The soul/funk legend and bass pioneer talks about his career—which has included working with Sly, of course, not to mention Prince—going all the way back the ‘60s and up to the present with his new record.
BY MARCUS BLAKE
A few months ago, Larry Graham returned to the recording world with his first new music in more than a decade, Raise Up (Moosicus Records). Meanwhile, arriving in stores this week is a box set, Higher! (Sony/Legacy) from the group with whom he initially forged his distinctive sound, Sly And The Family Stone. Upon hearing the new solo album I was pleased and somewhat relieved that Larry remained true to the funk, r&b and soul roots he laid down with The Family Stone and didn’t try to “modernize” his music. There are plenty of melodies and, as Prince described, “Old School” music: “Real music played by real people”.
With Larry’s debut as a part of the Family Stone in 1967, the man changed not only the course of bass playing but the course of modern soul, funk, rock and r&b music. The influence of Sly And the Family Stone cannot be overstated with everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Miles Davis drawing influence from the band.
I count myself as one of thousands of bass players inspired by Graham’s pioneering “Thumpin’ and Pluckin’” technique. Just ask Flea from The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bootsy Collins from P-Funk, Les Claypool from Primus or any other bass player that has hit the scene since Larry and The Family Stone came out. For those of you that don’t know what I’m talking about, check out the bass playing on any funk song over the past 30 years! (Hell, check out the music to Seinfeld even!)
What was this new sound coming from this integrated, band with members, both male and female coming out of the Bay Area in California in 1967? Was it soul or r&b? Was it rock? Was it psychedelic? Was it even jazz? It was all of them and, yet, none of them. It was, as the title of the first Sly And The Family album stated, A Whole New Thing.
With the release of the single, “Dance To The Music” from their second album of the same name, the band’s unique sound could no longer remain under the radar. Sly And The Family Stone caught the attention of both, black and white America with songs not only about dancing and “Fun” but songs about social and political commentary. This was in full effect on the band’s huge, mega selling 1969 album, Stand! with the smash songs, “Stand!” “I Want To Take You Higher” and “Sing A Simple Song” sitting comfortably alongside the more social songs like “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey” and number 1 hit, “Everyday People”.
The classics kept coming in 1969 with “Hot Fun In The Summertime”, “Everybody Is A Star” and the bass-gasm filled jam, “Thank You (Fallettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”. Simultaneously, the band became a live act for all bands to measure up to, obliterating any other band in their way, most notably their appearance at the mother of all music festivals, Woodstock.
In 1971 S&TFS released their moody masterpiece, There’s A Riot Goin’ On with the hits, “Family Affair”, “You Caught Me Smilin’’ and “Runnin’ Away”. No record has sounded like that, before or since. As with the dark music on the album, so too, did Sly himself get dark, sliding into a decades long drug problem and exhibiting extreme paranoia, causing the bandleader to miss shows more and more frequently. In a constant drug haze, Stone missed a third of the band’s shows in 1970.
Tensions between Larry and Sly had reached a breaking point and Graham had enough, leaving the band in early 1972. (Check out The Family Stone’s estimable legacy on the Higher! box set from Sony.)
After that exit, the bass man put together his own group, Graham Central Station. The new band released their first album, featuring the stone cold funk classics, “We’ve Been Waiting” and “Hair” in 1974.
Graham Central Station continued throughout the 1970s with numerous albums done by various lineups including the smash soul number, “Your Love” from the Ain’t No ‘Bout-A-Doubt It album and, perhaps, the funkiest song ever to be recorded, “Earthquake” from Now Do U Wanta Dance. Larry earned soul ballad stardom status with his across the board hit, “One In A Million You” in 1980, much to the delight of slow dancing couples everywhere.
But, you can’t keep the funk down and now, Larry is back with a brand new album, Raise Up, guaranteed to get the heart palpitating and the ears grooving. Raise Up features the legendary music genius, Prince and the uber-talented Raphael Saadiq guesting with this Rock And Roll Hall Of Famer.
Earlier this year, on the eve of his leaving for a tour of Europe, I caught up with the legendary bottom maker on the phone.
BLURT: Congratulations on the release of your new album, Raise Up. (Title track, feat. Prince, is above.)
