Joel Selvin is the author of Sly & the Family Stone: An Oral History. Originally published in 1998 as part of a series of oral histories commissioned by Dave Marsh, it’s been recently reissued. Composed of 40 interviews from the band and their close associates, the book is told entirely in their own words. “When I collected the interviews, nobody had been around asking and everybody unloaded on me,” explains Joel. “The scary story they told me in vivid images was more of a nightmare than anything.”
How did you get to where you are today, professionally?
I went to work at the SF Chronicle as a copy boy in September 1967 after dropping out of Berkeley High School. One of the perks was free tickets to the Fillmore. I saw Jimi, Cream, Floyd, everybody on the guest list. That ruined me for life.
What happened next?
It got even worse when I went to college, started writing for the school paper and getting free records in the mail. At an early age, I had achieved all my professional aspirations.
Can you please briefly describe the book?
This oral history collects interviews from around 40 members of the band and their close associates. It is told entirely in their own words. When I collected the interviews, nobody had been around asking and everybody unloaded on me. Nobody had ever spoken with Hamp Banks or his pals. The scary story they told me in vivid images was more of a nightmare than anything.
How did you come to this subject for a book originally? What made the topic so interesting to you?
It was an assignment, but one I eagerly undertook. I remember exactly where I was the first time I heard “Dance to the Music.”
Where were you the first time you heard “Dance to the Music”? What did it feel like to hear music like that?
It was a sunny Saturday morning and Sly was doing a now-rare guest stint on KDIA. I was driving down the freeway next to Berkeley’s Aquatic Park when he dropped the needle on his new single. As soon as those voices started, it was like a door opened in my mind and I saw a new world of song.
What did the research process look like?
I went to Hawaii to meet with Jerry Martini, who did five hours of interviews, and David Kaprilak, who became a lifelong friend. I went hair salon to hair salon in Hunters Point looking for Hamp Banks. He took me around and introduced me to many of the other gangsters. He sent me to meet his friend Eddie Chin at the Hollywood Chocolate Potato Chip Factory, where Eddie introduced me to Divine Brown, Hugh Grant’s erstwhile paramour. After talking to Hamp and hearing the real story, I circled back with the band members who all changed their stories once they learned I had spoken with Hamp. Larry Graham phoned me late one night to ask me what happened to him.
What did you feel like, after the first time that you met Hamp?
Hamp came over to my house and was looking over a stack of CDs on my desk. His eyes lit on a British release of a bunch of early unreleased Sly demos. “‘Every Dog Had His Day’ was always one of my favorites,” he said and started to recite the lyrics. To some song that Sly wrote in 1964 and hadn’t seen the light of day since. I knew instantly this guy was the real deal.
He took me on like a project. He arranged interviews, interpreted the results and kept track of me like a coach. We became close friends who enjoyed each other’s company and got involved in various episodes together. Hamp was always wise, thoughtful and exciting. He would send me long emails, unfettered by either capital letters or punctuation and signed every one “yr friend for life.”
How did you go about writing the actual book?
I spit the thing out in a six-week fury after completing all the interviews and getting the transcripts.
What was the easiest thing about the whole project?
Probably editing down the transcripts. That and spending the small sum I was paid.
What was the hardest thing about the whole project?
Getting Rose Stewart to sit for an interview. She never did. We met early in the process and she couldn’t have been more cordial and cooperative, but she could never bring herself to talk (especially after she learned I was talking to her ex, Hamp). She once left me sitting waiting for her in a San Fernando Valley restaurant for 45 minutes before calling the restaurant to say she wasn’t coming.
What are a few tracks / videos / films / books we should also look at, in addition to your book, to get a better sense of the topic?
Sly’s album There’s a Riot Goin’ On is one of the darkest, most scary records ever. Also, from that period, the Stoneflower singles that Sly produced give you a genuine sense of his paranoia and controlling instincts.
What do you hear in the music of those Sunflower singles that indicates that Sly was paranoid and controlling?
“Somebody’s Watching You” by Little Sister is upfront with those sentiments. “Life and Death in G and A” by Mighty Joe Hicks is dark despair set to one chord and a Rhythm King.
Did you have any mentors along the way? What did they teach you?
I learned the newspaper business from older writers. John L. Wasserman was the brilliant columnist who hired me. He taught me to duck. Warren Hinckle was a gift to me. He taught me I wasn’t ducking fast enough. I still find people to teach me. Writing is something you never stop learning how to do.
What’s one tip that you’d give someone looking to write a music book right now?
Do your homework.
What’s next for you?
I have a book of the photographs of Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records coming from Chronicle Books and am in the middle of writing a biography of the great drummer Jim Gordon.