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Waiting for Sly : From Woodstock to the Las Palmas: Echoes of a Rock Legend

November 13, 1987|STEVE POND

To Whom It May Concern: Your husband/wife/son/daughter/employee/student asked me to confirm that he/she really was at a concert until almost midnight on Wednesday. Yes, it's true that the show was supposed to end by 10--but this wasn't an ordinary concert. This was a Sly Stone concert, and that means that ordinary rules are thrown to the wind, and husbands etc. arrive home late.

So don't blame him/her. He/she paid $24, showed up on time and sat through the most intriguing and infuriating comeback-cum-fiasco in recent memory. It went like this:

8 p.m.: Although the first of the two shows is supposed to begin now, Sly hasn't arrived. Stagehands are just beginning to set up the equipment. And only a handful of people mill outside the Las Palmas Theater, where the marquee reads "Wed-Thu: Sly Stone, Billy Preston, Bobby Womack."

Those are names you'd expect to see gracing a far bigger venue than this 375-seat theater just off Hollywood Boulevard. After all, Sly Stone revolutionized '60s music by mixing rock, soul and R&B and just about single-handedly inventing a bracing forerunner of modern funk. And to make an odd booking even odder, the show's being presented by Nick Edenetti, an entrepreneur who's said he doesn't like pop music and is best known for the Frank Sinatra imitation he does at the Las Palmas.

But Edenetti, it turns out, lives in the same apartment building as Sly. And Sly, the man who sang such ground-breaking hits as "Dance to the Music," "I Want to Take You Higher" and "Family Affair," needs to revive a career that has all but disappeared.

8:30: Now there are a couple dozen fans inside the theater. Still no Sly, who has had trouble being punctual before. He was two hours late when he played the Hollywood Bowl in 1973. A year later, he was two hours late to his own wedding, which he staged with characteristic flair during his own concert at New York's Madison Square Garden.

And the tales of shows he's missed altogether are frequent enough that the fans in the Las Palmas lobby are laughing off the tardiness. "It's part of the show," shrugs one diehard. "It wouldn't be Sly if he showed up on time."

Sly's notoriety isn't limited to his tardiness. Most of his fans have also seen the newspaper reports: Sly arrested and placed on probation for cocaine possession in Bel Air in 1973. Sly sued by the IRS for $116,000 in back taxes in 1979. Sly in a drug rehabilitation program in lieu of criminal charges after a cocaine arrest in 1979. Sly pleading guilty to willful failure to pay child support in 1985.

Those headlines have been more numerous in recent years than Sly's musical appearances: a recording duet with Jesse Johnson last year, two songs on the "Soul Man" sound track this year. But to many fans, all that makes tonight's show even more special: If Sly shows up, they can say they were at his first Los Angeles show in heaven knows how long.

8:45: Sly does show up. In the alley alongside the theater. A fan who's been patiently waiting with his videocamera captures the historic moment.

9:10: "Thank you for waiting," announces a woman who introduces herself as Marisa Stewart. (Sly's real name is Sylvester Stewart.) "We're waiting for one more member of the band, and it's not Sly."

"Do you need a drummer?" yells one member of the audience.

"No," she says. "We need a guitarist."

Somebody yells that he's a guitarist.

"Do you have a guitar?" she asks. "Bring it in right now. I'm serious."

9:42: The audience, which now numbers three or four dozen, starts entertaining itself by singing Stone's "Dance to the Music."

9:45: Nick Edenetti appears. "Here's what it is," he announces testily, as the audience hoots and hollers. "The facts are, there won't be two shows. It's gonna be one long show. . . . Probably one of the best shows you've ever seen in your life."

Marisa Stewart sticks her head out from behind the curtain and says the reason for the delay is Bobby Womack hasn't arrived.

9:50: Edenetti claims Womack just arrived.

9:55: Folks who bought tickets for the 10 p.m. show arrive and find early-show ticketholders sitting in their seats. The Las Palmas quickly becomes a general admission theater. With two shows' worth of fans, the theater is about half full.

9:57: The audience breaks into "Hot Fun in the Summertime."

10: The lights go down. Marisa hollers for somebody named Buddha. The curtains part, and Sly appears in a pink sweatsuit and black fringed boots. He bends over the keyboard, his face inches from the keys. He takes off his sunglasses. He looks distracted. His microphone feeds back as the band goes into a tepid pop-funk groove. "They're not gonna keep me out of this business, no way," mutters Sly.

Sly's at center stage with a small electronic keyboard in front of him. Billy Preston is stage right at a grand piano. The other four members of the nondescript band are behind them.

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