Reflections with Larry Graham

Since his introduction in 1966 with Sly & the Family Stone, bassist Larry Graham has become one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. His innovative style of bass playing impacted not only his contemporaries, but has had major effect on every electric bassist to follow. From his success as a member of the groundbreaking group SLY & the FAMILY STONE, to leading his pioneering Funk group GRAHAM CENTRAL STATION, to his successful solo career Larry Graham has continued to amaze audiences around the world. I was fortunate enough to share a moment of time and conversation with Larry and it went a little something like this…

G1: Anybody who knows the history of Funk knows the name Larry Graham. You have totally changed the way bass is played once you picked it up and started doing your thing with it. Tell us the history of your technique.

Larry Graham: Well, it actually started in the Bay Area. My mother, Dell Graham, was a pianist and vocalist and when I was 15 I was playing other instruments including guitar, which I considered my main instrument. So, my mother decided to start a trio, the Del Graham trio: me on guitar and vocals, her on piano and vocals, and my drummer who was also on vocals. We worked at this club that had an organ that had bass pedals at the bottom, and I learned to play the bass pedals along with the guitar and singing. So, we sounded full now having bottom. We got used to that, then the organ broke down; now it sounded empty. We didn’t have that bottom we’d started to get used to, so I went to Music Unlimited (music store) over in San Leandro and I rented a St. George bass temporarily until the organ could be repaired. As it turned out the organ could not be repaired so I was stuck on the bass. After a short while my mother decided we were going to lose the drummer and just be a duo, piano and bass. So now we didn’t have drums, so to make up for not having the bass drum I would thump the strings, and we didn’t have the backbeat of the snare drum so I would pluck the strings, kind of playing drums on bass with that rhythm thing. I wasn’t trying to play the so-called correct overhand style of playing ’cause I didn’t listen to bass players, I listened to guitar players ’cause that was my main love at the time. Out of necessity I would do this thumping and plucking; I wasn’t concerned with what other people thought, I gotta  get my job done.

There was a lady that used to come into this club in San Francisco, it was called Relax With Yvonne, almost right there on the corner of Haight and Ashbury…I didn’t know this story at the time, but she used to frequent the club and was a big fan of my mother and I, she was also a fan of Sly Stone who was on the radio at KSOL at the time. She found out that he was going to be starting a band and took it upon herself to start calling the station telling him “you gotta go hear this bass player and what he’s doing”. She was so persistent ’til one evening he did come to hear what I was doing, liked it, and approached me about joining this new band he was going to be starting and that band turned out to be Sly & the Family Stone. It was through that music that my style of thumping and plucking, my bass playing, became popular through songs like “Dance To The Music“, “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” and others. Other bass players at first didn’t know what I was doing. Videos weren’t as popular as they are now, television appearances weren’t as many as you can have now, but eventually people did see us on things like The Ed Sullivan Show, and others… and seeing us in concert, other bass players became aware of how I was doing this thumping and plucking and then they started doing it to cover our songs and incorporating it into their own music and that made the style even more popular.

G1: You mentioning Sly and the early days of your career, those were really innovative times musically; do you look back and look at exactly what it is you’ve done and how you changed the sound of things?

Larry Graham: I can see it now; I didn’t see it at the time. I didn’t even think that my way of playing the bass was anything special, I was just doing it out of necessity. I wasn’t thinking “Oh, I’m creating something new”, I just wasn’t thinking that. Even in the early part of Sly & the Family Stone I never even thought about it at all. As time passed, and I think what really impressed it on my mind the most is when I started hearing and seeing other bass players playing like me as opposed to playing like the other bass players that I was aware of. When people start to imitate you then it makes you take a look and say, “Hey, I’ve been able to contribute something to the world of music”, and that just started to make me feel wonderful, that I could make a contribution.

G1: One of the things that was great and seems really timeless about the Sly & the Family Stone band was a lot of the songs that came out of that… A lot of those songs were about everyday people, which is also the title of one of the songs, but a lot of those songs were about people in a more spiritual way, it wasn’t just party music. It seemed like you carried that theme over to Graham Central Station. I remember listening to those songs and thinking this sounds just like something I’d hear in church.

Larry Graham: Well like you mentioned, there being a message in the music… songs like “People” from the first Graham Central Station album does carry a message of not only what was going on then, but it’s even more relevant today, I think, as far as lyric content is concerned, because the world has gone on to do even more things that draws attention to the fact that We need some help. So, it’s more indications of that today than it was when I wrote the song. So yeah, messages or message music was carried over to Graham Central Station, of course influenced by Sly & the Family Stone.

