Larry Graham: Style and Substance
The development of that technique has had an incalculable effect on bass players. You just explained how it came about but how long did it take you to develop your signature style?
Well, not very long at all. Guitar was really my first love. Before then I had played drums and piano and stuff, but I thought guitar was going to be my main instrument. And then this one club had an organ in it that had bass pedals on it and I played the bass pedals with my foot at the same time playing the guitar. That’s where the bottom came in.
So now we got used to having the bottom and then when the organ broke down, we sounded empty because we were used to having that bottom. So I rented a bass, a St. George bass, from this place called Music Unlimited in California. And I rented this bass thinking that I was going to bring it back when the organ could be repaired [laughs]. But when the organ couldn’t be repaired, I kind of got stuck on the bass. So it was kind of like an unplanned thing that just happened overnight. I got this bass and now I’m playing it and I’m stuck on the bass ‘cause I can’t bring it back now [laughs].
And then clearly, you stuck with it. So you liked what you could do on bass and decided to continue with it?
Actually, I started playing the bass, but then when my mother made the decision to not have drums anymore, that’s what dramatically changed everything. That’s when I started thumping the strings to make up for not having that bass drum and plucking the strings to make up for not having that backbeat on the snare drum. So I was kind of playing the drums on the bass, you know. So it came out of a necessity and because I never intended to be a bass player I wasn’t listening to other bass players.
I wasn’t doing the so-called correct over the top style of playing with your fingers, when you go from upright to electric bass and so I was doing it all wrong [laughs] but it was necessary for what we were doing. I didn’t think I was inventing anything new or trying to come up with something unique; it was out of necessity.
But then when Sly, he was invited to the club by one of the regulars there, when he heard me doing my style, he loved what he heard. So asked me to join the band, and then through that band, the style became popular because to play “Thank You” or “Dance To The Music,” you kind of pretty much had to play like me. And so other bass players started playing like me because they were covering our songs.
I read somewhere, tell me if this is true, that when you first met Prince he said that he was familiar with Graham Central Station but he wasn’t all that familiar with Sly & The Family Stone. Is that accurate?
He was raised up on my music. When Sly & The Family Stone was popular, when our hit records were out, he was a lot younger. So it’s not that he didn’t know of the group, but by the time Graham Central Station came along, he was older and he was more into his writing and creativity and so forth. So Graham Central Station was a bigger influence at first, you know, he was more aware of our music I think, and then he went back like a lot of people did. A lot of people that learned about Graham Central Station and then learned my background, went back and got into Sly & The Family Stone.
I read an interview with you recently where you’re just about to leave for a European tour and then Prince calls you and says, “Hey, can you just come in for a little while and play?” I would assume that that’s happened any number of times over the years, and my question about that is, does he roll tape? Are all of those sessions recorded for posterity?
We’ve recorded a lot, I mean I can walk to the studio in five minutes [laughs]. I’m right around the corner, so it’s not unusual for us to get together and we’ve been neighbors for years. So sometimes we play and we record, sometimes we don’t, we just play because we love to play, and sometimes it could be a bunch of musicians, sometimes it could be just me and him [laughs].
That’s the session I want to go to, just to see the two of you. I imagine that has to be stellar.
We do that all the time, we get together and play and you know, we could be on various instruments because we love what we do. It’s a blessing to be able to do what we do and make a living at it, but we also love it so sometimes we just play to play. It’s not always rolling but sometimes it is.
Hopefully some of those will come out one of these days.
Oh yeah, we have a lot of stuff recorded, I mean a lot of tunes so you probably will hear some more of it.
In terms of Raphael Saadiq on the album, how did that come about?
Well he’s another one that was raised up on Graham Central Station’s music, and he’s out of Oakland too, we’re from the same hometown. So I recorded at his studio and he lives in Los Angeles now, but he’s from Oakland and that’s how that connection came about. He was raised on my music pretty much like Prince.
Your new album, there are three songs you’ve recorded, each of which is described as a new master. What led you to those three and why did you decide to take another crack at them?
Those particular three, we’ve been playing live and so I kind of, I guess you could say they’re kind of tried and tested [laughs] on the audience and I’ve gotten great reactions from those particular songs when we play them live. Others too, but those three, having said, kind of tried and tested. And then to record them again and put them out there as the new master it means that I’m the owner of those songs. Everything I recorded before is owned by Warner Brothers, you know. And so anything I cut under these circumstances then I end up owning it which is great.
With sampling and the like, I’m surprised more artists don’t do that. Obviously you want to do it for creative reasons but for business reasons it makes a lot of sense as well.
Well, yeah, then your kids end up benefitting from the music down the road because it obviously goes to them, you know, if you own it. But everything I did with Warner Brothers and Prince, the same thing, and other artists, the same thing, the record company and their families own it. These are the new masters because I’m the new owner of my own songs. That’s the way it should be for everyone but unfortunately it’s not. But I think that as time goes on, more and more people are starting to feel the same way that I feel. And I think also technology helps you to do a lot more now than you could do 20, 30 years ago too. So you’re probably going to see more and more artists owning their own material. And there are more avenues to get your music to the people available now than there was before, so you’re probably going to start seeing more and more of that. But anyway, that’s my reason behind doing the new masters and hopefully I want to do some more new masters.
Last question: About a decade ago you recorded with Gov’t Mule’s Warren Haynes and Matt Abts after Allen Woody passed away. I know it’s a while back but I’m sure our readers would love to hear, what are your recollections, if any, of that particular session?
Oh yeah, great bunch of guys. Obviously super talented musicians and stuff so they asked me to participate on their project and we hit it off immediately musically. I think you can hear on the album we just had a bunch of fun and the end product turned out great [laughs]. There’s a video out there somewhere.