GRAHAM: Thank you.
The album opens up with a marching band kind of song. Can you tell me how that came about?
Yeah, if you go back to one of my previous albums, Mirror, it opened up with a marching band (song). That stems back to my high school days. I played in a marching band. I played in the school orchestra. We would actually march on football fields and stuff like that. I was one of those guys, marching on the field.
Do you mind if we talk about each track on Raise Up? For the next song on the album, “Throw N Down The Funk”, which you certainly are, were you playing your bass through the classic Mu-Tron effects pedal that you used way back in the day?
That’s great that you never got rid of that pedal!
No, I still have the Mu-Tron and the Roland Jet Phase and all of the old pedals.
Do you still have the Moon basses? How many of those do you still have?
Ah… about four.
Were those made specifically for you?
Getting back to “Throw N Down The Funk”, is keyboardist, David City Council really part of the Oakland City Council, as stated in the song’s lyrics?
(Laughs) No, he’s not!
That’s cool that each band member shines on the track. You have made that a recurring theme in each band you’ve been in, from Sly And The Family Stone to the present day.
Yeah, I’ve always liked to feature my band members.
Can you tell me about this current incarnation of Graham Central Station?
Well, they’re all out of Oakland (California) and they were all raised on my music. They all know my music almost as well as I do!
So, not only are they friends and bandmates, but they are also fans of yours as well.
Why did you make the new album after ten years?
Part of the reason is because there has been just about a request every year. (People would often ask me), “When are you going to come out with something new?” I’ve been getting requests online, letters and otherwise. People always requested a new song and I have always continued to write (new music). I put together a collection of songs that I felt went together for an album.
Yeah, not only do you have some new songs but, you have some re-recordings of some of your classics on the album: “It’s Alright”, “It Ain’t No Fun To Me” and “Now Do U Wanta Dance”.
Exactly. Re-recording those means that the new masters will belong to me, which are re-recorded, which is cool. This collection of songs all fit together but I also found a collection of people that I thought that I could release this music under that would be cool. A lot of the record company situations have changed over the years.
So, does Warner Brothers Records still own your old master recordings?
Yeah, my old masters, mine and a bunch of other people’s. But, these masters will end up being owned by me, which is great. So, that’s why I chose to re-record some of these songs. I really chose these particular ones (songs) because they had been tried and tested in concert. I played them live first and those were songs that people really reacted to. That’s why I chose those particular songs to re-record and make part of this cd but the majority of the cd, of course, is new songs. (Below: bass solo, Live At Bataclan)
Speaking of playing live, you threw it down when I saw you open up for Prince in concert when he did his residency of live shows in Los Angeles, on his Welcome 2 America tour a few years ago. Tell me about working with Prince and recording the three songs on Raise Up with him: “Raise Up”, “Shoulda Coulda Woulda” and “Movin’”. Also, how did you two meet and start to work together?
Well, we go back to, about fourteen years ago, I was on tour with Sinbad, Graham Central Station, Earth Wind & Fire and Teena Marie. We did a show in Tennessee and we were playing the amphitheatre and Prince was playing the big arena there in Nashville. He heard I was in town and invited me to one of his famous aftershows (laughs). So, we went to this club and this would be my first time jamming with him.
Did you play any Sly & The Family Stone together at that show like at the L.A. show that I saw you two at?
Well, when I walked in the club, he called me up and I started playing everything that I knew and he was, like, right there, on me. I didn’t realize at that time that he was raised on my music. He was raised up on Graham Central Station, actually, even more so than Sly & The Family Stone because he was older and into his producing and writing and stuff when Graham Central Station came along. Then, he went back and got into Sly & The Family Stone. Anyway, we connected perfectly musically. After the show that night, he said, “When you finish the Sinbad tour, would you join my tour?” which is what I did and that’s how we connected.
You two are Jehovah’s Witnesses as well, right?
Yeah, and it was really from that tour because he knew that I became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses back in ’75. He had all of these questions that he would ask me and we had bible study pretty much before and after our show trying to answer his questions…
Do you two go door to door, trying to spread the Word? I can’t picture you and Prince knocking on people’s doors and doing that!
