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Larry Graham: You never know where Prince will pop up

Larry Graham: You never know where Prince will pop up
Photo by Rene Keijzer

Credited as the inventor of the funky "slap bass" style, pioneering R&B star Larry Graham has lived in Minnesota for the past 15 years. Graham first established himself internationally as an original member of Sly and the Family Stone in the '60s. He continued with his own group Graham Central Station in the '70s, and has since released a number of solo records and collaborations. Most recent is last year's Raphael Saadiq-produced funk nugget Raise Up.

Graham is a spiritual brother and mentor to Prince, who coaxed him to move to the Twin Cities, and the two have traded licks onstage and in the studio on numerous occasions. Thusly it is with huge anticipation that Graham's debut at the Dakota tonight and Tuesday. Who knows who might show up?

Based upon Gimme Noise's recent conversation with Graham, the man is on top of his game. With an endless amount of musical history and countless incredible stories in his wake, the 66-year-old has the same youthful energy and positive disposition that makes his craft an effortless endeavor and an unstoppable force.

Gimme Noise: Mr. Graham, are you working with most of the same people you have been playing with for a while now? Yeah, my guitar player, Wilton Rabb has been with me for over 30 years now. He's on the One in a Million You album and that was like, 1980. Though I was born in Texas, I was really raised in Oakland and that's where he's from and where we met. Actually my whole band is from Oakland.

What are some of the highlights of your set for your current tour? Well over the years I've had several different careers. Going back to Sly and the Family Stone, then my solo career starting with One In a Million You, then my Graham Central Station stuff. People want to hear all of it! You got Sly fans and a lot of people who come to the show all dressed up to hear the guy sing the ballads. Then the people in street clothes who come to hear the funk. They had no idea it was all the same person. So I just mix it up and do all of it!

Any talk about doing something with Prince at these shows or again in the future? You know what's funny about the situation with Prince? You never know where he's going to pop up.

You don't know, he doesn't tell you? I thought if anyone knew, it'd be you! I never know when he's going to pop up and I never know when he's going to call me up -- even if I am at his show. There's always that element of surprise. For example when we played B.B. King's in New York, he just popped up. I had no idea he was even in town. We were with him a couple days before that, and he didn't say nothing. The week before that, he was doing his tour and we find out on a Tuesday that we are going to Phoenix to play with him that Wednesday and Thursday night. It's always spontaneous stuff. It's more fun like that because there's really nothing to prepare for. He knows my stuff backwards and forwards and we've been playing together for a long time.

What can you say about how he works? I think it's the element of surprise. Which is good. People love his music so much he doesn't have to give too much notice to pack the place up. I think at one time it was trouble with the scalpers and them jacking up the price, and if it's last-minute then they don't have that advantage anymore. I think that had a lot to do with it.

So how did you first meet? About 15 years ago, we were playing in Nashville, and that same night Prince was playing the arena there. We had never played together and really only seen each other once at a Warner Bros. picnic. I had no idea the influence my music had on him. So I go to this after party that he invited me to, and when I walk through the door he immediately invites me up on stage. We played and it was like we had been playing forever. Wherever I went, he was right there. He knew my stuff sometimes better than I did. So after the jam that night he asked that when I was done with [my] tour that I come and open for him. So I did. At that time I had Jerry Martini and Cynthia Robinson from Sly and the Family Stone and also had Rose Stone with me. We went all around the U.S. and Canada with him. Then as my wife and I had been planning on moving to California from Jamaica, he asked us to come for a visit to Minneapolis not sure how long we would be here. In time, my daughter had met her husband and now three kids later we're all still here! Since then we been like family.

 

What could you say you have learned from Prince and vice versa? What I learn musically is from good leadership. When my mother and I worked together she was the leader of our little group. I learned so much from the leadership Prince provides for his band. His leadership and work ethic and how he really goes about his creativity. It just helps me to continue to grow as well.

So what about Sly? Do you guys keep in touch? I haven't seen him in quite a while. I hear he's in California. I have been in touch with all the band members like I said I had most of them on the road with me and sometimes I had Greg Errico sit in with me. So we had as many as five of us together at times. We're still like family. We did a lot of touring together. But Sly wasn't playing much during that time when I hooked up with Prince. I know he started doing some gigs. I've seen some of them on YouTube, but that's about it. We haven't had a chance to hang out over the years. But I don't think I'm the only one.

He seems like he's had a little erratic last few decades. I don't know who he's hanging out with. But man, what a great, great person! A genius of a man.

Yeah, I'm a huge Sly fan. So what's one of your favorite Sly stories? Well, the greatest story of Sly and the Family Stone period is Woodstock. I mean. Man, we flew in and we couldn't really see at night how big this thing is. It's dark and with lighting on stage you could only see the first few thousand people. You can't really get a feel for how big it really is. The way Sly structured the show one song would go into the next song, right into the next song. There wouldn't really be a spot for the audience to react. When we would come to the spot where we stop the first time -- the roar of that crowd. To hear half a million people just roaring their shout of approval was just overwhelming.

Never heard anything like that or felt that kind of energy. Cause we had never played anything no where near that big. No one there had. The biggest might have been an arena with 20,000 people. We got such a rush from that it actually made us play better than we ever had. I liken it to the first time Michael Jordan took off from the free throw line and knew he could slam dunk from there. After that he knew he raised the bar and had to at least always do that or better. After Woodstock that's how we felt. We raised the bar for ourselves and tapped into a zone we knew we could go back into again. So for other festivals, Isle of Wight and shows like that we had to be at least as good as Woodstock.

How was it like after you played? You had to be pretty jazzed. Everybody was jazzed! Backstage was incredible because all the artists were hanging out and the energy was just a wonderful, wonderful thing. It really was the turning point in everyone's career, Santana, of course Hendrix, do this day that that was one of his most famous gigs.

Did you get to hang out with Jimi much? I didn't really get to hang out with him. I did see him a number of times. Like at Madison Square Garden, he had that stage in the round. You had all these stacks of Marshalls up there and you were just waiting this wall of sound to get to you again and it practically blew the hair off our heads. It was just awesome! I was sitting a couple tables one night from him at a club and he just got up on stage and took this guitar and it was just incredible. The last time I saw him in Germany I was on stage standing behind his amplifiers taking some pictures. He did this back bend at one point and busted his pants and had to run back behind the amps where I was to fix his pants. I took some great pictures but what I didn't know was at the airport the X-ray machines ruined my pictures before I could ever get them developed.

Larry Graham and Graham Central Station play the Dakota Monday, May 27 and Tuesday, May 28 at 7pm and again at 9pm. Tickets.


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