In Defense Of…Larry Graham

I once had the pleasure of meeting bass giant Larry Graham backstage during an outdoor music festival in the mid-90s. As a big fan of Sly and the Family Stone, a band that took the James Brown version of funk and gave it a semi-psychedelic spin, it was a dream come true.

But in one unexpected, fractured fragment of time, it was dream that would nearly turn nightmarish.

Picture it: meeting one of your musical heroes and being shocked to find that same legend treating you like you were the superstar.

Envision watching from a backstage, behind-the-scenes viewpoint as your hero’s band performs in front of thousands of eager fans at a popular outdoor venue.

Now, imagine the confusion and instant dread you feel when the venue’s crew suddenly and inexplicably shuts off the power to the stage halfway into the band’s last song of the night — leaving every audience member and the musicians themselves in stunned silence.

No sound. No lights. No music.

Cutting through the din of confused murmurs, you hear the scream of the venue’s head crewman, his hand still on the lever to one of the power boxes beyond the other side of the stage.

“YOU’RE DONE!”

All of this happened the night I met Larry Graham. And what took place onstage in the uncertain moments that followed would forever redefine my perception of what music is and can be.

But, before I go any further, let’s go back to where it started…. Ahead of Graham’s days with Sly and the Family Stone and long before Graham became the leader of his own band, Graham Central Station.

In the early ‘60s, as a lean-and-lanky teenager, Graham learned to play music with his family at church in Beaumont, Texas. He grew into a gifted multi-instrumentalist who could play guitar, sing, and operate the bass pedals of the church organ all at the same time.

The adage that necessity is the mother of invention proved true when Graham’s mother fired the drummer in her gospel trio. Musically, Graham filled the void by learning to mimic the drum tones on an electric bass: “slapping” the strings with this thumb to mimic the kick drum and “popping” them with this index finger for a snare effect.

Graham would call his manner of playing “thumpin’ and pluckin’;” in the music world it became known as the “slap-bass technique.” It was an innovation that would revolutionize musical genres of funk, jazz, and disco — as did his primally hypnotic bassline for the Sly and the Family Stone’s No. 1 hit, “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again).”

“That [technique] became a huge template for every bass player to start using,” said Average White Band bassist Alan Gorrie in a 2014 BBC documentary called The Story of Funk.

Indeed, Graham’s “Thank You” bassline would become so synonymous with the concept of funk music, it would be sampled 20 years later on the title track of Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814, an album that would go on to sell more than 12 million copies worldwide.

Graham’s technique no doubt helped define the sound of Sly of the Family Stone.

“We all had our own musical backgrounds and experiences that we were allowed to contribute to the band,” said Graham in The Story of Funk. “So everybody brought something to the table.”

That melting-pot spirit of collaboration may have contributed to the band’s significance and notoriety — they were our country’s first truly integrated band, in color, culture and sexual orientation — but that fact didn’t prevent friction and strife from wreaking havoc.

The summer of 1969 would see the band playing at its best, and the fall would usher in the elements that would inevitably lead to its downfall.

Recent years have seen an overdue show of appreciation for the band’s performances during that summer. On Record Store Day in 2019, Epic/Legacy released a double-vinyl set of the band’s performance at Woodstock.

With supernaturally-charged renditions of songs like “Everyday People,” “You Can Make It If You Try,” and “I Want To Take You Higher,” it is a document of pure joy and positivity.

Unbeknownst to me (at least until this year), Sly and the Family Stone played another “Woodstock” just two months earlier that summer. On June 29, the band performed at the Harlem Cultural Festival, an event that has been called “Black Woodstock.” Over the course of six Sundays, more than 300,000 predominantly Black music fans attended the shows. 

Friday, July 2, marks the wide-release of the Sundance-winning Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised), the directorial debut of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, which resurrects long-lost concert footage from that Harlem Cultural Festival within an historical framework of race, culture and justice.

It’s worth pointing out that Sly and the Family Stone was the only band to play both festivals — that they had as much appeal with acid-induced space cadets looking to expand their minds as they did with soul-fueled revelers seeking to expand their rights.

Although there were certainly struggles, race would not play a prominent role in the demise of Sly and the Family Stone. Instead, it would be demons of drug abuse. When the band moved to Los Angeles that fall, they fell into loads of cocaine.

While the next few albums inspired great players like Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock to rethink their approach to jazz, with On the Corner and Head Hunters, respectively, Stone could hardly hold himself together, let alone his band.

Stone stopped writing songs and started missing shows. The band became a revolving door. In 1972, following a backstage brawl, Graham was out for good and started Graham Central Station.

Which bring me back to the incident I witnessed stage-left more than 20 years later in Philadelphia. An angry stage-crew boss had brought the lights down on Graham Central Station during their encore, “Thank You,” because, as he would scream later: the band went over their due time to stop (by mere seconds).

He wouldn’t wait a minute.

Now, I can’t say for sure it was a racially motivated incident — the stage crew was entirely White; the performers and audience member predominantly Black — but I can say it certainly felt that way at the time. At the very least, it was a dangerous appearance. And it wasn’t long before bewilderment became anger amongst the crowd.

Bass Friends: Parliament-Funkadelic bassist Bootsy Collins (left) with Larry Graham at the 2011 NAMM show in Los Angeles.. Photo courtesy of LarryGraham.com

Seeing the dismayed and distressed faces in the crowd before him, Graham did what he knew best: make music. He gracefully sprung into action, rushing back to his percussionist. With a quick command they were both tossing tambourines, maracas and shakers to the other band members.

Without any electrical amplification, they all sang out, purely acapella, the final refrains to the song again and again:

“I want to thank you for lettin’ me be myself again!”

It was, at once, peaceful and rebellious. And the audience came alive in a spirit that I don’t think I’ve ever seen since at a live concert.

The band was jumping up and down, approaching the very edge of the stage. People got up from out of their seats in the back and started dancing in the aisles. People on the lawn were waving blankets in the air.

There was nothing the crew boss could do. A minute earlier he’d shouted,” YOU’RE DONE!” Graham, however, was far from done. They finished the song. And Graham would go on to work with Prince a few years later, and, in the decades that followed, tour the world several times over — as recently as 2018.

His final words that night: “Thank you, Philly, be well. We love you! Be good to one another!”

So, what do you think? Please comment below.