Yeah, it’s actually been documented in a local paper here, The Star Tribune.
Wow! That’s amazing!
Yeah, and it definitely gets you into the house! (laughs)
So, you and Prince did those three songs for your album. I really love how his guitar playing compliments your bass playing perfectly, especially on “Shoulda Coulda Woulda” and “Movin’”.
Did you record those at Prince’s Paisley Park Studio?
Ah… “Shoulda Coulda Woulda” was done at Paisley Park and part of “Movin’” was done at my own studio.
So, you have your own studio?
Yeah, I have a home studio.
Do you still live in the Bay Area in northern California?
No, no. I’m in Minnesota. I’ve been here for about fourteen years. We’re just blocks away from Paisley Park. I have a home studio so, that when you wake up in the middle of the night and you’ve got an idea, you can capture it. And, now, everything is digital and analog so, you can combine the two and keep some of your original ideas.
So, is that how you record? Do you record the drums analog on two inch tape, dump it to Pro Tools and then take it from there?
Well, it depends on the song. You see, I play a number of instruments because I was raised up playing several instruments. I took piano first and then I took drums in school. I also played in the marching band orchestra. I took clarinet and saxophone…
And then you just happened to become the best bass player in the world along the way!
Ah, bass playing was not a part of the plan but it came along. (laughs) Anyway, I played sax and clarinet and other stuff so, if I wake up in the middle of the night and I get an idea, I can pretty much lay down all of the parts even though I may get some of my musicians to play some of the parts (later). Sometimes, I’ll even keep some of the things I wrote.
So, you demo the songs and then you work off of the demos adding to them?
Sometimes, it depends on the song. Like (with the song), “Hair” I wrote on the bass. Today’s song, I wrote on the keyboards… it depends on the song. “Old Smokey” I wrote on guitar. Yeah, it depends on the song.
Getting back to the album, “Welcome To Our World” is kind of an update on “We’ve Been Waiting”, the opening song of the first Graham Central Station album.
What’s the story behind doing an updated version of that song and not just re-recording “We’ve Been Waiting”?
Well, “Welcome To Our World”, NOW because, we’re in a different time and space now. So, welcome to the world of GCS and that’s what we really want people to do when they come to our show. Come into our world. So, whatever you was going through that day, that week, that month, that time period, come into our world and we want to try to help you RAISE UP above whatever things you have to deal with.
You still like to keep the old school funk happening. It’s cool to hear the funk box still in effect on your album.
Yeah, oh yeah! Gotta keep the funk box aliiiiive!
Ashling Cole handles the vocals for GCS’s cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground”?
Yep, she’s doing the vocals and she’s doing funk box as well.
Does your wife, Tina and/or your daughter also sing on the album?
Yeah, and my daughter, Latia is on the album as well.
That’s cool that you have your musical family and your literal family on the record.
Yeah, (sings) it’s a family affair! (both of us laugh)
That’s great that you continue that multi- vocal, multi- racial, multi- gender band concept from Sly & The Family Stone to now….
Can you tell me how Sly & The Family Stone formed?
Sly is the originator and then he heard of me. My mother and I were working a club called Relax With Yvonne, a couple of blocks from the corner of Haight & Ashbury (in San Francisco, CA). I was playing guitar. Actually, by the time Sly heard me, I was playing bass and I had already developed my thumpin’ and pluckin’ style (of bass playing) out of necessity, by not having drums. My mother decided when we were playing together: no drums. I don’t know if you know that story. I should take you back (to how I developed my bass playing style).
I didn’t realize you developed your thumpin’ and pluckin’ style that early on. I thought maybe you developed it around when you recorded “Thank you Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin”.
Oh, no no! What happened was, when I was eleven, my father decided he wasn’t going to play any more and gave me his guitar. I taught myself guitar and then, my mother and I started working together when I was fifteen. I was on guitar. my mother was on piano and then, we had drums. This club we were working in had an organ that had bass pedals. Have you ever seen those bass pedals go halfway across the organ? I played the bass pedals at the same time as playing the guitar. So, we got used to having that bottom. Then, the organ broke down. Now, we sounded empty; not having bottom. So, I rented a St. George bass temporarily, until the organ could be repaired. It turned out that the organ could not be repaired so, I got stuck on the bass!
