It’s a cold, cold day in Camden and there’s snow in the air. But, after a storming opening night at the Jazz Cafe, Larry Graham is spritely, upbeat and positively full of the joys of spring. “We live in Minnesota now, so snow is no stranger to us. We can cope with this!” beams the 66 year old – who, based on last night’s performance, is defying the years with ease. This man sings and plays like a man half his age, and yet, not content with merely playing bass, he’s not averse to throwing a few dance moves into the mix. We’ll have a pint of whatever he’s having… Larry is in town for a three-night run in Camden to promote his latest album, Raise Up, and following his appearance on Jools Holland’s show in the autumn, there’s a buzz going round. Not that Larry ever went away: when his projects allow him a little downtime to relax, you’ll find him working with a myriad of top names, all grateful for his input. With a rare opportunity for a face-to-face interview, we wanted to dig a little deeper than the well-trodden topics Larry inevitably gets asked about.
We started by asking him about where his musical journey began and how he developed, before opting for bass guitar as his main instrument. Starting out in a singing band and playing guitar, organ and drums, did Larry always sing – and did he sing in church as a child? “No actually,” he replies. “I was raised in the Catholic church, so the music was quite different. Later on in my teens, I did attend a number of other churches, but by then I had been studying music for quite some time. In school I took up clarinet and saxophone, so I started getting into the horns, but musically my roots weren’t in the church – they were in music outside the church. If you remove the lyrics, a lot of the music is the same, but when you insert religious words, that makes it gospel.”
With a baritone vocal range, did his voice break before he picked up a bass? “Yeah! When I was in junior high school, before my voice changed, I sang a lot. I liked Frankie Lymon, and then we go through a period as guys where our voices crack. I didn’t have that: I just woke up one day and my voice changed to a baritone. You know you’ll go from a boy to a man – you just don’t know when.” Did it concern Larry that he might be relieved of his vocal duties? “No, it worked in my favour. I worked with my mom’s trio, and when people would make requests, she would cover the female material and I’d cover the male stuff. Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole: I’d do all those requests. That was during the time of my transition from guitar to bass.”
Did playing piano and guitar help to establish his voice and train his ear? After all, some players find it easy to sing with their bass whereas others struggle to sing and play different rhythms. “When my mother and I worked together, she’d play the bass-lines on piano when I soloed on guitar, and I’d play the bass-lines on guitar when she soloed,” he replies. “I really had a few things going on at the same time, because I was playing and singing. I guess you found then that more guitar players were singing than bass players, but when I added bass pedals out of necessity, doing the three things might have been daunting if I’d had to think about it. So I was ahead of other bassists, as when I eventually moved to bass I was relieving myself of the guitar duties.”
Is it something that Larry has to work at, or is it second nature? “My bass is like a third arm, and it’s just another extension of my body, but I’m not thinking about it. I’m thinking more of the crowd, entertaining, singing and doing a few moves here and there!”
With so many roles to juggle, does Larry ever find himself dropping out of autopilot and thinking about what he’s doing? “It hasn’t happened so far,” he tells us. “For the most part, I don’t really think about it. The only time my focus shifts is when I’m just playing bass, maybe doing something in the studio or working on someone else’s material. I got used to moving between roles when I worked with my mom. I then did much the same in Sly & The Family Stone. I’m comfortable with either singing or playing. When I’m creating parts in a creative environment, my focus might shift – and in that situation, you’re thinking of vocals that work with the part. ‘Hair’, for example, I obviously wrote on bass: everything is built around it. Then I thought about drums that would accompany that. On the other hand, a song like ‘Today’ started on piano, so I wasn’t thinking about bass so much, more the vocals that would complement it.”
With his vocal range, has Larry ever found it tricky to sing in the same register in which he plays, or does it make it easier? “No, I know how to stay out of the way of myself with my voice. There are some bassists that I’ve played with, where we can play at the same time and complement each other. Marcus Miller and I work well together, for example, as he plays his lines like a vocalist. When Stanley and I work, he plays piccolo bass, but they don’t clash as his choice of part is different. Prince and I play bass, and again it works, even though it’s different.”
