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40 Years Ago: Sly Stone Gets Married in Front of 21,000 Fans at Madison Square Garden

Sly Stone Madison Square Garden Wedding
New York Daily News Archives, Getty Images

Think Kanye West‘s recent engagement and wedding to reality star Kim Kardashian ignited a crazy media spectacle? Imagine if he had done what music legend Sly Stone did on June 5, 1974 — gotten married in front of 21,000 fans right on the stage at Madison Square Garden!

Stone was the leader of Sly and the Family Stone, who exploded onto the music scene in the late ’60s by smashing genre boundaries with their innovative, infectious and exuberant blend of rock, soul and funk. Their most famous songs include ‘Everyday People,’ ‘Dance to the Music‘ and ‘Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),’ which Janet Jackson famously sampled for her 1989 smash ‘Rhythm Nation.’ The group’s multiracial, mixed gender lineup was just as groundbreaking as their music, and years later would serve as one of the main models for Prince and the Revolution.

Unfortunately, things fell apart for Stone just as quickly as they had come together. Heavy drug use, interpersonal disputes and other issues caused a two and a half year delay between the release of the group’s 1969 breakthrough album ‘Stand!’ and its much-anticipated follow up, 1971′s ‘There’s a Riot Goin’ On.’ The record was brilliant, but it was also shockingly different than Stone’s previous work: darker, angrier and nearly completely devoid of the optimism that had made his earlier music so popular. This new direction — and more importantly, Sly’s habit of showing up late or not at all to a large percentage of his concerts — derailed much of the group’s hard-earned momentum.

1973′s ‘Fresh’ was more upbeat, and again earned nearly unanimous praise from peers and critics, but only one song from that album cracked the Top 20, and when it came time to promote the next record, 1974′s ‘Small Talk,’ it was clear something major needed to be done to draw the world’s attention back to Sly and his music. Luckily, a big change in his personal life afforded the bandleader and natural showman just such an opportunity: He was looking to get married to model and actress Kathy Silva, the mother of his child, Sylvester, Jr. So why not kill two birds with one stone, turn the whole thing into a publicity event?

“You should do it as your opening act,” suggested Stone’s friend and Epic Records representative Stephen Paley. He was partially joking, according to a report on the big night from Rolling Stone, but Sly’s eyes lit up. Soon after, the star left a message on Paley’s answering machine: “I wish you would make my wedding the biggest event this year. You can do it if you want to. I’ll be at home awaiting your ideas.”

It was already early May, but plans were drawn up to stage the wedding just a month later, right before the band’s June 5 concert at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, perhaps the most prestigious venue in the music world. ‘Soul Train’ host Don Cornelius was hired to serve as the MC, talk show host Geraldo Rivera was an usher, and Paley served as best man. Ultra-popular designer Roy Halston was enlisted to create elaborate, futuristic gold outfits for the happy couple. Elaborate plans called for a laser-light show, a real-life “angel” flying on wires dropping gold glitter all over the crowd, and for thousands of doves to be released (indoors?) to celebrate the nuptials. The official invitation also promised a star-studded reception at the Starlight Roof of the Waldorf Astoria and asked attendees to “wear something gold.”

As you can imagine, an absolute ton of money was spent trying to hastily arrange all of this magic. As an extensive account of the wedding planning in the Aug. 26, 1974 issue of The New Yorker explained, Paley’s job as wedding planner was made far more difficult by his friend and client’s continued erratic behavior. One telling encounter from the article finds Paley venting to his hairdresser about Stone’s habitual tardiness. “The bad news is that Sly didn’t rehearse on Saturday and he didn’t rehearse on Sunday. The good news is that he did show up for his 8:00 rehearsal on Monday. The bad news is that he came to his 8:00 rehearsal at 11:45 and stayed only fifteen minutes. The good news is that he said he wanted to rehearse and record the wedding march at noon today. The bad news is that he didn’t show up …”

Nevertheless, the big event did take place on the planned day — albeit in not quite as ornate a manner as originally conceived. The threat of an ASPCA lawsuit kept the doves from flying, and the Garden wouldn’t let the human “angel” fly unless Stone and company posted a $125,000 security bond. They declined to pick up that fee, and also opted not to pay for the 200 extra security guards the venue demanded in order to allow the wedding party to stage a processional right through the audience.

But there were still 12 beautiful models carrying golden gilded palms, even if there weren’t enough fog machines to make the laser light show behind them look as impressively 3D as it had been on a previous demonstration. As you can see in the video below, even a seasoned stage performer like Stone wasn’t immune to the traditional nervousness all grooms feel during their ceremony, as the minister’s “Don’t be nervous” joke elicits a chuckle that just might be the most honest, real and unstaged moment of the entire spectacle.

Watch Sly Stone Get Married at Madison Square Garden

Unfortunately, all of Paley’s hard work and all that money did very little to help Sly’s career — in fact, it didn’t even achieve the desired short-term effect of fully selling out the show. ‘Small Talk’ got only the slightest of chart bumps as a result of the ensuing media circus. (Years later, the Beastie Boys would lovingly revisit two of the album’s songs — sampling ‘Loose Booty’ for 1989′s ‘Shadrach‘ and covering ‘Time for Livin’‘ punk-rock style for 1992′s ‘Check Your Head’ album.)

Sadly, Stone and Silva divorced just two years later in 1976, after accusations of abuse and a tragic accident that saw Sly’s dog attack and maul their young son. “I didn’t want that world of drugs and weirdness,” Silva told People magazine. Stone largely disappeared from the public eye for most of the following four decades, releasing new songs and records very sporadically and making ever rarer, often bizarrely brief on-stage appearances — such as his 2006 visit to the Grammys. Most recently, he contributed three new songs to a 2011 all-star tribute album titled ‘I’m Back! Family & Friends.’

Oh, and good luck erasing this image from your mind.

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