It is extremely rare for a band to have one true
innovator. Sly & The Family Stone had two.
There was the vision of Sly Stone, and the
thumb of Larry Graham. His revolutionary electric bass style – popping, pulling, thumping, plucking, and snapping the strings with his thumb, as opposed to the standard overhand fingerstyle method – became the foundation of the ’70s “funk” sound. As Bootsy Collins acknowledged, “It was Larry Graham. Definitely Larry Graham.”
What grew out of necessity – compensating for a departed drummer while playing in his mother’s trio – blossomed into full flower on Sly’s “Thank You Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin.” James Jamerson’s bass figures had been an important factor in countless Motown hits; Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney had freed up more harmonic possibilities; and Jack Bruce had gone toe-to-toe, soloing alongside Eric Clapton in Cream; but here the full weight of the song’s melody is shouldered by Graham’s bass and its radical, fresh approach.
When the Family Stone crumbled in ’72, Larry formed Graham Central Station, which remained one of the Bay Area’s top live acts and the R&B chart’s biggest hitmakers for the rest of the decade. This two-CD set covers the band’s six ’70s albums, Graham’s subsequent solo efforts, and GCS’s eventual ’90s comeback. Like the Stone, GCS was a multi-voiced, self-contained collective whose songs often offered social commentary over eclectic grooves. Their 18 R&B Top 40 singles are all included here.
Not surprisingly, the bandleader’s bass is right in the forefront (check out the opening of “Hair”), and Graham’s gospel roots are reflected strongly – especially on “Ghetto” and “People.” The latter features the sweet hollowbody tone Larry’s former bandmate, guitarist Freddie Stone, who co-wrote the song with Graham (and who displays strong songwriting throughout). Elsewhere, GCS’s David “Dynamite” Vega proves he’s one of the great unsung guitarists of ’70s soul. He’s more than up to the rhythmic tasks that the idiom required, but also steps up for some tasty wah-wah bends on “Can You Handle It.” He switches to a screaming fuzz tone for the baroque gospel-blues of “Today,” and gets more extroverted on “The Jam,” “Entro,” and the distorted “Earthquake.” Everyone gets a turn on these latter band features, and Graham essentially solos like a guitarist. But on “Feel the Need” he shows that he’s equally capable in a more traditional Jamerson-like role, and on “Your Love” he lays down a swaying triplet groove.
“Is It Love?” features some flanged bends by Vega’s replacement, Gemi “Chunk” Taylor, and on the live ’92 version of Sly’s “I Want To Take You Higher,” which appropriately closes the anthology with George Johnson of the Brothers Johnson on guitar.
But the star of the show, for once, is the bass player: the often imitated, but never duplicated Larry Graham.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Jan. ’02 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.