BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
Larry Graham is sometimes referred to as The Man Who
Invented Funk. "Well, I don't know about that, but I did
invent my style of playing the bass," Graham said in an
interview this week.
Indeed, a great number of influential musicians formed
the foundations of funk, but the music never would have
been the same without Graham's particular style of playing
the bass. That contribution gave the music its signature
sound: the slap bass.
Slap bass is just what it sounds like: the bass player
slaps the low strings with his or her thumb, keeping rhythm
while plucking the other strings with the fingers. Graham
"invented" this method of playing before he had his own funk
band, Graham Central Station, and before he joined the
legendary '60s soul-funk collective Sly and the Family
And that sound? Well, it was all a mistake, really.
"Bass players usually play overhand, with their fingers.
That's a carry-over from upright bass playing. My style is
different because I came to the bass from the guitar,"
Graham explained. "My mom and I were working together, and
this one club had an organ with bass pedals that went half
way across. I learned how to play those pedals while
playing my guitar, and I got used to that.
"But one day the organ broke down. We sounded empty
without that bottom sound. I rented a bass to hold down
that bottom until the organ could be repaired. I wasn't
trying to learn the correct overhand style, because I
wasn't planning to play bass any longer than I had to. I
was playing it like a guitar. But the organ couldn't be
repaired, so I got stuck on the bass. That rental turned
into a purchase."
After a while, the jazzy combo with Graham and his
mother became just a duo of the two. Again, Graham
improvised to fill in their sound. Lacking a drummer,
Graham began thumping his bass strings to make up for not
having the backbeat of a snare drum.
The innovation paid off in a big way. Sometimes it only
takes one person to be impressed.
"There was one lady in a club we played regularly who was
also a fan of Sly Stone on the radio at the time," Graham
said. "She used to call him up on the phone and say, `You
gotta go hear this bass player.' Eventually, she was
persistent to the point that he came down to hear me.
That's how I got the gig with Sly, and that's how this
style of playing got popular — through the records we made.
If you were a musician playing our tunes, you had to play
the bass like me for the song to sound right. Then, when
these people started writing their own music, the bass
players kept using that style. I never thought it would be
"And, you know, I never did see that lady again to thank
But with Sly and the Family Stone, he did help write
sweat-dripping classics like "Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice
Elf)." A lyric from the band's classic "Everyday People" (now
used to hawk Toyotas) sums up the group's musical
philosophy as well as its timeless appeal: "Different
strokes for different folks."
At least, that's what Graham said made the group so
popular in the early '70s — much more so than his unique
"We were different. We were a rainbow," he said. "The music
was a combination of all types of music. You could hear
R&B, jazz, rock, even country. Plus, it was a
self-contained band. We played the instruments as well as
singing all the parts. There was male and female, black and
white, mixed up every kind of way you could think of."
That was 30 years ago. After the Family Stone split up
in '74, Graham immediately formed his own funky collective,
Graham Central Station, which thwacked its way through the
'70s before Graham went solo in 1980.
In all that time, Graham has watched funk music grow
into its own, fade slightly, then come back indirectly
through samples in hip-hop songs.
"A lot of the old-school stuff is hot again because it's
been sampled so much. Us, Parliament-Funkadelic, Rick James
— they're all back on the scene because the kids, after they
hear whoever's rapping on top of that song, are smart
enough to know that's M.C. Hammer rapping but Rick James
making the music. So they go dig up his old records or my
old records," Graham said.
One such second-generation fan has turned out to be
Graham's latest R&B benefactor. Last year, Graham was in
Nashville to play a show, and he got a call during
soundcheck from another artist in town at the same time:
Prince (The Artist, or whatever you call him).
"He heard I was in town, and he called me and told me
he'd be jamming after his concert at an after-party, would
I like to come down and jam? That was the first time we
played together, and we had an instant lock," Graham said.
"Growing up he listened to a lot of my music, and he said I
was one band who influenced him the most. I hadn't played
with anybody who knew my music so well. I started doing
tour dates with him, then a few more and a few more, pretty
soon a year had passed. We knew we had something going
together, so I moved to Minneapolis to be closer to him."
The relationship has resulted in millennium-marking
projects for both artists. Graham worked with Prince on the
new single versions of Prince's 1982 hit "1999," and Prince
collaborated with Graham on a new Graham Central Station
record, "GCS 2000." Both discs were released on the same day
early this month on Prince's NPG Records.
Graham is still adjusting to life in Minneapolis after
seven years living in Jamaica. When we caught him on the
phone this week, it was snowing in Minnesota.
"Been a while since I've seen snow, let me tell you,"
Graham said. "It has a pretty thing about it. Of course, I'm
saying that from inside the house."
But the climate shock is worth the artistic freedom he
enjoys working outside the traditional record label system
with Prince at his Paisley Park Studios.
"It's great working up here. You have total freedom to
record whatever you want to record. Nobody's standing
around saying, `You can't do that.' There's no time crunch,
no budget to worry about. As long as the bill gets paid for
the electricity, the tape will be rolling. When you're
finished with a song is when you're actually finished with
it, not because you ran out of time or money to pay the
label or the studio. And to have the greatest producer in
the world working with you — well, it all went into creating
what I think is a great album for me," Graham said.
"And it's good to have a new lease on life. Funk is back,
so this is where I belong."
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.