Did Larry find that being a multi-instrumentalist made the transition to playing bass easier, as he knew what everyone else would play? “It has affected my choice of notes and patterns by being a drummer first. If I didn’t have knowledge of drums, I wouldn’t be so conscious of staying out of the way,” he reasons. “Having not worked with a drummer when playing with my mother, when I eventually worked with Greg Errico in Sly & The Family Stone, it was either going to work and be totally cool or it would be a train wreck – I didn’t know which. Greg, being the drummer he is, totally played around what I was already doing: he didn’t ask me to lighten up, it never happened, it was just very natural. It may have had something to do with the genius of Sly. He picked me based on me playing with my mother without a drummer. He heard that, and it was his choice to put me together with Greg. But Sly is multi-talented too, he could have been the bass player in the band, but he chose me, being a bassist himself. We never competed for space in our parts, though. He doesn’t play the most simple lines, but they have well chosen spots like in ‘Dance To The Music’ or ‘Sing A Simple Song’.
Larry was with Sly between 1966 and 1972: how did the collaboration affect Larry’s bass-lines? Did Sly give him a guide? “Part of the genius of Sly and the band in that period is that he allowed us to be ourselves,” he recalls. “Greg’s drum part in ‘Dance…’ came from Greg’s heart. If someone had changed it, nobody could play like Greg, so you’d miss out on something. No one played guitar like Freddie Stone, either – so allowing me to play how I played meant he created a greater sound, and that he was getting the best part from each one of us.”
In turn, how does Larry view the fact that anyone can now record bass parts on home recording set-ups when they aren’t actually bassists? “People say ‘I wonder why this record isn’t hanging around like older songs’, or ‘Why do people forget songs so quickly?’ It’s because it isn’t reaching the heart of the people. When you play a song as a rhythm section, the tempo can change a bit. You’re not locked so much to technology so the emotion of the song is felt, and you’re communicating with the hearts of others. When you’re locked in, someone might not know why, but emotionally they aren’t feeling it – it’s not living or breathing.”
We ask if Graham Central Station had been in Larry’s mind before he left Sly & The Family Stone. “No,” he recalls, “starting another band wasn’t my intent. I had been constantly writing songs; at home we were all writing. My first thought was producing and writing for a new band. I had tons of stuff at home and played it all myself, so I put a band together with Chocolate [aka Patrice Banks] and called it Hot Chocolate [not to be confused with Errol Brown’s band].
They had a show in San Francisco one night at a club called Bimbos, and the show was going great. The crowd knew that I’d put the band together. They got to the end of show and the focus of attention turned to me. Being the writer and producer, there was an instant connection: everything elevated to another level and it was very special. I wanted my intent to be in the band, but it was a natural change, and so I called it Graham Central Station.”
In the late 60s and early 70s, with the likes of Bootsy Collins bringing funk to town, did Larry feel he was in competition with the other bassist? He explains, “We were both aware of each other, but we were different: we were related like cousins, but not blood brothers. There’s a difference, a mutual respect: when you listen to Bootsy, there is no mistake who that is. He has a definite sound and a way of playing. There was never any competition. We both enjoy what the other does.”
Mark King made an appearance with Larry and GCS on the first and subsequent nights of this UK tour. We were interested to know if Larry had been aware of Mark and Level 42 over the past 30 years. His beaming smile makes an appearance again: “Bass players are always aware of other bassists, although I went through a long period of time where I didn’t realise my influence on other bassists. There weren’t lots of videos of my stuff around, so people couldn’t see what I was doing, but as we did more TV shows, people realised they had to play like me, especially in covers bands that played the tunes I’d played on. Over time, I became more aware of players playing like me. It became more and more, and then players in other genres started thumping and plucking.
