NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - As the horns blare with a syncopated rhythm and singers call to the crowd of about 1,000 to dance, a hunched man hidden in the wings of the stage smiles broadly, watching his band like a proud father.
After decades away from the spotlight, Sly Stone has returned to the stage with his band Sly and The Family Stone, performing in Europe this summer and this week making his first New York appearance in 32 years.
Dressed in a white sweatsuit trimmed in silver, sunglasses and Mohawk hairstyle, Stone fills the club with his rich, mellifluous voice as the band spends an hour cycling through their greatest hits, including “Everyday People,” “Family Affair” and “Stand.”
For those who have followed the career of 64-year-old Stone -- who was born Sylvester Stewart -- the shock is not the fact that he can still sing but that he showed up at all.
For after reinventing rock and roll in the late 1960s as a pioneer of funk, rock and rhythm and blues, Stone disappeared into a haze of death threats, financial problems and drugs.
Stone, who declined to be interviewed for this article, began missing concerts in the early 1970s on a regular basis. He has not released an album of new material since 1982.
Between 1973 and 1989, there was a steady list of arrests on drug and gun charges -- but for the better part of the last 20 years, there’s been little more than silence.
However after appearing at the 2006 Grammy Awards, Stone returned to the stage this summer for a European tour and his agent, Steve Green of Artists International Management, says he how has a stack of offers including for the Super Bowl in 2008.
“He can do it,” Green told Reuters in a telephone interview, sounding part salesman and part motivational speaker. “But he’s got to want to do it.”
Sly and The Family Stone emerged out of the San Francisco scene in the late 1960s, with anthems that came to define both the free spirit and the political turmoil of the era, with the band containing blacks and whites and also men and women.
But after a string of hits from 1968 to 1970, Stone’s behavior turned erratic. He’d show up hours late for gigs, if at all. Financial problems tore the band apart.
And his own obsessive nature delayed the next album “There’s A Riot Goin’ On.” The album is now considered a landmark, laying the blueprint for the funk sound influencing many from the Temptations, the O’Jays, to Miles Davis.
Despite a couple of flirtations with chart success in the early 1970s, Sly slipped into seclusion in California.
The turning point came a few years ago when his youngest sister, Vaetta, who sang on the Family Stone albums, was sent by his parents to care for him. She had a tribute band that played the group’s old hits and cajoled him into attending one of their Los Angeles shows in 2005.
“I looked up and I saw him dancing to his own music. Since then he’s been showing interest in wanting to play gigs,” she said in an interview.
She said the biggest challenge was convincing agents that Stone would meet his obligations but her persistence paid off and this year’s European tour was booked.
“He did all 14 shows on time,” she said proudly.
Green said Stone was the most difficult act he had handled, recalling a story of Stone buying a puppy while in Europe which ended up in quarantine in London, in danger of being destroyed. Green had to intervene and find the dog a home in England.
“Sly has an amazing mind. He still comes up with lyrics that are unbelievable. But the other side of Sly is ‘me, me, me’,” he said.
In the meantime, Vet says Stone has a treasure trove of new music he’s worked on for years. Will it be released?
“I certainly hope so,” she said. “But it’s got to be his decision. No one can make him do it when they want it done.”
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