Cynthia Robinson, the trailblazing trumpeter who co-founded Sly and the Family Stone and later was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, died Monday in Sacramento following a battle with cancer. She was 71 years old.
Robinson was a distinctive personality in a group known for defying musical boundaries. She was the rare female African American trumpeter to play in a chart-topping band, and her horn licks were hallmark to songs including “I Want to Take You Higher” and “Dance to the Music.”
Formed in the flower power-era of the late 1960s, Sly and the Family Stone blended soul and rock ’n’ roll into a seamless sound that continues to resonate today. The band’s musical message reflected its multiethnic makeup, preaching unity and a funky good time regardless of race or gender.
As news of Robinson’s death spread, musicians such as George Clinton of Parliament Funkadelic fame took to social media to post tributes. In a lengthy message attached to an Instagram post, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of The Roots said that Robinson was “a crucial, intricate part of Sly Stone’s utopian vision of MLK’s America. … Cynthia’s role in music history isn’t celebrated enough.”
Sly and the Family Stone’s horn section had strong ties to the Sacramento area. In addition to Robinson, the lineup included saxophonist Jerry Martini, who has lived in Folsom for over a decade. Since 2002, Robinson and Martini played together in The Family Stone, which featured Phunne Stone, the daughter of Robinson and Sly Stone, on vocals. The Family Stone performed its renditions of Sly and the Family Stone tunes at clubs and concert halls across the country and world. In June, the band played England’s Glastonbury Festival for a crowd of more than 30,000 people.
“She’s an icon,” Martini said of his longtime bandmate. “She’s the only female trumpeter of any race in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She had style, and she was a great entertainer on stage. She could play the blues and sing the blues. Now, she’s free, and we’re all really sad.”
Robinson reportedly learned to play trumpet while attending Sacramento schools. She initially met Stone through an acquaintance in high school, and was tapped to play trumpet in an early band with Stone called Sly and the Stoners.
Robinson was a key part of the lineup as Sly and the Family Stone debuted in 1967, wowing critics and crowds alike with its socially conscious lyrics and fiercely funky grooves. Robinson’s trumpet was at the heart of the band’s rhythmic and melodic forces, making a mark on such signature songs as “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again).” In addition, her backup vocals belted through the thick grooves of song such as “Dance to the Music.”
Sly and the Family Stone’s successes included five Top 10 hits, including the chart topping “Everyday People.” The group, which was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, was booked on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and performed at 1969’s Woodstock festival, engaging the audience in a massive call-and-response during “I Want to Take You Higher.” The band was an influence on Miles Davis during his electric-jazz period of the 1970s, and it inspired legions of musicians including Prince, Stevie Wonder and D’Angelo.
Martini said he remembers Robinson as the perfect team player, the kind of musician who wanted to support the overall groove, not try to steal the spotlight. “She didn’t consider herself a soloist, but she could solo,” Martini said. “She brought a certain style, and she never overplayed.”
Robinson’s horn remained in demand even after Sly and the Family Stone broke up in 1975. She played with blues-guitar great Robert Cray as well as with Graham Central Station, the funk band led by former Sly and the Family Stone bassist Larry Graham. The band was tapped as an opening act for Prince in the late 1990s, and many shows featured Robinson and Martini sitting in with Prince’s band.
Robinson was a longtime midtown resident who remained active with The Family Stone until July, when her declining health made it too difficult to perform. Robinson’s fight with cancer was made public in October through an online fundraiser to raise money for her medical expenses. During her final days, Robinson stayed with Martini at his Folsom home. Martini’s wife, a nurse, helped care for the ailing trumpeter.
“She stayed in our front bedroom, and we made sure she got some time outside in the garden,” Martini said. “She got really bad and then had to go back to the hospital. And then the hospital couldn’t do anything more.”
Robinson is survived by daughters Phunne and Laura, who both live in the Sacramento area. Services are pending.
Martini said The Family Stone will continue, but he won’t replace Robinson with another trumpeter.
“We were a team,” he said. “I’ll never find anyone else like her.”