Flashback: Sly and the Family Stone in Charlottesville, 1973

Over the years, the University of Virginia has hosted some of the world’s most iconic musicians: Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones, Duke Ellington, B.B. King, Bruce Springsteen, The Four Tops, Dionne Warwick,  Fleetwood Mac, R.E.M., Paul Simon, Jay-Z, and Bob Dylan, to name drop a few.   As a huge music fan, I’ve always been interested in what these concerts tell us about commercial trends and aesthetic shifts in popular music. 

One concert, in particular, has long fascinated me: Sly and the Family Stone’s 1973 performance at University Hall (U-Hall). 

On Friday night, November 30, Sly and the Family Stone performed at U-Hall, the university’s the multipurpose arena. Taking the stage around 10:30 p.m.,  the band opened with the monster funk jam, “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).”  Spirits were high as the crowd sang in unison with the band: 

Lookin’ at the devil, grinnin’ at his gun
Fingers start shakin’, I begin to run
Bullets start chasin’, I begin to stop
We begin to wrestle, I was on the top

I want to thank you falettinme be mice elf agin
Thank you falettinme be mice elf agin

Sly and the Family Stone  got off to a strong start, but tension left over from the band’s late start surfaced throughout the concert. 

On one occasion, Sly stopped the show for what he viewed as the crowd’s disrespectful behavior during the band’s performance of “Que Sera Que Sera.” “

“That’s my sister over there who’s trying to sing. You’re hurting my feelings. We don’t want to sing anything that you don’t want to hear.” 

The issue, according to second-year student  William Bruckner was not Rose’s performance but rather the refusal of fans in the front rows to sit down. Bruckner  noted that it was frustrating to have “the star group completely hidden from view by the people who already had the best seats in the house. There was no magic for those of us with the misfortune of having to find seats further back.”

Though the concert definitely had some issues, there were also some high points, most notably, the band’s fiery rendition of “I Want to Take You Higher.” 

“Peace signs and clenched fists filled the air as Sly surveyed the mass of people, totally under his spell,” Andy Ballentine reflected in his review of the concert. 

On December 3, the Cavalier Daily ran a story on the Sly and the Family concert with a particular focus on PK German’s decision to dock the popular band for its lateness. A student run group, PK German brought some of the biggest names in popular music to UVA’s grounds.  According to Newcomb Hall Director John A. Herring, PK German’s refusal to pay the full price for Sly’s services was justifiable: “We felt the flat fee should not be paid in full and we put into effect a clause in our addendum to withhold a sum of $2,000 for the 40 minutes to an hour that the band seemingly refused to go on stage…When a new check is prepared by the Bursar’s Office, PK German will pay the contracted price, minus $2,000.”  

By the time of his visit to Charlottesville, Sly’s issues with lateness (and no-shows) were well known. In fact, in its concert review, which was generally quite favorable, the Cavalier Daily noted that many students “didn’t show up because they thought Sly wasn’t going to show up .”  

Of course, many people did show up. 

Why? 

Because Sly remained one of the most innovative artists in popular music. 

And with the release of Fresh in June, he was still very much at the top of his game. 

As Stephen Davis wrote in his Rolling Stone review: 

Fresh is Sly’s new direction for 1973, a potpourri of styles, new musical attitudes and futuristic black trances. In a sense it completes the cycle that every successful pop musician undergoes, from a strict Top 40 mentality to a more complex and creative (yet still commercially viable) maturity. The Family Stone’s early records were classy and exuberant exhortations to Spirit; we were urgently advised to dance to the music, to stand. You can do it if you try…Fresh is a growing step for Sly — out of the murky and dangerous milieu that infused Riot and into a greater perspective on his own capacity to make music a positive form of communication. In its own sense, and on its own terms, it is his masterpiece.”

There’s so much more to say about Fresh, as there is so much more to say about Sly’s concert in Charlottesville . 

The Cavalier Daily’s coverage of the event is a topic in itself. So, too, are some UVA alumni’s memories of the event. 

Over the years, I’ve heard some pretty funny stories about not just the concert but Sly’s arrival to the city. 

Thanks to the willingness of UVA alumni to share, Kevin Everson and I did a short film on Sly’s visit. 

“How Can I Ever Be Late” takes the tarmac arrival of Sly and the Family Stone as ap oint of departure: African American Students of the University of Virginia greet the band at the airport in 1973. 

The film has played at several festivals, including,  International Film Festival Rotterdam, Rotterdam; Harvard Film Archive, Cambridge, Massachusetts; Princeton Garden Theatre; London Film Festival, London, England; Alternative Film and Video, Belgrade; BAM Cinemafest, Brooklyn, New York; Crossroads, San Francisco; Virginia Film Festival, Charlottesville, Virginia, Indie Memphis Film Festival, Memphis, Tennessee, Fronteira Festival, Goiânia, Brazil, Curtas Vila do Conde, Vila do Conde, Portugal.