There’s a picture of your mother, Dell Graham, on the inside of the new album cover. How influential was she on your own musical development?
Oh, very. My grandmother raised me in my younger years as my mother was travelling a lot over the world with her trio. Then she settled in Hawaii for a while. My grandmother and I moved over there for about a year when I was eleven. I had been taking piano lessons in the meantime and my mother allowed me to play one night at her club songs that featured me, which was a great experience. She also got me involved in a local TV show that I was able to do there in Hawaii and that added to the experience. Then, when I was almost fifteen, her and my stepdad moved to Oakland on the mainland and so we started working together. My mother asked me and my then drummer – because I had a band that recorded our first record when I was thirteen – to join her. I had been playing guitar at that point – I taught myself – because my father gave me his guitar when I was eleven. That was my main instrument at that point because I had taken piano, saxophone, clarinet, drums and other stuff. So I started playing guitar with my mum’s trio.
At what point did you take up the bass?
What would happen was when my mum was soloing on the piano I would play bass lines on the guitar and then when I would solo she would be playing the bass lines on the piano. Of course, a lot of my bass lines that I was playing on the guitar I was learning from her because she was an experienced musician. When we started working at this club that had an organ I taught myself to play the bass pedals. I was playing the bass lines at the same time I was playing guitar and singing. We started sounding like we were pretty full because we had that bottom end that we didn’t have before. That was great except that the organ broke down. Then we sounded empty. So I went down to the music store and rented a St George bass. I thought at the time it would only be temporarily until the organ could be repaired. It turned out that the organ couldn’t be repaired so I got stuck on the bass. I always hoped at one point that I would be able to go back to the guitar but another turn came when my mother decided that it was just going to be her and I: bass and piano with no drums. I don’t know if it was a money thing or what but two people’ll make more money than three. So to make up for not having a bass drum, I would thump the strings (on the bass) and that sounded good to my ears. And to make up for not having that snare drum and backbeat I would pluck the strings, and make up for not having that. So my style was like playing the drums on the bass.
So your distinctive bass style evolved naturally then out of necessity?
Yes – just trying to compensate for not having a drummer. Even though it wasn’t the correct so-called overhand style of playing the bass that everyone was doing I didn’t really care about playing the correct technique because in my mind eventually I thought I was going back to the guitar anyway.
So how did you get to join Sly & The Family Stone?
When you go to different clubs you get regulars that come in all the time. We found out that there was this lady that used to come in all the time at this club called Relax With Yvonne in San Francisco, right close to the corner of Haight and Ashbury. We found out much later that she was a fan of ours and also a fan of Sly Stone, who was a radio DJ at the time at KSOL radio in San Francisco. After she found out that he was starting a band she took it upon herself to start calling the radio station to tell him that there was this bass player that he had to hear, because he was a bass player too. She kept being persistent and finally he came down and heard me and loved what he heard. He told me he was going to be starting a new band and wanted me to be in it. I talked to my mother about it and she said that she had been all over the world travelling and doing her thing and this might be a shot for me because Sly Stone was very popular on the radio. I went to a rehearsal and because I hadn’t played with a drummer for quite some time I didn’t know if it was going to be a train wreck or a welcome-back drummer feeling. But Greg Errico, being the type of drummer that he is, didn’t collide with me: he actually played around what I played and we complemented each other. Then my thumping and plucking became popular with songs like ‘Thank You (Falettin Me Be Mice Elf Agin)’, ‘Dance To The Music,’ and all that good stuff.
What was the experience of working in the band with Sly Stone like?
Sly Stone, I would have to say, was a genius. He was a genius of a songwriter and that’s been proved because his songs have withstood the hands of time. He was also a great bandleader and the name (of the group) was appropriate because we all treated each other like family. So it was a joy being in that band and working with him. We also appreciated the fact that he didn’t try to change what we were brought into the band to contribute. Even though he was a bass player too he didn’t try to change up my style of playing the bass. He didn’t try to change up Greg Errico’s unique ability to come up with drumbeats on ‘Dance To The Music,’ ‘You Can Make It If You Try’ and other songs. So he let everybody be themselves, which was very smart on his part. Everyone was allowed to contribute whatever they had learned over the years as opposed to only what was inside his head. So he was an excellent leader.
You played at Woodstock – what do you remember about it?
The first applause and the roar of approval that we got from the crowd.
Was that before you played a note?
No, when we went on, the way our shows were structured, we would play a number of songs together so that one song ran into the other song without a break, like a medley. And there would be no space for people to actually respond and so you don’t really have any idea of how you were doing until that first response. We flew in at night and no one there had ever experienced being in front of half a million people. You definitely can’t see that at night when it’s dark but when we stopped playing at the first break and we heard that roar of approval from the audience – the roar of half a million people right there in your face – that was something that we had never ever come close to experiencing and that just put us into another zone that we had never been. So that was a turning point for us.