Forever celebrated as the inventor of slap bass, Larry Graham found fame with Sly and the Family Stone and Graham Central Station and he’s showing no signs of stopping yet. Interview by Joseph Adair
If you slap the bass, then the chances are you’ve heard of Larry Graham. If not, you’ll certainly have heard of Sly and the Family Stone, the multi-racial band with which he took the stage at Woodstock in 1969 and whipped the festival-goers into an unexpected frenzy. James Brown may have invented funk, but it was Sly and the Family Stone that introduced it to the rock audience.
Genre-busting anthems like Dance To The Music, Everyday People and Stand not only featured Graham’s distinctively popping bass as an upfront element but also his deep vocal contributions, and both remained his trademarks while leading Graham Central Station from the mid-’70s onwards.
His playing style, he explains, was born of necessity, as he had been part of a family-based group long before the Family Stone. ‘My father gave me his guitar when I was 11,’ Graham begins. ‘I started getting into it, so when my mother and I started working together I was on guitar and she was on piano; we had a drummer and we were the Dell Graham Trio. When she would solo on the piano I would be playing basslines on the guitar, and when I would solo she was playing basslines on the piano. A lot of my basslines were imitating her.
‘Then, when we played this one particular club, there was this organ that had bass pedals halfway across. I learned how to play the organ bass pedals with my foot at the same time as playing the guitar and singing. So that’s how we used to have the bottom. Then when the organ broke, it sounded empty – we missed that bottom, and that’s why I rented a bass, thinking I would go back to the guitar when the organ was mended!’
When his mother decided the Trio should lose a member and become a drummerless duo, the sound suddenly became noticeably thinner – so the multi-tasking young Larry decided to take it upon himself to compensate. ‘I would thump the strings to make up for that bass drum, and pluck the strings to make up for that backbeat. It was kinda like playing the drums on a bass to make up for not having a drummer. I wasn’t trying to do anything new; it was just what sounded right in my head.’
The percussive element came naturally because Larry, a one-time tap-dancer, had already played drums at school, with a marching band and then an orchestra. His style inspired others to slap and pop, an evolution he believes began when bands tried to play Sly hits like Dance To The Music and Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin). ‘If people wanted to cover them,’ he remarks, ‘then bass players would pretty much have to do my style of playing to get the same sound. And so, over the years, more and more bass players started doing the thumping and plucking style.
‘Then, when bands started writing their own songs, they would incorporate that thumping and plucking style into their music. At first folk didn’t know exactly what I was doing, but with TV shows and live concerts they could see. Of course,’ he concludes modestly, ‘it was the success of the records and the group that made it popular.’
Graham has recently launched an instructional DVD, aptly titled Funk Bass Attack, to help share his secrets with the current generation. ‘I try to break down and explain what I do, which I don’t get a chance to do in concert,’ he enthuses. ‘It was a lot of fun. I appreciated the opportunity to pass on what I do to up-and-coming bass players or ones who’ve been playing for a while.’ As far as bass players who’ve already followed his lead go, he highlights Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten, Stanley Clarke, Esperanza Spalding and Rhonda Smith as among his favourites.
Graham’s current record marks the first time in the studio he’s used Warwick amps, which has taken over from Hughes & Kettner as his amplification of choice. ‘I did a combination of mic’ing the amps and going direct – I blended the two together. Warwick are currently trying to develop an amplifier especially for me. I can’t tell you what it will feature… that’s still to be worked out.’
The new album features three Graham Central Station favourites, It’s Alright, Ain’t No Fun To Me and Now Do U Wanta Dance. ‘Those are songs I really like,’ he expands, ‘and I enjoyed re-doing them with my new band. Also, I become the owner of the masters, and that’s good too! I always try to improve and to do better, and I always want them to sound more powerful than the original.’
He also revisits Stevie Wonder’s classic Higher Ground, highlighting this as the track that best showcases his bass-playing. There’s a personal connection, too. ‘Stevie and I have been friends for years. When my daughter was born 29 years ago we lived around the corner from him, and we’ve done shows together. We did Human Kindness Day in Washington DC. I did some of his music in my show then. A couple of days later we played Boston and he came up and sung Maybe Your Baby with us. That was a lot of fun.’
Another pal, Prince, is a Minnesota neighbour and features on three tracks of the new album. ‘He was raised on Graham Central Station and later told me it was a big influence on his music. Then he went back and got into Sly and the Family Stone. We became close friends and blood brothers and have had the pleasure of working together.’
Graham believes Sly and Family Stone would have the same impact had they arrived today. ‘The music is still popular – it’s withstood the test of time and there are a lot of new artists that over the years have sampled Sly and the Family Stone and Graham Central Station music. Movies like Shrek have some of my music in them. That proves that people like the music today as well.’ Did he realise it was groundbreaking at the time they made it? ‘No!’ comes the emphatic retort. ‘You are just doing what you’re doing. I always loved the music, but had no idea of the impact it would have.’
With a career spanning half a century, Larry’s remarkably quick to pick out a highlight – and, unsurprisingly, it’s the Family Stone’s appearance at Woodstock. ‘Hearing half a million people respond to your music for the first time was a turning point – not just for me but the whole band,’ he remembers. ‘It was night-time, so we couldn’t see who exactly was out there. We did a non-stop medley of songs and the idea was they wouldn’t have the chance to react for a while. When we did stop, that response, that roar of half a million people… that was like “Wow”.
‘I liken it to the first time Michael Jordan took off from the free-throw line. He set the standard for himself. So now we could do that again, and all the rest of the shows would be measured by that standard. Hearing that roar of approval from half a million people takes everything you do after that to another level.’
While his biggest influence in leading a band remains his mother Dell, Larry Graham credits Sly Stone as the reason the Family Stone functioned as they did. ‘It grew out of his leadership. Those were two great examples I had. I try to focus on the positives, for everybody to be happy, and that comes out in the musicTags: Home, Interviews, Larry Graham