After decades of struggle Larry Graham remains as upbeat as the funk grooves he strums. Time and again, that sunny disposition has served the 67-year-old bassist well throughout a career which has seen him perform with famously contrary artists like Sly Stone and Prince. Here he talks us through his invention of pop music’s most influential "slap bass" playing style, an often copied technique for which he’s never been given his due.
Most kids would be too embarrassed to jump onstage and perform with their parents. What made your situation different?
I inherited my musical skills from my mom. When she was carrying me she was playing most of the time, so I was rocking out in there at the embryonic stage. She was a real pro. When I was a boy I’d play guitar with her six nights a week, in clubs and lounges from San Francisco to the Oakland Bay area. She was my mom but she was also my mentor, teacher and best friend.
But she wasn’t very successful. Is it true that she couldn’t afford to hire a drummer?
Yeah, but it wasn’t so bad. I would thump my bass strings with my thumb to make up for not having that bass drum, and then I would pluck the strings with my finger to compensate for not having a snare backbeat. That’s how I came up with the slap bass style. I didn’t think I was doing anything new, I was just doing the best I could for those circumstances.
What’s it like to see Flea, Les Claypool, Peter Hook, and countless other famous bassists become superstars after copying your style?
I’ve told them all that it touches my heart to hear them play like me because the biggest compliment you can give anyone is to imitate them.
Sly Stone apparently recruited you because of your innovative style. He’s often been depicted as a demanding, eccentric recluse. Did you see a different side of him?
When I think of Sly, I think of his generosity. He wouldn’t hog the mike, he gave us all vocal parts and chances to solo. I know writers and critics have a job to do, but I wish more focus would have been placed on the positives than the negatives. Because the positive side was the music.
How do you avoid that negativity?
Because the people I’ve worked with are so positive. Sly is like that. Prince too. He’s obviously out front a lot, but there were plenty of times that Prince would call me out and back me up for over half an hour. I do the same thing with my band, Graham Central Station. It’s certainly a lot more fun onstage when you share the stage.
Larry Graham will perform at the Midi festival on May 1. For more info, click here.
Photos: Courtesy of the organizers
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