Release Yourself

From Sly Stone's roughhouse to the Artist's clubhouse, groundbreaking bassist Larry Graham finds new power in Minnesota

"My name is Larry with a big old G / I used to be hairy, but now I'm just funky."

--Graham Central Station's "GSC 2000"

 

Thank you for letting me be myself: Funk legend Larry Graham
Tony Nelson
Thank you for letting me be myself: Funk legend Larry Graham

At its mid-Seventies zenith, Larry Graham's Afro added more than six inches to his already formidable, platform-heeled stature. The lean bass player known for his amiable baritone on Sly and the Family Stone classics such as "Everyday People" once sang, in his next band, Graham Central Station, "I don't believe it's fair to judge a man by the length of his hair." As far as "What's Going On?" references go, that chorus of 1974's "Hair" (pronounced "HAY-ah") was as deep as a record jacket. But the tune was a gas all the same, not for Graham's feel-good freak verbiage but for his wildly acrobatic slap-bass playing.

Graham invented the sort of string-popping that Primus-weary music fans now take for cliché. But it was a funk innovation as influential in its way as the staccato syncopation of "Funky Drummer" Clyde Stubblefield, or the synthesized stomach growls of P-Funk keyboardist Bernie Worrell. That thump and pluck came from the fingers and thumb of a 20-year-old guitarist temporarily taking over on bass, slapping the beat in lieu of a drummer for his jazz-crooning mom in a Haight-Ashbury café. DJ-turned-bandleader Sly Stone saw one of those performances in 1966, and soon after Graham's slap hit the big time with the release of "Thank You (Falettinme Me Be Mice Elf Agin)," becoming de rigueur funk in the process.

Today Graham is more neatly groomed, having opted for what seems to be the quiet life. He shows me around his pastoral nine-acre spread in exurban Chanhassen, which he shares with his wife Tina and their teenage daughter Latia. The only hints of Graham's funkier fashion days are a pair of tan cowboy boots peeking out from his suit pants, and his wide, thick mustache, roofing a relaxed smile. "In the Seventies, it used to take me eight hours to get my hair braided," he says. "Which is how I met my wife in San Francisco. She did my hair, and we became friends by just talking."

While Graham says he hopes to turn a pigeon-filled barn behind his renovated farmhouse into a recording studio, he adds that there's hardly a need. The 53-year-old lives within a few minutes of Paisley Park, the truncated castle armored in what look like giant bathroom tiles, where Graham's collaborator and benefactor, the Artist (formerly known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince) works his night job. Graham's back yard lies just beyond a tree farm near this musical clubhouse, where the bassist has spent the better part of two years rehearsing, recording, and performing with the 41-year-old man he calls "Baby Brother."

Graham and Prince crossed paths in the Seventies, but didn't really talk until two years ago, when the Artist invited his boyhood idol to jam with him after-hours at a Nashville nightclub. "The first conversation we had was really with our instruments onstage," Graham says. "I had heard a tape someone gave me of him playing some of my songs. He knows my music as well as I do, and maybe some stuff I forgot. It just clicked."

One jam led to another, and the Artist soon asked Graham to move from Montego Bay, Jamaica, to snowy, suburban Minnesota. The bassist acceded that winter, and he has played on every NPG Records album since: last year's New Power Generation outing; then Chaka Khan's Come 2 My House; and, in February, Graham's own spotlight disc. GCS 2000 featured a reconfigured Graham Central Station, including Family Stone vets Cynthia Robinson (trumpet) and Jerry Martini (saxophone). But the music on these albums, alternately tinny and playful, soulful and slick, was only occasionally caboose-loosening. They had the Artist's clumsy symbol-prints all over them, down to the hieroglyphics on the lyric sheet, and they sounded almost antiseptic.

Still, songs like the Graham-penned "Free," a feather-light soul anthem with Chaka singing backup, made perfect live fodder. Paisley's semipublic, word-of-mouth late-night parties, featuring performances by the Artist, Graham, and anyone else at hand, continued to take go-go obscurities such as Chuck Brown's 2001 theme and present them to young audiences alongside old Sly Stone classics and original material. And if Graham's name is just as huh? to Purple Rain's children as Brown's is, the bassist must know he has hooked up with the one funk fan on earth who could change that.

 

After 19 years with no hits--his last was the solo slow-jam "One in a Million You"--Graham seems well past star tripping. Which likely suits Paisley's star just fine. Notorious for micromanaging his image, the Artist presents the odd spectacle of a wealthy eccentric discovering DIY: He's an indie-funk Batman. Money is "just paper," the imp tells interviewers. Graham says he holds no contract with Baby Brother. And he sings, "I don't want to be worshiped," on the Artist-co-authored "Utopia." Must not, since this month's Graham Central Station performance marks his first official headlining concert in Minnesota.

The Grahams remain humble, devoted Jehovah's Witnesses--Tina hands me a pamphlet as I drive away. And Larry seems to imply--though it's always hard to tell with these secrecy-sworn friends of the Artist--that his own spirituality jibes with that of his naughtier sibling. But there's one important exception to Graham's modesty. The bassist has appropriated, albeit by default, the musical legacy of his now-silent old boss, whose public descent into drugs and paranoia hastened Graham's departure from the Family Stone in 1972.

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