Because so many musicians have played in The Family Stone over the years, we wouldn’t blame you if you lost track of the band’s lineup. These days the group includes original members Martini, trumpet player Cynthia Robinson and drummer Greg Errico. Rounding out the group and helping to deliver the band’s trademark grooves are lead singer/keyboardist Alex Davis, Blaise Sison on bass, lead guitarist Nate Wingfield and vocalist Trina Johnson Finn.
During a conversation with Pollstar, the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame member talked about The Family Stone’s past, how the “door is always open” for Sly and what the future has in store for “Everyday People.”
What’s the biggest misconception people might have about the Family Stone?
There have been three or four different versions of it [Family Stone] out. There were other members of the band. Also, they [fans] don’t know what to think. All I can say to correct that is, that we have three original members. We have a singer named Alex Davis that looks and sounds like Sly. We stay true to the music as opposed to some of the other Sly-type bands that want to change it and bring it into the 2000s and update it. My answer to that is, “Why would you want to do that?” Because it was never broke. Those songs are still great and we want to give [fans] as close to that as possible. They’re working very good.
But doesn’t the band play material other than the hits?
Oh, yeah. Within our show, all the people really want to hear are the greatest hits. But Sly has so many other ones. We actually know several of the other songs. We’re doing songs from the original record from 1967 – A Whole New Thing – like “Underdog” and things like that. And we do “Are You Ready” and other songs that aren’t on the Greatest Hits. So we’re giving them other songs that the people, in general, especially the new generation, aren’t as familiar with. And we are working on some Family Stone stuff, too. Freddie Stone has a lot of songs.
What do you see when you look out into the audience?
We’re seeing children and grandchildren of our original fans coming to our shows. Especially Sunday [June 24] at the Stern Grove Festival in San Francisco. That’s a yearly thing. We opened for Anita Baker and there were so many people. There were people I went to high school with. I graduated from high school on Balboa there in 1960. I saw high school chums, I saw their children, and there are thousands of them. It was wonderful.
Where do you see The Family Stone in regards to the history of funk?
I think we were pioneers. For many reasons. Because of race, because of gender and because of subject material. The songs and lyrics Sly wrote, they’re immortal, they’re standards. That’s why you have acts like Maroon 5, Joss Stone and John Legend that are still doing the tunes. They’re keeping them fresh in peoples’ minds.
We wait towards the end, actually about the middle of the show … We do a few new songs that people may not be familiar with but the groove is there. Then we hit them with “Everyday People” and follow it with “Dance To The Music” and all the people that can stand, “Stand.”
Do you consider The Family Stone to be a tribute band or a band that has an incredible catalog?
Well, if we didn’t have three original members, which are more original members than just about any band from our era, I would consider that [being a tribute band]. Three of us, that’s a lot of members in a classic band … A lot of the older bands, they don’t even have one original member. They have people who joined, oh, 10 years later and are taking the bands over. We have three of the real deal and there’s no way we can be considered a tribute band.
You worked with Prince for a while.
We still do, Cynthia and I. Last year when he came into town at the Oracle, Cynthia and I played with them. Then the next month at the HP in San Jose, we played with him.
Having worked with Sly and Prince; do you see them as, say, brothers in funk?
Absolutely. When I met Prince, I was mostly [playing with him] August 1997 to 2000. He’s such an observing person. He got a lot from Sly, he got a lot from Santana and from Ray Charles and all of the great people back then. But he really got Sly and you can hear it. Prince definitely has genius qualities. He’s a real, real, smart young man.
I think that Sly is more of the innovator. He opened the doors. Before us, if you had three girls in the band, they’d be standing in back doing the “do-wahs” and stuff.
Sly & The Family Stone, there was a line, originally there were six, after our second album, Rose came aboard, but we were one line across. Everybody was up front.
Regarding the business side, many of the older bands seem to fall into two camps. That is, they either stick with the tried-and-true methods of the music business – agents, managers and such – or they do everything themselves. How does your band conduct its business?