Yeah, that was not by choice at all. Then, my mother decided that we were not going to have drums anymore. We were just going to have bass and piano. So, then, I would thump the strings to make up for not having a bass drum and pluck the strings to make up for not having the beat on the snare drum. I was, like, fifteen then and that’s how I developed that style.
When (Sly And The Family Stone drummer) Greg Errico heard you playing like that, he must have flipped!
Well, before Greg, when you played clubs back in the day, you would have regulars that would come in to hear you all of the time. There was this lady, who was a regular who liked me and my mother. She loved our music but she was also a Sly fan because he was on the radio (as a disc jockey) at KSOL. So, she started calling the radio station. When he announced he was going to start a new band, she started calling in.
Oh, so he announced on the radio that he was starting a new band?
Yeah, and so, this lady told him that he has to hear this bass player that should be in his band. So, he came down to the club and heard me doing my thumping and plucking and then he asked me to join his band. That’s how my sound got popular.
Would you say that you invented that style?
Yeah. I wasn’t listening to bass players. I didn’t want to be a bass player at that point. I was into my guitar.
So, when you started with Sly & The Family Stone and being a multi-racial band, did you come into any aversion or hostility at first?
I think because we were black and white and male and female and our music included different genres, I think that expanded our audience.
I think right from your first single, “Underdog”, it was a “Whole New Thing”. Maybe people didn’t know how to react?
Yeah, it was mixing a lot of different kind of genres into one kind. I know nobody had heard bass playing the way I was doing it and drumbeats the way Greg was doing and also, guitar playing the way Freddie was doing it.
Yeah, I think Freddie is such an underrated guitar player.
Yeah, I think one of the geniuses of Sly, in addition to his songwriting, was allowing us to be ourselves, expressing ourselves. Even though Sly was a great guitar player, he didn’t try to tell Freddie how to play. He let Freddie do what he did. Nobody can play like Freddie. And, Greg Errico, with those beats on “Dance To The Music” and other stuff… nobody can play like Greg.
I had come up with this different style of playing the bass and he let us do what we did and I think that was part of the success of the band: just letting everybody be themselves.
One of Sly And The Family Stone’s trademarks was trading vocal lines between several band members in a song. How did you record when you all traded vocal lines in the studio?
Many times, we would stand around the microphone together!
Really? You recorded the vocals live like that?
A lot of the songs were live.
By the time you got to, what I consider your masterpiece, Stand!, do you think that’s where the band found its classic sound or do you think right from the start, the band found its sound?
I actually think we found our… everything at Woodstock…. We came in there at night. It was a big (event) but you couldn’t really see anything. You come in there and there are a lot of people but you don’t really realize how many people. Then, the way we would arrange our shows, there would be several songs segued with one song going into the next. So, there was no space to respond. So we got to the spot where we stopped, after a number of songs. We heard this roar of, like, a half a million people. It was amazing! We had never heard or felt that much energy. That really took us to the next level. I kind of liken it to Michael Jordan taking off from the free throw line for the first time! (laughs) It’s like, “Oh, I could do this!”
So, after that, you could fill out Madison Square Garden and The Forum in L.A. and places like that?
Well, after that, it became the standard of huge shows, wherever it was. It had to be at least as good as that.
In his new autobiography, Who I Am, The Who’s Pete Townshend called Sly And The Family Stone’s set at Woodstock “the highlight of the night”.
Aw, oh, that’s great.
By the time you got to There’s A Riot Goin’ On, it seemed like the band was falling apart. Can you tell me a little about that time?
I wouldn’t think that it was so much falling apart as it was different. I think the main difference was actually (the process of) overdubbing. The new method of recording that Sly came up with.
Did Sly rent out Terry Melcher’s studio to record that album?
(Thinks) No, we actually recorded a lot at Sly’s house.
Did Sly overdub over some of the bass parts that you recorded? How many songs on the record do you play on all of the songs on that album?
I’m not on everything.
Can you pick out which songs you play on?
