SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Sacramento native Dawn Silva has contributed to some legendary 1970s music pioneers: Sly and The Family Stone and George Clinton’s Parliament Funkadelic.
Silva sat down with ABC10 to talk about her book, her musical career, her brief stint in the Black Panthers, and some Sacramento history.
Portions of the below interview have been condensed for length and clarity. The video contains the complete interview.
Q: How did your musical journey begin?
A: How did my musical journey begin? Well, it started with Sly and The Family Stone. It was just for fun. As a hobby, I started with a group called Windsong, which was my sister, a cousin and we sang all over Sacramento [at] a lot of local talent shows. Well, there was one talent show that happened once a year of all the high schools in Sacramento and we won like three or four years in a row. And then I guess the entertainment bug bit me. So, at 15 years old, my dad who loves Sly and the Family Stone took me to the Memorial Auditorium on J Street. I believe at that time Santana was opening up. After the show was over, I made a pledge to myself that one day I was going to be in a famous group. Needless to say, I didn't know that some years down the line, I would actually get that opportunity to meet Sly Stone when he was recording a new album and he needed some background singers and a friend of mine who was a drummer also from Sacramento [Michael Samuels] took me to the Record Plant in Sausalito, California, and I did a recording session. After the session was over, Sly said, 'Welcome to Sly and The Family Stone.' So officially, that's how it started.
Q: What was the music scene like in Sacramento when you were starting out?
A: When I was a kid here, there weren't that many outlets for us. You know, Sacramento was different then. You know, we went to the parks. William Land Park used to have the stage where everybody would go over there and give our little summer barbecues and we'd pretend like we were entertainers and we performed on that little stage — a lot of church and school. I was in the All-City Madrigals here in Sacramento where all of the high schools came together, they pick two kids from each concert choir in each high school and I was chosen, that was classical music. So I was the first Black female artist to actually sing lead for the All-City Madrigals ... I think in the late 60s, early 70s. We'd sing all over for all the political functions and at the courthouses and at the Capitol building, and we did that for a while. So I actually started singing classical music first in high school before I got to the Sly Stone stuff, so that's how it was here early. There weren't a lot of outlets and stuff for music here in Sacramento.
Q: How did you discover funk? Was it when you first saw Sly Stone? Or had you heard of it before then?
A: Sly and The Family Stone was my all-time favorite group in the whole world and see what they did? They didn't just change Black music or R&B music. They actually were the pioneers that changed the face, the look, and the sound of modern music. So I didn't realize it at the time, I was just a kid, but I had no idea. Basically, the word on the street in Sacramento was that Sly was the legendary street general. He was the innovator. He's the pioneer and all began with him. And not just as far as Sly, he didn't do just funk, he did all genres of music with gospel and R&B and classical and even a funky violinist.
But with the funk then, of course, James Brown, who was the godfather of it, I had a chance to actually meet him as well. The nucleus of it all came together with Parliament Funkadelic when George Clinton and his P-Funk clones, he incorporated all those elements... the funk bottoms of James Brown, the radical rock and roll heavy metal of Jimi Hendrix, and then of course the gospel/R&B flavors of Sly Stone. [He] incorporated that all in together under one genre, basically one musical equation, what I call funk rock. That's where I kind of got my credentials from Sly and George, in bringing it all together to a female group called the Brides of Funkenstein.
Q: Tell us about your autobiography. Has it been in the works for a while? And what message did you kind of want to give to the fans?
A: I started writing this autobiography in the third grade. That was a long time ago. I had a third-grade teacher who told me I had a flair for words right, so, of course, I got an A in English, and to me, it was just a hobby. But when I started going out into the music industry, I realized that it was more of a challenge than I realized. A lot of the pitfalls and things that you don't talk about when you're going in the music industry. When you're young, you just think about — you want to be a celebrity, or you want to be a part of a great group, or it seems like it's just so much fun being in that lifestyle. There are no books to prepare you for the obstacles and the barriers that you're going to come across in that.
So, when I told my mother at age 15 that I wanted to be a part of a famous group, she basically told me, 'You need to get that foolishness out of your head... You're too nice or too soft. There's too many sharks out there, they're gonna eat you up alive.'"
As I started writing my book, I realized I had written a book that does have a semblance that can prepare women or anyone who thinks they want to go into that industry. Now there is a blueprint, there is a book that you can read to prepare you for that lifestyle. I didn't realize it until I finished writing that book and read it all from cover to cover.
Like I said, I've been writing it since the third grade and it basically kept me grounded. It was my life source that whenever I was faced with some really traumatic things in the music industry, I would hurry and go write it down. I would calm myself down because I couldn't explain it just like how we're talking one-on-one. It was just best said on paper and then one day I started putting it all together. I was being selfish because I kept it to myself for years and I saw a lot of people struggling and not understanding the pitfalls of being in that industry. That's why I released it, so that maybe I may inspire or encourage or help someone to better prepare themselves to make better choices in the industry if they decide to go into that field.
Q: You were also part of the Black Panthers?
A: Yeah. I had a fiancé who — God bless his soul, he passed away — was a very prominent figure in this town. His name was Judge James Long, a Superior Court judge down in Sacramento. I met him years ago, gosh, maybe 73... I think it was 73 or 74. He was Huey Newton's and the Black Panthers' lawyer, so he actually took me down there to meet them.
I dibbled and dabbled in the Black Panthers. It gave me a sense of identity back then. We didn't have that when we were growing up. Our way of kind of fighting back against any kind of injustice is that we felt like... I really didn't understand the theory of the Black Panthers until I got into the organization.
I was there for a short time and got a chance to meet Huey Newton and went to some of the Panther meetings back in the day. I met him through Judge Long, who actually exonerated some Panthers here in Sacramento. There was a case that goes way back with the Oak Park Force and I met him during that timeframe through my mother who also was doing a lot of political and legal things back in those days, as well with the breakfast programs and the food banks were raising money for homeless children. That's what my mom did. So I met the judge through my mom and then the judge introduced me to the Black Panthers.
Q: How can people buy a copy of your book?
A: You go through www.dawnsilva.com and you can get the "Funk Queen." It's that simple. Pretty soon it probably will be on other outlets and things like that. It's a 544-page coffee table book, it weighs seven pounds. I mean, you can do weights with it and it's really heavy.
But even if you don't want to read it, it's got some great pictures, and that's a whole 'nother story of how I got these pictures too. From some of the reviews I've got, they say the pictures leap out at you. I tried to put pictures that match the stories that I'm writing about.
Coffee table books are very, very expensive. I had publishing companies, a bunch of them telling me that they don't do [them] anymore, but for me, if someone tells me I can't do anything, then I was like, I tried to prove them wrong. And I did it and I'm doing it once again.
[The order] comes directly to me, I have a staff of about four or five. It's a brand new company I self-published. It's selling way beyond my expectations. It is doing extremely well.
The first run of the book is limited to 1,500 copies. You can also buy it here: https://newrisingpublishing.com/product/the-funk-queen-an-autobiography/
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