gregg errico
Cynthia Robinson of Sly & the Family Stone Dead at 69

Robinson was one of the first female black trumpeters to gain notoriety in a major recording act, and saxophonist Jerry Martini tells Billboard that she should never be considered a background figure. “She covered a lot of ground,” he says. “She was the first female trumpet player and the first African-American trumpet player in Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She wasn’t in the back. She was out front telling you to get up and dance to the music, and she could blow with the best of ‘em, always.”

The Sacramento-born Robinson’s roots ran deep in blues and R&B. She told Family Stone biographer Joel Selvin, “I used to hear all these guys on 78s at my mother’s when I was a teenager…I used to daydream that I was onstage playing the solos; I’m playing with B.B. King and I’m playing with Lowell Fulsom, Jimmy McCracklin. And I literally ended up being in a band that backed them up at different clubs. It was like a dream come true, but that was as big as I could dream.”

Robinson joined Stone – who dubbed her “one of the best trumpeters in the world” – in his Sly and the Stoners band in 1966 and stayed on board as he crafted the pop/rock/R&B synthesis that became the Family Stone. After the group’s dissolution in 1975 she went on to play with bassist Larry Graham’s Graham Central Station and also worked with George Clinton, Prince and as part of Sinbad’s Aruba Summer Soul Festival. Since 2006 she’s been part of the Family Stone with Martini and drummer Gregg Errico. The group also features her daughter with Sly Stone, Sylvette Phunne Stone, a singer and multi-instrumentalist in her own right. (Robinson had one other daughter, Laura Marie). [Read More]
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Although blessed with a vast audience devoted and open-minded enough to follow him down ever-more obscure musical paths, he seemed intent on alienating them, regardless. He started turning up to gigs late, or not at all, necessitating their cancellation with the audience already in the venue – in 1970, he missed 27 out of 80 shows – ruining the band’s reputation in the process. Quite why is a matter of debate. Some people thought he was just suffering from a lethal combination of arrogance and being permanently out of his mind on drugs. Martini tells me that he thought Stone’s behaviour was all somehow linked to the commercial failure of the band’s 1967 debut album, A Whole New Thing, a notably different-sounding record to any of its successors: afterwards, his label insisted he came up with a straightforward hit, which he did, in the shape of Dance to the Music. “When he started, he started with his heart and his mind wide open and he got down right away by the powers that be in the music industry, and it kind of broke his heart. We had a lot of success, but I think it damaged Sly morally. It hurt him that he wasn’t able to use his true genius to go in the direction that people like Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis did.” But once again, Stone says otherwise. “Nah, I was trying to be too complex, too musical. I was trying to be Bob Dylan too. But you know, Dylan had the words and he just kept the music simple. He knew how to do that. But I’ll tell you this, I knew how to do it after that album, didn’t I? OK, I’ll boogie down. All you’ve got to do is give them the music that they can hear and they can dance to, and that’s what we did. Dance to the Music!”

Stone claims the missed shows weren’t always his fault. The other members of the band were losing interest – “people get boyfriends and girlfriends, they start acting differently” – but “if you’re the leader, you take the acclaim, you should take the blame”. “Do I have any regrets?” he says. “Shit, yes, I have regrets.” There’s a long pause. “I just can’t think of one now.”