Being a bit of an outcast in his peer group had a profound effect on Jerry Martini — and gave him a place in music history.
First, some context. His friends liked to listen to white musicians and Martini’s preference tended toward the black jazz players, people like King Curtis or the bands he heard while his own band played on a TV show in San Francisco that, despite the politics of the day, would book both white and black bands.
It was there he met Sylvester Stewart — better known as Sly Stone.
“He was the genius and I was the funky white boy sax player,” Martini said of the fateful decision of asking his friend if he wanted to start a band with him.
Sly and the Family Stone was born and, although Sly is no longer performing, he gave his longtime friend permission to keep the music going as The Family Stone.
There’s still a link back to the man Martini calls “an unusual person,” with Sly’s daughter Phunne Stone, the female lead singer.
The band is headlining the main stage on Aug. 18 at the Salmon Arm Roots and Blues Festival. They’ll also join The Boom Booms, David Babcock, Rev. Sekou and Colleen Brown in a workshop of classic soul and R&B earlier that day.
They played a lot of cover songs at first, Martini said, but Sly was also writing songs. At the age of 19, he had his first major hit with a song he co-wrote for Bobby Freeman — C’mon and Swim — and used the money to buy a house for his family.
“He was born with it,” Martini said of Sly’s talent. “All geniuses are born geniuses. He had a god-given power.”
Martini was no musical slouch, either. He started at the age of five with a ukulele he borrowed from neighbours. He’d play it in the neighbourhood for quarters.
By the age of 10, he had added the accordion but his mother insisted he take up the sax, too. Martini said as a young girl, his mother had a crush on a saxophonist and that inspired her determination for her son.
First, though, he learned the clarinet but, by the time he was 16, he had joined a musicians union and was making a bit of a living with his own talents.
The clarinet made an unexpected appearance in the band’s first single, Dance to the Music. Martini said they were recording in New York, it was snowing at the time, he had to walk to the studio and, rather than take the bigger sax in its case, he grabbed his clarinet.
While they were rehearsing the song, he played a few notes on the clarinet “and Sly walked by and heard me and said ‘Get into the studio.’ So when you listen to it, you can hear it has a major hook — that’s my clarinet.”
That $110 clarinet he bought in 1958 is also the last, and long, note in another of the band’s hits, Let Me Take You Higher.
“That song wasn’t about drugs,” Martini said. “Sly and his family were very religious. It’s a spiritual song. But the politicians back then, they said it was about drugs. They didn’t know they were hurting the band doing that.”
The band is heading to Europe this week, a trip it takes every couple of years. Martini said at the age of 74, he still loves to tour.
“I love what I’m doing,” he said. “I’m gonna bop till I drop. … But I was smart, too. I married a nurse.”