The influence of Sly & the Family Stone has informed musicians for 50 years and has never waned during that time. The sound that Sly originated in the ’60s can still be heard in the most contemporary music. While the influence is indirect for many, it couldn’t be more direct than it is in the music of Larry Graham who, as the bass player for Sly & the Family Stone, helped to codify that sound in the first place.
Graham’s most important contribution to funk was undoubtedly what has become known as “slap” bass although Graham himself has always referred to it as “thumpin’ and pluckin’.” Whatever it’s called the style finds the bass player emulating the sound of a bass drum with his thumb and a snare drum with his second or middle finger. It’s a style that has been adopted by such bass-playing luminaries as Bootsy Collins, Victor Wooten, Marcus Miller, Stanley Clarke, and Les Claypool.
Graham was born in Beaumont, Texas. He was only 20 years old when he joined Sly & the Family Stone and he remained with that legendary band for six years. After leaving Sly in 1972, Graham formed a band called Azteca along with guitarist Neil Schon. Before long, Schon had departed to form Journey, and Graham put together Graham Central Station.
The self-titled debut album for Graham Central Station was released by Warner Bros. Records in 1974. The lineup for the album included guitarists Freddie Stone (another Sly refugee) and “Dynamite” Vega, singers Lenny Williams and Patryce “Choc’Let” Bank, drummer Willie “Wild” Sparks, keyboard player Butch Sam, horn players P. Caboose, and “Happiness” Kennedy, and percussionist Milt Holland. The album was a Top 20 hit on the R&B chart and reached #48 on the pop chart.
Release Yourself was released that same year and included many of the same musicians. The album, which reached #22 on the R&B chart, included the single “Feel the Need In Me” which found an equivalent level on the R&B singles chart. The following year the album Ain’t No ‘Bout-A-Doubt It was released and it included the single “Your Love,” the biggest Graham Central Station hit. The single topped the R&B chart and was a Top 40 pop hit as well.
Graham Central Station continued to release albums in the ’70s, but after 1979’s Star Walk there was a gap of nearly 20 years before their next release, GCS 2000. The album was produced by Graham and Prince and was released on Prince’s label NPG. Despite Prince’s efforts to revive Graham Central Station’s career, neither the album or any of its singles charted, a failure that many people chalked up to there being too much Prince and not enough Larry Graham on the album. Missing was the freewheeling sound of the band’s earlier albums, replaced by the sound of studio perfection.
Prince didn’t give up on Graham Central Station however and featured the band as his opening act on the “Welcome 2 America” tour in 2011. The most recent Graham Central Station album, Raise Up, was released the following year.