G1: The message though, the message music that I’d hear from Graham Central Station really has, to me, religious and spiritual themes… songs like “Release Yourself” which sounds like it’s straight out of the Pentecostal church, or “Tis Your Kind Of Music”, which, listening to it the first time around sounds like it could be sung to a particular individual, but listening to the lyrics of it again sounds like it’s definitely a song to the Most High… how does religion or spirituality factor in to how you write and how you perform?

Larry Graham: Well, out of the heart’s abundance the mouth speaks, so what’s in my heart comes out of my mouth and also comes through my pen. So, you know, the scriptures and what I feel spiritually are definitely going to influence my music… not only what I write, but even the way that I play because I consider it all to be a gift from God. I try to use it in a positive way to try to bring a positive message to try to make people feel good. It’s all coming from the same place, how I feel spiritually, how I feel musically… What you hear come out of me, whether it be on records or live in concert it’s all coming from the same place, I can’t separate the two. The two have become one in my heart.

G1: You know Larry, another thing that stands out about those Graham Central Station albums is the introductions. It seems that each album had a special tailored introduction for that particular album to introduce the audience to the band. From the very first album with “We’ve Been Waiting”, to “GCS”,  “Entrow”, “The Jam”… they were more than intros, they were songs unto themselves…

Larry Graham: Well you pegged it right… Introducing ourselves to the audience(s) whether it be on the record (or cd now), or live in concert…

G1: When you listen now what is it that you hear that you think you may have done differently, or do you hear things and think that’s perfect as it is?

Larry Graham: Well, I don’t think anything I’ve ever done is perfect, but I think that what I did at the time and the way it came out was the way it was supposed to come out for that time. I’m happy when I listen back from the first album to the current. I’m happy with what was done then, even if I change up something a little in the future after it’s recorded I don’t consider it making it better, but I consider it making that particular song the way it’s supposed to be done for the current time, like I may do something a little different now than I did 10 or 20 years ago, but it’s all relevant to the time.

G1: Graham Central Station is also a band that had their own individual look. When Graham Central Station came about that was really important in bands establishing themselves, not just their sound, but also their look; it seems more important at that time than it is today. For artists who are striving to assert their individuality what is some of the advice you have?

Larry Graham: When you look at “the look” of Sly & the Family Stone for example each individual was allowed to express themselves in his or her dress and music. One of the things that really contributed to Sly & the Family Stone, and I tried to carry into Graham Central Station as well, was we didn’t stifle the abilities of each individual. For example, Sly was the writer of the music but he would allow Freddie Stone to play the way Freddie plays on guitar because nobody could play like Freddie; nobody could play the drums like Greg Errico, he (Sly) would allow him to be himself; he would allow me to play the way I play(ed) as opposed to trying to change me up. That freedom of expression you hear and appreciate in the music is the same thing I tried to the best of my ability to do with Graham Central Station, allow people’s individuality to come out in the music and the way they wanted to express themselves in their appearance.

G1: One of the things that was seen in Sly’s band and that you continued with Graham Central Station was also the role of women in the music. Sly’s band was the first time for many people seeing a woman playing trumpet (Cynthia Robinson); usually women musicians were relegated to piano, or being the “cute” vocalist, but in Sly’s band and your band women had a different and more inclusive role… speak on the importance of that, at that time and today.

Larry Graham: Well see, I always appreciated that from the standpoint that my mother was in the same position. My mother played trumpet originally, so she stood out as different in that time. Later on being the pianist and lead vocalist she also stood out in a band that was male dominated, so that was right up my alley when it happened with Sly & the Family Stone… That was just a natural thing for me, but publicly, you’re right, it hadn’t been done. That was something that was unique and I tried to carry that over too and give the female a prominent role in Graham Central Station.

G1: Larry, in your career you were known for the Funk, but then the ballads… once you did “One In A Million” it seems that opened up a wider audience to you. What did that song do for you?

