Cynthia Robinson, who died Monday of cancer at age 69, was a co-founder of Sly & the Family Stone and the only black female trumpeter to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The group had an enormous influence on popular culture, both as one of the first bands that blended the sexes and races and in their significance in the development of soul, psychedelic and, above all, funk music.
Their first top-10 hit, 1968’s “Dance to the Music,” perhaps their best-known song, opened with Robinson urging the audience to do just that, before demanding that “All the squares go home!” Her ad-libbed cries of encouragement remained a regular feature and her infectious horn riffs (alongside sax player Jerry Martini) a crucial component of the band’s sound.
The song was the standout from their first three albums, which enjoyed only middling success, but from 1969 until the band began to dissolve in 1974, Sly & the Family Stone produced four extraordinary albums: Stand!, which featured their first No. 1 single, “Everyday People,” and “I Want to Take You Higher”; the dark, blues-influenced There’s a Riot Goin’ On (1971); 1973’s Fresh, one of the most important funk recordings ever made; and Small Talk, which was initially underrated but later plundered for samples by decades of hip-hop artists.
The group’s towering performance at Woodstock, in the early hours of Aug. 17, 1969, was generally reckoned as one of the festival’s highlights. Their numerous innovations—which were a considerable influence on artists as varied as The Jackson Five and Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder and the Beastie Boys, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Black-Eyed Peas, and Prince—included slap bass, drum machines, vocal tradeoffs, and an obsessive attention to detail in overdubbing and production.
Though Sly Stone, as songwriter, producer and (it was alleged) sometimes player of the majority of instruments on recordings, was undoubtedly the group’s chief motive force, Robinson’s contribution was, from the band’s foundation, central to the development of their work.
She was emphatic about the importance of practice. “We spent more time together than they [the other band members] spent with their wives and girlfriends. Sly always had us rehearsing,” she told Mike Ragogna in a 2013 interview. Robinson’s diligence extended to attempting to hold the volatile members of the groups together and, not entirely successfully, to prevent their drug use from impeding their performances.
She and Sly’s sister Rose were notable for the time as female band members, since both were instrumentalists, rather than merely backing singers. But Robinson’s voice was as important as her rock-steady horn-playing and stabilizing presence. Many critics argued that her technique of vocal interjection, directed at both the band and audience, anticipated the role of the “hype man” in rap and hip-hop; like her personal influence on her colleagues’ behavior, it was a central but supporting pillar of their sound.
Cynthia Robinson was born in Sacramento, California, on Jan. 12, 1946. She told interviewers she was interested in music from an early age and played the flute in elementary school; her high school, which had no spare flutes, encouraged her to switch to the clarinet, which she didn’t care for. Her first encounter with the trumpet came when she heard a fellow student practicing. “I didn’t even know what instrument it was, but he was playing it so beautifully!” she told Rookie. “When he came out, I said ‘Can I try that?’… Everything I blew was off-key, but I knew that it could sound good if you worked on it, and that’s what I wanted to do.”
Though she went on to study music at the city college, she thought that no band would hire a female trumpeter, and did not acquire her own horn until a “beatnik” she knew told her that she could have one he had lying around if she played for a party. She sloped off to work out “Summertime,” but was frustrated at not finding the notes; when she came downstairs, however, the partygoers applauded and the instrument—which “smelled bad” and had “all kinds of green crud inside the tubing”—was hers.
She had known Sylvester Stewart slightly since the early 1960s, before his transformation into Sly Stone, after her mother saw his guitar in the back seat of his car and invited him into their house to play; she subsequently listened to his radio show on KSOL, at first without knowing it was her high school acquaintance.
By that point, though still convinced no band would hire a female horn player, she had played a few gigs—though her pay was calculated only after the bar tab had been settled, and amounted to $10. “I didn’t drink,” she told one interviewer. “But I kept going back because they were the only guys that would let me play.” Despite these hurdles, she soon progressed to playing backup for more prominent musicians, including BB King.
In 1966, she joined Sly and the Stoners, just as Sly’s brother was setting up his own group, Freddie and the Stone Souls. In March the following year, the bands aligned and signed to Epic, which released their first album, A Whole New Thing.
Though admired by musicians (including Tony Bennett), its sales were modest; their second LP, Dance to the Music, did better on the back of its title track, but the next, Life, released in September 1968, fared poorly. Even so, some songs, notably “M’Lady” and the title track, became staples of live shows. The opening riff from “Into My Own Thing” gained a new lease of life in 2001 as the hook for Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice.”
As the band entered their most creatively productive period, however, their internal dynamics became more fraught. An English tour was abandoned after Larry Graham was arrested for possession of marijuana, but that was a minor blip compared with subsequent problems, mainly in the form of cocaine and PCP.
By 1970, Sly was more or less permanently stoned, and failed to turn up for about a third of concerts. A premature Greatest Hits was released to disguise the fact that new material was not forthcoming. Dealers and gangsters surrounded the group, whose message of racial harmony and integration was giving way to paranoia and thinly veiled menace—the Black Panthers issued an ultimatum for Sly to fire the band’s white members.
That was ignored, but in 1971 Gregg Errico became the first to leave after Sly became convinced he was plotting against him and employed bodyguards; a series of drummers, reminiscent of Spinal Tap, followed. There was a bright spot when the single “Family Affair” became their second No. 1, but There’s a Riot Goin’ On reflected a much darker mood and tensions in the band. Martini was only complaining that he had not been paid; Graham, Stone believed, had taken out a contract on his life. Stone set his bodyguards on to the bassist’s entourage, and Graham departed to set up Graham Central Station.
Concert bookings dried up and sales slumped—as Sly Stone himself often did on stage. Freddie went off to become a preacher. Rose Stone’s husband hauled her out of the band. In January 1975, the remaining members called it a day, though Robinson worked with Sly on two further records, High on You (1975), a solo album, and the following year’s Heard You Missed Me, Well I’m Back. Though the latter was billed as Sly & the Family Stone, it too was essentially a solo studio effort.
Robinson went on to play with Graham Central Station, George Clinton and Funkadelic, and later worked with a range of artists, including Prince (as the trumpeter with the New Power Generation from 1997-1999).
She had two daughters, Laura and Sylvette (known by her middle name, Phunne), the latter by Sly Stone, both of whom she brought up as a single mother. In 2006, she reunited with the Family Stone (without Sly) to tour and record. Stone himself has made only a few brief, incoherent appearances with them, one during their Hall of Fame induction in 1993.