know, the way we were doing it would turn out to be good musically. The same thing with the horns; Sly did the horns because he had the musical knowledge to make the horns sound more than they were. He knew how to space them. He took that and extended everything else to make sure they sounded the same way.

What was the methodology behind his spacing style?

Well, he used to talk about his college music teacher Mr. Froelich. By that time, Sly was already playing instruments, but Mr. Froelich gave him some musical insight on this spacing style.

Were the songs on this album constructed inside or outside of the studio?

For the songs on this album, most of them were written outside of the studio, while some were written in the studio, and the others were written off the cuff. On our first record, most of the songs were written in my mom’s basement. We rehearsed every day in her basement for about a year. People would come over in the morning, and we would rehearse all day long in the basement. But I remember working on “Sex Machine.” “Sex Machine” was recorded in the studio, because I remember the solo on it. Sly called me in to do the solo. This was in San Francisco at Pacific High Studios. I was in the studio with him for about an hour. During the process, he said, “Freddie, go home. Go home. Forget it. It ain’t happening. Go home. I’ll see you in the morning.” So I left. I’m there first thing the next morning and he said, “Play the solo.” In one take, it was done. For most of the songs, I can say, there was always a skeleton done for them. We knew what the lyrics were, but the music was being worked out in the studio. When we all got together and played the songs, some things would be tweaked. The album that was different from this process would be There’s a Riot Goin’ On.

Can you describe the creative dynamic between group members during the making of this album?

At the beginning, Sly would do certain things on the drums to show Greg what he was feeling or what he was looking for or to get Greg off of his regular train of thought. He would do things like that, so he wouldn’t come in with any preconceived notions on how a song would go. He liked to change things up. Sly was pretty free about letting the musicians play what they wanted to play. There were certain songs where he wanted specific things for the group to play. We never had any problems as a group with creativity, but Sly had a structure about what he wanted to do. If you notice, each person in the group played a significant role in shaping our sound. It was more than the musical notes that we were playing; it was the way we hit the notes.

As you look back forty-five years later, you can see how much influence this album has made on popular culture. What are your feelings about the success you achieved with it, and its lasting legacy as one of the best albums ever recorded?

Well, we didn’t know that this particular album was going to do what it did. We didn’t know we had tapped into the pulse of the people. We didn’t know we had hit a homerun. We were just going up to the plate like we normally did and swing. We didn’t know what the outcome was going to be. It wasn’t what we had in mind, it was what God had in mind. It’s like when you write songs and play your music and someone will walk up to you and let you know you played well that night. It’s not so much about how you played it; it’s about how they heard it. Not in our wildest dreams, did we think we were going to have any type of impact. I was on my way to San Francisco one day and someone calls me to let me know that Sly and the Family Stone was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. When that happened, I didn’t know there was such a hall of fame and I wasn’t even thinking about it. I think we’ve received the recognition for our music because we made an impact. My sister Vaetta called me up one day to tell me that people were still playing our music. When people ask me questions about what was going on behind the scenes and how did you make such great music, I tell them it was Sly writing what was coming out of his heart and soul. He is a true genius. I just tell people to do what they love doing. That’s what we did.

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