Oh, yeah, I can when I’m sitting down, listening to it, of course. To me, it’s all good, it’s just different. Sly is an excellent bass player. He might have been the bass player in the band had he not found me. He’s an excellent bass player.
Did you teach Sly the Thumpin’ and Pluckin’ style of bass playing?
No, no, I didn’t have to teach anybody in the band anything. Sly played the way he plays and I think some people are able to pick out some of the songs he played on and the songs I that I played on. To me, they’re all good. It’s just different… a different style.
Over the years, I heard crazy stories about that time and how you guys broke up. Can you set the record straight and tell me how exactly you guys broke up?
Well, Greg Errico left the band before I did. When I left the band, I was going to produce a band. I never had any intention of starting my own band. I was going to produce a band called Hot Chocolate—not the same Hot Chocolate that came out with that hit record (1975’s “You Sexy Thing”). It was a different Hot Chocolate that was built around singer, Patrice Banks. We called her Chocolate. My role was going to be writing and producing. That’s really what I wanted to do. I had no intention of starting my own band.
But, one night, we were at a club in San Francisco called Bimbo’s. The club is packed out, every body’s hyped up and Hot Chocolate went up. (The audience) knew the connection between me and Sly And The Family Stone and Hot Chocolate and towards the end of the show, everybody was urging me to get up on stage and so, I went up. When I went to sit in with the band, which was unplanned, we clicked into another gear. Everybody knew something unique could happen on stage.
At that point, were you still officially part of Sly And The Family Stone or was that over?
No, I wasn’t in Sly And the Family Stone at that point. I was done and I really had my producer/writer hat on.
So, you got the performing bug again from this gig and formed Graham Central Station then?
Well, actually, I formed Hot Chocolate first.
Did you release any records as Hot Chocolate?
No, I had recorded some songs that I had written that I went in the studio on my own and had recorded.
Wow! I want to hear those recordings!
Well, some of those songs were on the first Graham Central Station record. Then, what happened was I switched the vocalist from Chocolate to me and Chocolate for the first album. Then I just changed the name because after that gig at Bimbo’s, everybody knew that I should be in the band. The band knew that. I knew that! (laughs) So we switched the name from Hot Chocolate to Graham Central Station with me being more of the lead (singer).
Well, we’ve talked about the past and the present. What’s going on in the future with you?
Right now, we are touring in support of the current album. We’re heading out to Europe. We did Japan and we’re heading to Europe and then we come back and do some more dates in the U.S. If you look at www.larrygraham.com all of our current dates will be up there.
Let’s talk about the final track on Raise Up, “One Day” with Raphael Saadiq.
Yeeeeeah! My buddy!
That’s a very Sly And The Family Stone sounding track. Tell me how that came together.
We recorded that live in his studio in L.A. I went over to his studio in L.A. and we went in and we connected immediately and then we laid that down. (laughs)
Yeah, you can tell that Raphael is a fan.
Oh, yeah, we go way back. Him and his whole family are raised up on GCS.
Now, from a nerdy perspective from myself, I have to tell you that I have all of your records and collect whatever bootleg recordings I can get of you. I have to know, is there any footage of you guys recording There’s A Riot Goin’ On in the studio?
I haven’t seen anything on Riot. There may be some live footage of me doing some cuts (off of the album), but nothing that I know of from the original recording sessions.
Speaking of film and tv, can you tell me what your all-time favorite tv performance of yourself would be?
I’d have to say Woodstock.
Sure, you can say that since they made a film out of the concert.
Yeah, that was the turning point.
So, do you have any of your old tv show appearances?
I have some of it. A lot of it, I don’t.
As a record collector such as myself, I have to ask, do you have all of your own records and singles?
No, I don’t have all of them.
I also have to know, how in the world did you reach those high notes on your song, “I Got A Reason” from your Mirror album? That’s impressive!
At that time I had another octave above my falsetto (laughs). That’s how that came about.
So, you must have not have smoked or done a lot of drinking around that time to reach those notes!
Well, I had to change my life where I could hit that upper octave. That’s how that came about (laughs deeply)
So, we’re not going to hear that one live anytime soon then.
Well, you never know!
Well, I’m putting my request in!
You never know! (laughs)