Back in 1967, when funky trumpeter Cynthia Robinson joined forces with musical visionary Sly Stone, most “girls” in band units wore pretty dresses and harmonized in the background. “I never thought for one second I’d be able to play with a real band,” Robinson recalls via telephone from her home in the Bay Area. “When I was in high school, I went through a lot of bad treatment and was called a lot of names by boys, because I wanted to play. Sly was different.”
Fusing his gospel roots with hippie rock, Sly crafted a soul sound that made them one of the most innovative groups in the country. Whether in the studio or on-stage, for nine years and six albums, Sly & the Family Stone, whose hits include “Dance to the Music,” “Family Affair” and “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” went above and beyond the competition. Along with bassist Larry Graham, drummer Gregg Errico, saxophonist Jerry Martini, keyboardist Rose Stone, they would go on to fame and infamy.
Sly and the Family Stone would influence other greats including Miles Davis, Prince and D’Angelo as well as being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. However, with the exception of their glorious moments at Woodstock and various television appearances on the Dick Cavett Show, Soul Train and Mike Douglass (all which can be seen on YouTube) there hasn’t been many outlets to hear that amazing band in all its boogie down energy until the recent release of Live at the Fillmore East.
Recorded in 1968 at the famed Fillmore East, where Sly and the Family Stone had previously opened for Jimi Hendrix, the group’s majestic music inspired writer David Henderson to say in Crawdaddy magazine, “Sly plays a Beulah Baptist organ. His white Gabriel cape gleams like the full moon. He riffs Egyptian chromatics with the ease of a jacklegged preacher. You begin to think he can heal people right onstage.”
In the same story, Henderson described Cynthia Robison as, “a saucy tomato from Sacramento with thick red hair and a sensual bougaloo. She blows a hot lip trumpet (the only female player of trumpet I’ve seen in any group) and comes forth with a sensual gutsy blues wail as well.”
Forty-seven later, Cynthia Robinson, who still tours the world playing with the Family Stone, remembers her back in the day life on the road with the musicians she calls, the greatest band in the world.”
EBONY: Why were these shows recorded in the first place?
Cynthia Robinson: They (Epic Records) were talking about putting out a live album back then, but I don’t know what happened to it. A couple of times they recorded, but it just didn’t work out.
EBONY: Can you talk about your contributions to the group’s sound?
CR: My thing was whatever Sly wanted from me, I would try to do. Some things, I never would’ve attempted, but if Sly wanted it, I’d try my best to do it.
EBONY: Who were some of your favorite trumpet players?
CR: As time passed on got to hear some players who were straight up funky, not just jazz. Nat Adderley for instance, he’s a funky trumpet player, so he was my man. I loved him and all the ones playing now: Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Roy Hargrove. I also love sax players like Red Holloway and Stanley Turrentine; he’s my favorite. I could play his records all night long, over and over again. Just the feeling in him and the way he would attack a solo, there was never any resistance in him.
EBONY: What was the vibe like on stage?
CR: Sly was really good at reading the audience. If we had two shows he’d always want to do something different for the second show. A lot of people came to both, so he wanted to change it up.
EBONY: In 1968, the year Live at the Fillmore was recorded, Sly and the Family Stone released two albums (Dance to the Music and Life), when did you all find time to rehearse?
CR: We had time in between the show or the travelling day. Once we got started, we rehearsed a lot, but once we got on the road it depended on us getting a studio. But, we were with each other for so long because we were with each other so often. On stage, it didn’t take us long to catch onto something that he was throwing at us. Nobody gave us a repertoire written down on a piece of paper, he just went with how he felt, so we had to watch him and just chime in when we caught on to what was going on.
EBONY: What was Sly like before the show?
CR: He made attention to the sound in the place we were playing and that’s how he made sure where to set the mics according to the acoustics. He paid attention to all of that. Myself, I could never tell you why he made a choice one way or another, but I know he made attention to details.
EBONY: Listening to the live album, I hear much more of the gospel/blue base than on the studio tracks.
CR: We were free to adlib things. The guys were really good at that. Sometimes they would change the next verse and it would be a different hornline. Sly would cut things off in a different way than the real recordings; he’d just stop it and go into something else. I watched him at all times.
EBONY: What were your favorite songs to do live?
CR: Everything, every single thing I loved and nothing I did not want to play. I loved the hornlines and the harmonies on the horns as well as the placement.
EBONY: Being a multiracial band in the ‘60s, were there ever any incidents on the road?
CR: We experienced things that we had only read about on the West Coast. One night we were driving through Detroit headed for a gig and we were running out of gas. There was a curfew on the city and we saw trucks with soldiers in them. They stopped us and made us get out of the car. They roused and harassed us; they were bothering Sly’s dad, which set him off. We had to grab Sly to calm him down, because those guys had rifle and they were not kidding. We had Caucasians and African-Americans in the same car, and those Army guys didn’t like that. They called one of the white women a ‘nigger lover’ and she jumped up like she was going to do something and I grabbed her. Those guys were just looking for an excuse to do something. In the end, we were glad to get away in one piece, but we still needed gas.
EBONY: Guitarist Jesse Johnson, who worked with Sly in the ’80s, said that he played him new tracks that were just amazing. Have you ever heard these songs?
CR: There was a lot of his stuff that got lost; something like 300 hundred songs that one of his assistants lost somewhere in our journeys. The assistant left it somewhere and it was never recovered.
EBONY: Can you give me your final thoughts on Sly Stone?
CR: Sly made a big contribution to music, but I don’t feel he is given his righteous props. Some people in charge of giving credit or the blame would rather give him blame. I saw Rolling Stone magazine once and they were talking about the top 50 songs, and there wasn’t one Sly song; how does that happen? But, Sly isn’t the type to brown nose for props. He’s always known what he had, what he was capable of; I’m just proud that he took the time and effort to put it to music.