Although Sly & the Family Stone took inspiration from influences ranging from Motown to jazz, rock, and folk heroes of the past, the band's emergence in 1967 captured the mood of the times in a way that would not have been possible in previous years. Musically, they fused soul, R&B and rock into a growing genre called "funk," becoming one of the earliest (and one of the greatest) funk groups in history. Sly & the Family Stone was made up of a crew that was diverse in both race and gender, a groundbreaking move for a pop music act at the time. Combined with their image as poster-children of diversity and social change, the straightforward peace-and-love message of their 1968 single "Everyday People," struck a chord with the hippie crowd of the late 1960s. It might not be an exaggeration to say that "Everyday People" managed to harness hippie optimism as it had never been harnessed before. However you cut it, this tune that sounds so innocent to us today was fresh, original, unprecedented stuff.
"There is a yellow one that won't accept the black one/ That won't accept the red one that won't accept the white one," sang Sly. Nowadays the Family Stone's credo can seem like a pretty simplistic form of multiculturalism, calling for everyone to just hold hands and hang out. Most of us saw that sort of stuff on Sesame Street when we were kids.
But as it turns out, Sesame Street didn't even exist when Sly Stone wrote "Everyday People." The year Sesame Street went on the air? Guess what: 1969, the same year Stand! was a hit album and "Everyday People" dominated the airwaves. We might take it for granted now, but Sesame Street was the first show for kids that tried to depict race, class, and gender equality as a generally positive thing (instead of showing women, minorities and the poor as the butt of stereotyping jokes). The sort of multiculturalism that we know now was a new priority, just squeezing itself into the mainstream, and Sesame Street's cheerful multiracial faces were actually pretty controversial at first. Riding the coattails of the Civil Rights Movement, "Everyday People" and Sesame Street were a part of the same diversity zeitgeist – the general mood of the time.
So we begin to see that for all its corny simplicity, a lot of change had to occur to make a song like "Everyday People" possible when Sly Stone composed it in 1967. Although he was born in Texas, Sly (born Sylvester Stewart) and his siblings grew up in Vallejo, California, a city just outside of the progressive San Francisco Bay Area. His parents moved there partly for the economic opportunity, and partly to get away from the entrenched racism of the South. In the Bay Area, the Stewarts hung out with kids of other races, but they were the first generation in their family to be able to do so. And still, whenever Sly went out with a white girl in high school, he had to send a light-skinned envoy to pick the girl up in his car because the parents would never allow their daughter to go off in a car with a black teenager. Even in a genre like rock 'n' roll, which emerged in the 1950s from the efforts and collaborations of blacks and whites together, most bands and their audiences were still segregated. There was "black music" and "white music," and decades into Civil Rights activism, no one much denied this fact. Sly and the Family Stone's arrival on the scene made it seem like all that was going to change.
Sly Stone was the band's mastermind. In the mid-1960s, twenty-something Sly had already left college to become a popular radio DJ and a pretty high-profile music producer in the Bay Area. He had always stood out for his glittery personality and humorous intensity, and what he really wanted was to be a star. He pulled together a group of his friends and siblings with a vision of creating new, groovy music that combined various influences of the time, especially the psychedelic rock moods of the Bay Area. In 1967, by most accounts Sly and the Family Stone "became the first major American rock band to integrate both in gender and race." Their enthusiastic performances, led by a wild, comical, and glowing Sly Stone, quickly gained them attention in the Bay Area and beyond.
It was a funky, psychedelic, fast-paced time, and although hippies were still seen as outcasts, a laid-back form of hippie enthusiasm was increasingly fashionable nationwide. Decked out in huge Afros, bell-bottoms and glittery vests, Sly and the Family Stone were the perfect apparition for a fervent crowd of peace-and-harmony-loving hippies. "Sly and the Family Stone stood out against the happy haze," writes Sly Stone biographer Jeff Kaliss (I Want to Take You Higher: The Life and Times of Sly and the Family Stone, xiv). "They not only played to the times, but they actually looked like the ideals held dear by their fans: black and white, male and female stood side by side on the stage, arrayed in fantastic fashions and hairdos, rallying the crowd…" Tapping the mood of the moment, "Everyday People," a cheerful romp through images of racial harmony and cooperation, became Sly and the Family Stone's first hit single when they released it in 1968.
