"He's a genius--a genius I tell you," gushed record producer Lou Gordon as he stood backstage one night this week, watching the legendary, but trouble-plagued soul/rock star Sly Stone hunched over a keyboard, hammering out a funk tune.
Gordon raved about Sly the Great again and again during the rehearsal for the singer-writer-keyboardist's Las Palmas show. But Stone, whose innovative merger of R&B and rock in the late '60s influenced a generation of musicians including Prince and Michael Jackson, was having trouble in this late-night session keeping in sync with the band, which included Billy Preston on piano. Like most first-night rehearsals, this one was ragged.
Suddenly Stone--medium-sized, slender, wearing a black jump suit--stood up and walked away, while the other musicians were still playing. Something was wrong.
It turned out, someone involved in the production confided, Stone wasn't happy with the drummer. But Stone didn't want to be the hatchet man. Someone else had to do the dirty work while Stone headed for a backstage lounge room to do something else he hates--interviews.
Stone surrounded himself in the small, smoke-filled room with an entourage which seemed to give him some confidence.
"Things (sure) are different now," said Stone, gazing around the dingy lounge in the small theater. "My circumstances have changed."
How true. Back in the late '60s glory days, Stone could be found headlining 15,000-seat arenas. Some rock historians still maintain that Sly and the Family Stone--as his band was known--was the highlight of the 1969 Woodstock festival.
But drug abuse, which he has said in previous interviews stemmed from a raft of insecurities, derailed his career. After the early '70s, the quality of his albums dropped drastically. None of his several comeback attempts have returned him to his early status. In the '80s, the record he's best known for his police record.
Is he drug-free now?
"I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm fine," said Stone, almost chanting. The question didn't seem to bother him. "I'm straight, I'm clean. What else can I say?"
When the subject of age came up, Stone laughed. "I'm old, very old," he said. "I've lied about my age so much I'm not quite sure how old I am."
Several ages in the early 40s range were suggested. "Forty-two sounds about right," he said, smiling
According to Stone, he's had offers from record companies but none that have been worthwhile. Though he recorded an album for Warner Bros. album in 1983, it didn't sell enough to reach the national Top 200.
Apparently the absence of a contract hasn't kept him from writing. He's been collaborating with Preston. "I've got some new stuff that's real good. People will hear and they'll know I've been doing something good. I'm not through yet."
Stone does isolated dates like the Las Palmas show when he's in the mood--which isn't often. According to one person involved with the show, he took this week's engagement because he needs the money.
Money was certainly on Stone's his mind during rehearsal. He blamed insufficient funds on his inability to hire the musicians he had wanted for the shows. "It takes money to send for the people I wanted and I don't have it," Stone lamented.
What Stone would like most now is a record deal. But he knows labels may be leery of him. "Some people still don't trust me," he said. "They think I still do things a certain way.
Should they trust him now?
"Some people do trust me," he answered. "It all balances out."