Larry Graham: Well at the time I did the song it wasn’t a song that the record company (Warner Bros.) was happy with me releasing because all of my records were mostly Funk oriented, so I know that made them a little nervous, but I had the right to choose the single and that’s the one I felt in my heart was the one. With the support of folks who love me they heard the song, and despite the fact that at first it didn’t get a lot of attention from the record company the folks who love and support me heard it and they made it what it became, so I’ve always been appreciative of that. Of course, in time, the record company did see that “Hey, there’s something here”, and then of course they got behind it and supported it as well. The end result was everybody got a chance, or more people got a chance, to hear that side of me which was really going back to the times when my mother and I performed together, because she would always have me singing ballads. In fact the first Sly & the Family Stone album “A WHOLE NEW THING“, one of the songs that I’m featured on is “Let Me Hear It From You“, which is a ballad. So when I did “One In A Million” I was really going back to something that I’ve always been comfortable with.

G1: “One In A Million” is one of those songs that even today is high on everybody’s request list, it’s one of those songs that had become The wedding song of that decade… I couldn’t be at a wedding without hearing One In A Million, or a talent show. That song really, in addition to opening up a lot more ears to you, that song has become a part of popular standards.

Larry Graham: I found that out over the years because I’ve had a lot of requests for, like you said, weddings and receptions… that song did become the wedding song… Again, when I did it I wasn’t thinking that, but I’m happy it turned out that way because those are happy occasions, the beginning of a new life for many folks, so if I can contribute to the joy of that in some kind of way then, hey, I’m happy that became the wedding song.

G1: You know Larry, when folks see you they’re used to seeing that big, pristine, white funky Fender Jazz bass… was that your first preference of bass? How did you choose that?

Larry Graham: Well, when I started playing guitar my father gave me his guitar and amp I taught myself to play…. it was a hollow body Epiphone. He played a kind of Jazzy, Bluesy style, and it was this big hollow body and I was a little guy you know, especially at 11 (years old) when a strong wind could pick me up and carry me to the next county… to have this big old guitar, it was like Wow! So, one day when I went downtown Oakland to the coffee shop to get my grandmamma some coffee I passed by this store named Minaccetti Music and in the window was a white slim body Supro guitar…white with gold knobs. I ran all the way home, “Mommy El! Mommy El! Mommy El! You gotta come see this guitar! You gotta…!” I begged her and begged… we didn’t have much money, and she dug into the little savings and got me that white guitar. That stuck in my brain and heart forever, so when I did end up on the bass of course, naturally it’s white with gold knobs.

G1: What has it been like for you working with Prince and getting the chance to work with and connect with a lot of  the younger artists who came up with you as their food, their source of knowledge?

Larry Graham: It does the heart good. It makes me feel really, really good. Like I was saying earlier about being able to know that I contributed to the world of music with my bass…as an artist, period, to know that I had an influence on Prince and other artists it really, really makes me feel good, it makes me feel like I’ve been able to give them something…and we all want to do that. We’re all givers by nature. It’s better to give than to receive, right? So when we can give a gift like that, we can share a big part of our life like that with somebody, aw man, it does the heart good.

Larry Graham continues to deliver soulful spirit through Funk layered grooves with his band Graham Central Station as they tour the world, and he’s often heard bringing the bottom to the syncopated rhythms of Prince. Find out more about Larry Graham at

4 Responses to “Reflections with Larry Graham”
  1. TahoeBlue says:

    Yeah, how cool is THAT !

  2. hammondcast says:

    Jon to G1:

    Excellent Larry Graham interview!

    I used to play electric piano in Little Sister with Willie Sparks

    drums, Rusty Allen bass and Freddie Stone guitar, just before

    Graham Central Station formed.

    Keep up the fine work,

    Jon Hammond

    “The FINGERS…are The SINGERS!”™

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] Since his introduction in 1966 with Sly & the Family Stone, bassist Larry Graham has become one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. His innovative style of bass playing impacted not only his contemporaries, but has had major effect on every electric bassist to follow. From his success as a member of the groundbreaking group SLY & the FAMILY STONE, to leading his pioneering Funk group GRAHAM CENTRAL STATION, to his succe … Read More […]

  2. […] Feature: Reflections with Larry Graham (via Reflections in Rhythm) In Uncategorized on August 9, 2010 at 7:27 pm Since his introduction in 1966 with Sly & the Family Stone, bassist Larry Graham has become one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. His innovative style of bass playing impacted not only his contemporaries, but has had major effect on every electric bassist to follow. From his success as a member of the groundbreaking group SLY & the FAMILY STONE, to leading his pioneering Funk group GRAHAM CENTRAL STATION, to his succe … Read More […]

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