Of course, the fight for racial harmony and gender justice in 1968 was about far more than a group of twenty-somethings looking great together on a stage (though, at least by 1960s standards, they really did look great). There were serious changes going on: Martin Luther King, Jr., had been gunned down that year in Memphis, speaking passionately during the final year of his life against the Vietnam War and in favor of a radical anti-poverty platform for the Civil Rights Movement. Urban riots spurred by frustration and anger among poor blacks in cities had become almost commonplace, occurring throughout 1967 and 1968. The Black Power movement and the Black Panthers were on the rise, reflecting an increasing dissatisfaction from African-Americans about the incremental, slow nature of the change they had so long been demanding. Black activists joined with growing droves of white activists in protest against the rapidly expanding war in Vietnam, while pro-Civil Rights President Lyndon Johnson shocked everyone by deciding not to run for re-election. Groups of women were also getting organized to demand rights both on and off college campuses. All this mobilization and change was both disturbing and exciting, and a lot of young people of all races were caught up in the spirit of the moment.
Sly and the Family Stone made this spirit of coming together and transforming society look easy. "The songs on Stand! drew an optimistic portrait of harmony among the races, the triumph of spirit and a whole social agenda playing to liberal sentiments in vogue at the time," writes Joel Selvin, a music journalist who was working in San Francisco then (Smartass, 68). Hinting at a bit of cynicism, Selvin says that "[Sly Stone] plundered the prevailing thinking, converted it into zippy slogans ('Different strokes for different folks'), and managed to perfectly capture a mood among the new young, white American rock crowd."
Whether or not it was a calculated attempt to market himself to white hippies, Sly Stone's sleek songwriting certainly reached a vast crossover audience, and Sly and the Family Stone's multiracial make-up, polished performance, and fusion-driven musical style resonated with vast numbers of young white people. George Clinton, a black funk musician whose career is largely indebted to the popularity of Sly and the Family Stone, tries to give a sense of the unique nature of the group during those times: "They had a strange pop sound. Their pop songs, like 'Stand' and 'Everyday People,' were as pop as you could possibly get, but the black songs was as black and funky as Ray Charles and James Brown. They had the biggest Afros in the world. I thought it was a Bay Area thing, Like Huey Newton" (Kaliss, I Want to Take You Higher, x). In other words, this "pop" stuff was white music, and this "funk" stuff was black music, and Sly Stone was surprising everyone by doing it all while maintaining a clear black identity (wearing a huge Afro was not what you did if you wanted to conform to white society). It's pretty hard to imagine how strange and exciting this must have seemed to both black and white teenagers of their day.
Riding the success of "Everyday People" and the massive popularity of Stand! in 1969, Sly and the Family Stone went to Woodstock and took the audience by storm. The iconic story is that they drove the crowd into a euphoric fervor with an extended, drug-influenced performance of "I Want to Take You Higher." Many say that their performance at Woodstock stole the show.
"Everyday People" captured a moment, but almost as soon as the song evoked the progressive, laid-back sensibility of the hippie generation, the moment was over. All of a sudden it was the seventies: parents and kids may have had Sesame Street to turn to, but many of the leading Civil Rights activists were dead or in jail, the Vietnam War had escalated rather than ended, there were race riots burning in many of the major cities, and the most basic problems raised by the movements of the sixties—poverty, racism, and oppressive gender roles—still persisted. Expectations for the future had been raised by the progress made in the previous decade, and some would be very disappointed by what would come next. Still, some trends, like multiculturalism and teaching diversity, turned out to be lasting ones that have had a huge effect on how we live today.
It's easy to write off the Family Stone's Scooby-dooby-doo-bee's and ooh-sha-sha's as some sixties silliness that is no longer relevant today. But it's worth thinking about what "Everyday People" would mean if its uniting dream had really come to fruition. Is the spirit of "Everyday People" now confined to Belle and Sebastian covers, Smarties commercials, and elementary school curricula? Is interracial harmony a reality in your own life or school? What about communication and acceptance across gender or class lines? How does "Everyday People"—or Sesame Street, for that matter—relate to the whole ethnic studies controversy in Arizona? We really can't answer those questions for you, but it's pretty great that such a patently silly-sounding song can still raise them. "Everyday People" is perhaps above all a reminder that sometimes the corniest things around (like Sesame Street, or Dr. Seuss) are still the best.