Family Affair

Bassist Larry Graham ear-tests the Sly and the Family Stone reissues

As bassist and cavern-voiced backup singer for Sly and the Family Stone, Larry Graham helped invent modern music's bottom end. His "thumpin' and pluckin'" on classics such as 1970's "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" defined funk, while his subsequent solo career with Graham Central Station is the stuff of YouTube gold—that's Graham's wife Tina dancing with the band to "Pow" on Soul Train. Today, the Grahams live near an apple-tree farm in Chanhassen, Minnesota, and are proud grandparents of two boys; five-year-old Jaiden accompanies Larry on a tiny drum set. Graham hasn't released an album since 1998's GCS 2000 on Prince's NPG Records label, but he continues to perform live, record, and hang out with Prince.

With Sly Stone readying a comeback album in Napa, California, and Sly and the Family Stone's still-revolutionary-sounding first seven albums being reissued this month on Epic/Legacy, Graham agreed to sit down and listen to some of the remastered bonus tracks and perennials, offering his reminiscences.

 

"Underdog" (mono single version) from A Whole New Thing (1967)

My first dog was Underdog, and he came after the song. He was a basset hound. I took him on the road with me to New York City, and he stayed in the hotel for months.

That's Freddy [Stewart] on trombone, Sly's brother. Not many people know that. This music is part of my sitting here, my fiber, it's who I am. And I'm sure [drummer] Greg [Errico] feels the same way. It's who he is. We could get together any time and that same chemistry would happen.

We didn't have a name when we went to rehearsal at Sly's parents' house in San Francisco. With a great drummer like Greg Errico, even though I'm playing drums on the bass, he played around me some kind of way. We just complemented each other, and it worked. There was no other drummer on the planet playing like that. I think a part of the genius of Sly is that we were all allowed a lot of creative freedom.

 

"We Love All" (previously unreleased) from Dance to the Music (1968)

That's Freddy's voice. He's an incredible guitar player and influential even to this day, not necessarily a lead guitarist like Hendrix, but his rhythm playing is off the chain. But what some folks don't remember is his voice, 'cause he wasn't featured on as many songs. But Freddy would sing "Try a Little Tenderness" and the whole house would be in tears.

 

"Pressure" (previously unreleased) from Life (1968)

What comes to my mind is the unselfishness of Sly. He's the leader of the band and he's not trying to hog the show. He got me and Freddy sharing a vocal part, but he really featured his sister Rose [Stewart]. So right from the beginning—and this is before we were really famous—he said, "Hey, I want you guys to be as famous as I am." For a band, the confidence that gives everybody is tremendous.

 

"I Want to Take You Higher" (mono single version) from Stand! (1969)

This was probably one of the first songs other than "Dance to the Music" that really highlighted my fuzz bass. Back in the day, they weren't making things for bass players; everything was for guitar players. I had to experiment and see what would work. We were coming out of the era where you were either the singing group or the band. We were the group and the band, which was kind of unique for the time.

The capper of it all would be Woodstock, for this time. Out front, what was going on was great, but the greatest part of Woodstock was what was going on backstage between musicians, the camaraderie, hooking up with people that would become lifelong friends. I hooked up with David Brown, the bass player for Carlos Santana at that time, and we became best buddies. I had two dogs that were my favorite ever, saluki, Egyptian dogs, and I gave him one.

 

"My Brain (Zig-Zag)" (previously unreleased) from Stand! (1969)

I don't have anything to say about that one.

 

That's not you playing bass here?

I don't have anything to say about that one [smiles].

 

"Family Affair" from There's a Riot Going On (1971)

It was true of the group, we were like a family. We did a lot of things together. We road motorcycles together. We bought dogs together. I had my saluki, the fastest. Freddy had the tallest, an Irish wolfhound. Sly had a pit bull. [Saxophonist] Greg and Jerry [Martini] had the biggest gray Pyrenees. So we did a lot of stuff together. That song rings a lot of truth.

 

The song also has the marriage breaking up in the second part. Did any of that come from the pain of the group breaking up?

To me, it's like, at some point—well, you left home. Is it because you hate your parents? No, it's because you move on. It has nothing to do with love or hate. You left home because it was time. To this day, most people can go back to their parents' home and get a hug, get a meal, and get a room. We leave that relationship intact. That's the way that all of us [in Sly and the Family Stone] basically feel.

 

Have you ever talked about getting everybody back together again?

I think there have been some attempts. At the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame [in 1993], we didn't play, but we went there. I was at the Grammys [last year] but I didn't play. I didn't get a chance to see Sly there. But I did see him at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And at the [2001] R&B [Foundation Pioneer Award] in New York, he didn't come, but everybody else did. I had the privilege of playing with other members of the band. That was real cool.

 

Let's set the record straight once and for all: Are you on 1973's Fresh?

I'm on "Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)" and "If It Were Left Up to Me."

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