Right now we’re having a lot of meetings about it. We’re going to go over what direction we want to take the band. We’re not Sly & The Family Stone, no matter what we do. We’re The Family Stone and we’re keeping the torch going. I’ve been friends with Sly since the ’50s. If Sly really wanted to do it, We’re waiting for him. If he wants to come back, if he wants to write some songs for us, he knows we can do it. He knows that Alex can do his voice exactly the way he was before.
So that door is open, but what if he wants to perform?
It’s open. When we did the Coachella thing a few years ago, I had my crew and he had his L.A. crew. And my crew stayed true to the songs. There was a little bit of chaos there, but my bass player, Alex, was singing his parts when he didn’t sing them. And we did the best we could. I have some good footage from that. It wasn’t the greatest concert, but it wasn’t because of my crew at all.
Do you think the true story of Sly & The Family Stone has been told yet?
Part of it. There’s a lot of it that’s never going to be told. I’ve got 75 chapters. I’m not going to be doing any family secrets. I’m not going to do, like, members of the Jackson Family, they had members of the family that did a tell-all book.
Most of the media wants, let’s face it, dirt sells better than la-de-da. That’s what everybody wants from People magazine to several people who have written books about the band. When they do interviews, they try to get the most dirt out of me that they can possibly can. I got caught a couple of times 20 years ago and that won’t happen again. When I see it written, I see it written out of context. I won’t go into any names, but a gentleman who wrote a book about the band. Came to Hawaii where I was living and spent a week with me just trying to get the 10 minutes of dirt he could get out of me … I’ll never make that mistake again.
When you write about the dirt, you’re going to sell books but you’re not going to get the true picture.
During the early days of Sly & The Family Stone, was there one singular moment when you realized the band was going to make it?
Oh, yeah. Before we even got a record deal, we realized that. When we first started at Windchester Cathedral (Redwood, Calif., club where CBS Records scouted the band), we used to rehearse so much and practice so hard. And when Dave Kapralik flew out from New York to hear us, I just felt we were going to make it. We were so unique. Even back then we had so much energy. I was the old man at 24. Greg [Errico] was 17; Larry [Graham] and Freddie [Stone] were 18.
Cynthia and I have been playing together for 46 years. Some days we may be a little tired before we go up there. I’ll be 70 in October and I’m not going to say how old she is but she’s younger than me. When she starts dancing, and I don’t care if we hurt afterwards, the adrenaline comes up.
Same question, but regarding the current band. Was there a moment when you knew it was going to work?
After about two or three tries. I had two or three versions of what I have now, trying different people until I found Alex Davis. … As an example, we played the Vallejo Fair last year, and Freddie came out. I was talking to him afterwards, and he said when Alex walked out, the hair stood up on his arms. He goes, “That looks like my brother.” And he was talking about the way Alex acts when he walks. He did his homework. Everybody in the band did their homework. Nate doesn’t look like Freddie Stone but he studied Freddie [and] his guitar licks. Freddie Stone is so bad on the guitar. His rhythm licks are still emulated by young guitar players. He never got the credit for it but he wasn't in it for the credit. He was in it just to do it right.
What do you see for the future of Family Stone?
I see bigger and better gigs. I see us recording songs from us and keeping the same feeling and the same variables that Sly & The Family Stone had. And there were some very good ones, several different people, several singers. It was family music. There’s not going to be any swear words. It’s going to be music about the people, for the people, “Everyday People.”
Upcoming shows for The Family Stone include Beaver Creek, Colo., at Vilar Performing Arts Center July 14; New York City at the Beekman Beer Garden Beach Club July 18; Newark, N.J., at the NJPAC Theater Square July 20; Santa Paula, Calif., at the Citrus Festival July 21; and Hyannis, Mass., at the Cape Cod Melody Tent July 22. Visit TheFamilyStoneMusic.com for more information