Cynthia Robinson, who has died aged 71, was the trumpeter with Sly and the Family Stone, the so-called “first funk family of San Francisco”, led by the charismatic Sly Stone; famous for their psychedelic soul hit Dance to the Music (1968), they were the first multi-racial and mixed-sex group to achieve international success.
Cynthia Robinson was a crucial part of the line-up; she was integral to Sly Stone’s vision of a gloriously colourful band of brothers, cousins and friends, black and white, all bringing their own sound and musical talents to the mix. At a time when African-American girls in groups were often consigned to the role of back-up singer, Cynthia Robinson’s musicianship was celebrated. As the first notes of Dance to the Music struck up, it was her voice that could be heard shouting “Get up! Get on up and dance to the music!” after which she would put the trumpet to her lips and blast out melodious “funk” with gusto.
The band’s stage performances were an energetic mixture of wild hippy grooves and tightly constructed bass lines. Dressed in multi-coloured jumpsuits, glitter and tassles (Cynthia sported a large afro for many years) the Family Stone would boogie around Sly, the funk evangelist, who strutted across the stage “like a preacher”, as Cynthia Robinson later recalled of their memorable performance at Woodstock in 1969.
Dance to the Music was followed by several further hits on which Cynthia Robinson’s trumpet-playing (and vocals) featured prominently, including Life (1968), Everyday People (1969) and the ecstatic I Want to Take You Higher (1969).
By the early 1970s, however, Sly Stone’s utopian dream of the happy family group was crumbling. The Black Panthers had begun to take an interest in them and were demanding “contributions”, as well as urging Stone to sack the white members of the band. When he refused, a member of the Panthers turned up at a gig and threatened him with a gun. Stone himself was developing a considerable cocaine habit and had become increasingly unreliable, missing performances or refusing to go on stage. By 1975 most of the original band members had left and only Cynthia Robinson, who had been Stone’s girlfriend for a while, remained.
Although she worked with Stone into the 1980s, eventually Cynthia Robinson had also had enough of his erratic behaviour. She went on to play with Graham Central Station, a band led by her cousin and fellow Family Stone member Larry Graham, and worked with George Clinton and Prince.
Cynthia Robinson was born on January 12 1944 in Sacramento, California. Her first instrument was the flute, but when it was suggested she move on to the clarinet she objected, asking instead if she could learn the trumpet. Cynthia encountered resistance from the boys at her school, however, who regarded the trumpet as a male instrument. “It left me with the impression that, you know, no guy in the world would let a girl play the trumpet in his group,” she recalled.
She had originally encountered Sly Stone at school, but they met again in the mid-1960s and she joined his band Sly and the Stoners. A change of name and line-up resulted in Sly and the Family Stone’s first album A Whole New Thing (1967), which made little impression on the charts but was followed by their breakthrough hit album Dance to the Music (1968).
In 2006 she re-formed the Family Stone without Sly Stone, joining forces with the two original white members of the band, the saxophonist Jerry Martini and the drummer Grey Errico, as well as Sylvette Phunne Stone, her daughter with Stone.
She is survived by Sylvette and another daughter, Laura Marie Robinson.
Cynthia Robinson, born January 12 1944, died November 23 2015