To me, they are like my bass children. I have high respect for the overhand style of playing but when I see a player pull that thumb back, it’s another of my bass children right there.” Although Larry uses a number of effects, he doesn’t overuse them. Rather, they add a different flavour to his tone. Does he often try new tones out, or does he prefer to stick with tried-and-trusted? “I’m always open to other sounds,” he muses, “but I go for sounds that sound more like what I used to use that isn’t around any more. I’ve been to the music store and tried out some things, because you never know what you’ll find. When I started using fuzz, bass players didn’t use effects – but as a guitarist I had no problem with experimenting, I try to find stuff that is close to what I hear in my head. I don’t use compression, just natural dynamics, and I use a volume pedal. I mostly use my fingers and the way I’m playing to create dynamics.”
Larry is regularly seen with his four-string Moon bass, nicknamed Sunshine. He also has a matching five-string, Moonshine, but we rarely see Larry doing his thing with the bigger beast. Does he ever dip his toe in the lower-end waters? “Not for live shows,” he answers. “When I play I’m on autopilot, so I don’t have to think about it, but if you add the fifth string, I would have to think about it and then I’m not just focused on entertaining. I use it on records and playing with other artists like Prince or Chaka Khan. I actually love using a five-string, but it depends on what hat I’m wearing.”
When Larry designed his Moon Jazz bass, what refinements did he incorporate into the design? “Mostly the DI clip, the forward angled pickup and the original wireless setup,” he says. “When I first went to Moon, their representative, Fumi, showed me the different things they were capable of building. I had things in my head that I liked from Jazz basses and Musicman and G&L basses, so I mixed up all of that with them, and that’s what we came up with.” So does he still get other basses sent to him to try? “Warwick has approached me,” he reveals, “and they’re working on a signature model, which is cool. I’m not stuck on anything in particular; I’m open to anything that is cool and works for me.”
With a career spanning over six decades, where does Larry draw his influences and inspiration from? “Well, first what helps me stay grounded spiritually is to do what is pleasing in God’s eyes,” he explains. “So that helps me to avoid anything that might harm me, emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually. I used to try and fool myself that something was good for me, but realistically, I try to please God first. I’m blessed with a wonderful wife, and in 38 years together, we’ve only been apart for two days. She’s there to support me and cover my back. Our family are very close and we see them all the time: the little ones keep us well grounded and focused. So much can drag you down, which is why we called the album Raise Up, to raise above all that. If I’m happy in my heart, it comes out in the music. Last night, I was having as much, if not more, fun than the audience: I was having a ball and I love it like that. It’s a fun thing and I try to draw off the love and energy of others and give it back. I don’t take anything for granted.”
A meeting of thumbs
The temperature outside may have been Baltic on all three nights of 11 to 13 March, when Larry Graham and his band brought the funk to Camden, but inside the Jazz Café, temperatures were soaring. You may have arrived feeling cold and grumpy, but I doubt you left without a smile on your face.
Sunday’s show was a more relaxed affair than the following nights, but the crowd was treated to a full-on funk assault, showcasing Larry’s legendary talent and revealing what a tight band he has assembled. The setlist contained all the gems from the Sly & The Family Stone catalogue, and the 24-carat nuggets from the debut GCS album, but we were also treated to covers of ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’ and Stevie Wonder’s ‘Higher Ground’, along with the prerequisite funk jams incorporating the whole band.
Halfway through, there were a few gasps as Larry left the stage, only to return with Mark King in tow for a rather special bass slapathon. For the throng of bass players inevitably in the audience, it was something of a spectacle to witness the godfather of slap and the best British exponent of the art over the last 30 years sharing a stage. Mark reappeared for the encore, but that wasn’t the last we saw of him as he returned on both Monday and Tuesday nights.
Tuesday’s show, being Larry’s last night, was always going to be sold out, and the venue was heaving as the band took the stage. With a few names in attendance, we not only caught Mr King for a third night but we were also treated to an appearance by Paul Turner and Rob Harris from Jamiroquai. As the show reached its climax, Paul, Rob and Mark all returned for the finale which had the whole crowd grooving, bouncing and singing in full voice. By the time the show ended, you were left in no doubt that there’s no sign of Larry letting up: he’s a lesson to us all.