Larry Graham & Graham Central Station: 'Undiscovered' Pioneers
By David Nathan
In person interview in New York, October 1977
It's quite possible that on seeing this article’s headline, you might well baulk, especially if you're an ardent Graham Central fan. Well, what does it mean, you ask, indignantly? Undiscovered? Pioneers, yes, but undiscovered? Yes, alas, we have to report that although fellow musicians and the music industry and the group's most loyal fans are aware of the influence that Larry Graham and his co-workers have had on the progress of funky-rock, jazz-rock, funk-jazz or whatever you want to label it, the vast majority of people don't even know who Larry Graham is!
It's also quite remarkable that, after five albums, the group still doesn't have that automatic crossover appeal that say Rufus or Earth, Wind & Fire have. And it's certainly not because they aren't talented. When Larry Graham was in New York recently, just following the release of the group's latest album, "Now-Do-U-Wanta-Dance" we asked him quite why this state of affairs existed. "Well, I guess it's a few things. You have to remember that when we first joined Warner Brothers back in 1973, they didn't have any groups that were anything like us. Frankly, they didn't know where to channel our music even though there were other companies who had had experience in dealing with the kind of thing we were doing like CBS, who of course had Sly & The Family Stone."
And just in case there might possibly be anyone out there who didn't know, Larry was one of the cornerstones of the Family Stone for some six years during the very peak of Sly and the group's fame when the group's impact on the music scene was phenomenal with hit record after hit record zooming onto the charts. Larry continues: "It's taken the company some time to really get to know what to do with our music in terms of marketing, promotion and exposure. Eventually, they began to come through — "Your Love" and "Ain't No Bout-a-Doubt It" were the first gold records that Warners' R&B department had ever had and we like to think that they made them sit up and take notice. I guess in a sense we were door-openers for other acts at Warners who have followed through. "The reason we've hung in there with the company is simple: I feel that there are other things I'd like to do strictly outside of the immediate music thing which hopefully, Warners would open the door to: like movies and so on. I'd like to think that we've been right to hang on in there with the company but only time will tell. We could have gone with other companies who had experience in the field that we're in but for long-range career reasons, we've stuck with them. Like I say, there's no guarantee that it's been the right thing to do — we'll just have to wait and see."
Certainly, that situation (with the company literally learning as they went along) couldn't have helped in terms of the public realizing that Mr. Graham himself was instrumental in bringing in a new style of bass playing which has influenced everyone from Bootsy's Rubber Band to The Temptations and The Commodores. "To me, it becomes obvious when I hear someone plucking at a bass the way I've always done it that they've been exposed to our music. I guess I feel something like a scientist who's developing an invention over years — you know, I've been playing for seventeen years now! It's like before he can get the recognition or the credit, other people get hold of the same formula and the public hears them doing it not realizing where it came from. For the innovator, it can be frustrating but I don't get bitter about it. Because I figure that in the end, people will become aware of our contribution. It's like with anything that someone invents: the public really only gets to know after the event, right? But we're working on letting people know that other people have been influenced quite strongly by what we've been doing so that the record will be straight!"
The group's 1977 “Now Do U Wanta Dance” album seems to be faring very well for them after the lack of success that their previous effort, "Mirror" suffered. Larry is quick to point that the reasons for the album's relative failure were not the musical content which differed somewhat from previous albums "because lyrically it was more serious and we dealt really with where we are in the world — with what's going on and most people are really not aware of what's really happening here. Unfortunately, a lot of people would rather not know the truth — what's happening."
Larry relates what the problem was: "Firstly, you have to bear in mind that ever since we've been with Warners, we've constantly toured in support of our albums. To begin with, we used to be on other people's shows, opening for them. Then, we'd go back as headliners to the places where we'd done well and it seemed that every time we left somewhere, our sales would immediately pick up — which is where Warners came in with their national distribution which definitely helped. But with the "Mirror" album we had two basic problems: the company didn't quite know what to do with the album because it was different, a departure from our usual thing. And then, most importantly, we got booked on two really bad tours! That's what hurt the album more than anything.
"Unfortunately, we were nearing the end of our contract with a particular booking agency and they just didn't take the trouble or time to get the tour hooked up properly. The result would be that we'd go into major markets — like Chicago, for instance, and people wouldn't even know we were playing there — and we'd be arriving the day before! In some places, they only advertised three days beforehand — which is ridiculous, like when we came to New York at Thanksgiving in November of last year. The place wasn't filled — and yet at The Beacon in New York earlier in the year, we'd packed the place solid! It was obvious that the promoter had done no advance advertising whatsoever — so we ended up playing to only people who were loyal GCS fans, who'd found out just beforehand and cancelled any other plans they had to come and see us.
"The energy that night was fine — we even managed to do something that I'd really wanted to do which was to really bring the tempo and energy down by doing "Yesterday" (the Beatles' song) just to see the reaction. And it worked — which made me feel good because as we said in our last interview, we really want people to accept us doing mellow things — we don't want it to be just a high energy thing all the way through because we are all capable of doing other things — you know, I'd like to do some of the kind of things that Goerge Benson or a Dionne Warwick do. And it's not a question of ability — it's just the opportunity and getting people to accept you doing what they know you can do and letting them see other facets of your talent."
Larry admits that for a moment, he went back to the "Mirror" album to question whether perhaps it was the music or the lyrical content which had put people off: “But I listened to the album and I can honestly say that it sounds alright to me! It's quite possible, yes, that it was released at the wrong point in our career inasmuch as maybe people weren't ready for it and it might have been better had it come along later. But it will still be there for people to re-discover whenever they want to and no doubt, at some future point, they'll do just that if it's re-promoted. It had more of a definite concept than maybe some of our other albums have had but I don't feel that it will be necessary for me to repeat what we were saying on it. Once you've said it, you've said it and there's no point in continually repeating yourself. Which is why this album, "Now-Do-U-Wanta-Dance" is different from "Mirror". Sound-wise it's kinda like the "Release Yourself" album but not necessarily material-wise. It's a happy album, an 'up' album, and what we tried to do was transfer to tape the kind of energy that we get going on stage.
"When we put the album together, that was the basic idea and we also tried to put something in there for everyone. You know, people say ballads are coming back into favour — so we put a couple of slower things on there — something really for everbody. What I try and do is keep it in mind that any cut could be a single and work like that. That way, you're constantly tuning your mind to all possibilities in terms of changing musical trends. It also makes sure that we're in a position to be played on different radio stations. One may go for "Earthquake" whilst another may dig "Have Faith In Me". We just don't want to be locked into any one thing."
The new album definitely has a wide scope to it and Larry even chose to dig up an old Bobby Bland song, "Lead Me On". Says Larry, "Yeah, I really dig that one! I think it's a good idea for people to pull out some of those old songs — because they're really great. You know, guys like Jesse Belvin, Johnny Ace and so on."
Mr. Graham emphasizes that for the future, getting a hit record is of paramount importance to the group, as well as a return to Europe. "Once you have a hit record, more people are motivated to buy your albums — and naturally that's what we want. We'll be going out on the road for about eight weeks as the first part of a tour in June and then, if it's possible, we do want to get back to Europe. That Warner Bros. tour of a few years back with Little Feat and so on, was really fabulous and we do want to get back there because the audiences were so enthusiastic. At the same time, we realize that there's a lot of work to be done at home!"