I never got to see Sly & The Family Stone perform as a live unit. I wish I did, but I was a victim of being born about 10 years too late (1961 to be precise) to have had the good fortune to have seen Sly & Co., in their prime back in 1968 and 1969. But I’ve been fortunate enough to see some footage here and there over the years. While the greatest focus of attention was always to be had with Sly himself, Cynthia Robinson always managed to get my eyes focused on her for spells.
In the many years that people have been spending looking back on their musical heroes great and small, what I always got from Cynthia was that she was an equal in an era where women had to fight hard to be seen as equals. The ’60s did not always present women as being seen as equals-even when they displayed extraordinary talent. I don’t know what it was specifically about Robinson, but I’ve come to believe that she managed to get herself into the position of being an equal because she was in a band with whom the marriage of Soul with what would become more familiarly known shortly thereafter as Funk forced an aggressive musical solidarity upon an audience. With that backdrop, as a horn player in a band as in your face as Sly’s, you were going to either lay back completely and not even bother to be there or you were going to be a part of that group solidarity by showing what made you, as an individual, worthy of making that whole group so much emboldened in the eyes and ears of an audience.
Cynthia Robinson made The Family Stone so much better because she had the musical goods with that trumpet of hers. But she had that something else. Whenever she stepped up to the mic during “Dance To The Music” and proudly put it out “All squares leave”, I saw a strong woman with inner strength. Maybe I’m seeing too much into things? It was so important back then for African-Americans to be heard. It was also important for women to be heard. It was even more important for an African-American woman to be heard because she had to deal with the double-whammy of having to take part in two different struggles at the same time. During those brief snippets on film where I could see her, all of this encapsulated itself within me over the years until it took for me to become an adult before I could define it to myself as to why she was making such a big impression upon me. The music certainly did a convincing job already. It laid down the foundation for greater awareness down the line for me. It wasn’t until the visual aspect came in that it all made sense to me.
As I was reading little press write-ups here and there as well as the online write-up from Rolling Stone Magazine and learning a few things about her, I began to have these little bits and pieces come popping back into my head that I had read and heard about from various sources over the years. I had heard vague references that she may, in fact, have done a big lion’s share of the job of having to help prop up Sly when he went into his very public burnout during the period of the band’s career which was the post-There’s A Riot Goin’ On period. Having learned this and then having it firmly confirmed in the Rolling Stone article, it told me something. Cynthia Robinson may have held more importance within Sly & The Family Stone than we are ever going to fully know. Tonight, I am celebrating what little I know and the impressions of her that I’ve carried around with me over the years, but I’m also saddened by the fact that it may well be possible that she should have been known as an even bigger figure had we known the fuller details of how important she was to Sly & The Family Stone. At least we got an impression though. That’s better than nothing.
And you know when I made mention of all of the great and small figures? I keep thinking that the giants will fall when the once small figures in music grow in stature as time passes on. Stand, Cynthia! You will be missed.