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.

Graham speaks just as generously (and vaguely) about his Sly Stone years as he does of the Artist. "That, to me, was my Sixties," he says simply. "A wonderful experience." But last year, band members and associates publicly recounted for the first time the atmosphere of violent intimidation that preceded Graham's exit. According to Joel Selvin's oral history For the Record: Sly and the Family Stone, Graham at one point hired his own security for protection from Stone, and in one incident Graham's guard was battered in a hotel lobby by Stone's entourage. ("We put the street on 'em," bragged one attacker to Selvin.)

Even after Graham spent the Seventies with his successful Graham Central Station, the Eighties going solo, and the Nineties playing session man, it's easy to see why the Artist's drug- and profanity-free bubble might offer some comfort. The younger musician, while startlingly original, can also, according to Graham, play every single part of every Graham song. When a teenage Prince Rogers Nelson was still attending Central High School, he played in a jam band with childhood buddy André Anderson (later Cymone) that called itself Grand Central Corporation. And in many striking respects, the free-floating atmosphere in Paisley's studio resembles the young Prince's adolescent ideal: The all-hours jam in a basement bedroom, where Prince lived under Anderson's roof, away from parental authority. As Graham describes it, there are no deadlines at Paisley, no budgets, and all-night recording is the norm. ("I've kept late hours all my life," Graham says. "Even my daughter's like that.")

Quite famously, the Artist has achieved his own sort of release--from what he sees as the clock watchers, budget setters, and critics who would contain "Prince." After using the music industry to circumvent Minneapolis's white club circuit, which shut Prince and his black peers out of the scene before Uncle Sam's became First Avenue, the Artist now shuns the industry. He brings the world to him, on his terms. George Clinton, Chaka Khan, and Graham are only the black musicians he has coaxed into his studio--smack-dab, as Chaka once remarked, in the middle of nowhere. Others visit. And those who see the Artist as an isolated Presley-to-be should take note that in the past month alone, the performer has carried on in private with musicians including Carlos Santana, No Doubt, and Ani DiFranco. He and mate Mayte bowl with the Grahams and play pool with Lenny Kravitz. And whenever the mood strikes, the Artist heads into the studio. (Engineer Hans-Martin Buff admits he works on call.)

"There's total freedom there," says Graham of Paisley. "My single is called 'Free,' and that's really how I feel. You can go in, and there's no one telling you that you can do this but you can't do that. That is a very unique situation. If you don't feel like recording, you don't have to. If you want to redo something, you can go ahead and redo it."

And if "Free" sounds less agonized, more obsessively polished, and nowhere near as hairy as There's a Riot Goin' On and Sign o' the Times, it may be because Artistic freedom too easily becomes license. For better and worse, Graham and Baby Brother alike have settled into a groove.

 

Larry Graham and Graham Central Station perform with the Artist at 2:30 and 8:00 p.m. Friday, July 30 at Northrop Auditorium; (612) 624-2345.

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