Larry Graham - Chillin' (2019)

Larry Graham
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Larry Graham - Chillin'

Larry Graham will always have a prominent spot in the heart of all funk fans from his time with Sly and the Family Stone through his work as the leader of Graham Central Station. We can name all the hits from his tenure with both. We also know that Graham is the funk music legend who pioneered the slap and pop technique of bass playing that became commonplace by the end of the heyday of the funk band era in the mid 1980s.

However, I realized something as I went back and listened to the Graham Central Station catalog in preparation to review the tragically delayed release of his album Chillin.’ While funk cuts such as “The Jam” were always on the radio back in the 1970s, the band the bore Graham’s surname never had a transcendent type of crossover hit of the kind he regularly experienced when he was playing psychedelic funk with Sly and the Family Stone.

Larry Graham - Chillin'

Larry Graham will always have a prominent spot in the heart of all funk fans from his time with Sly and the Family Stone through his work as the leader of Graham Central Station. We can name all the hits from his tenure with both. We also know that Graham is the funk music legend who pioneered the slap and pop technique of bass playing that became commonplace by the end of the heyday of the funk band era in the mid 1980s.

However, I realized something as I went back and listened to the Graham Central Station catalog in preparation to review the tragically delayed release of his album Chillin.’ While funk cuts such as “The Jam” were always on the radio back in the 1970s, the band the bore Graham’s surname never had a transcendent type of crossover hit of the kind he regularly experienced when he was playing psychedelic funk with Sly and the Family Stone.

That transcendent hit came in 1980 when Graham decided to follow Barry White and Isaac Hayes in deploying the low vocal register to sing ballads. The ballad “One In a Million You” is the definition of transcendent. The second single from Graham’s album by the same name cracked the Top 10 in the Billboard Pop charts, went to the top of the R&B chart, was a mainstay on R&B and pop radio in the fall and winter of 1980 and will live eternally as a wedding song. That tune, his remake of “When We Get Married,” and “Just Be My Lady,” the title track from his 1981 album, are three reasons why love ballads are the first thing that comes to mind of many who recall the music of Larry Graham.

Graham was the definition of the mature and sophisticated R&B crooner by the middle part of the decade, and records like the previously unreleased Chillin’ were aimed squarely at the emerging Quiet Storm radio format. Chillin’ is an 11-track project in which nine of the tunes qualify as love ballads. In that regard, Graham moved into a lane that had a lot of traffic ranging from other male balladeers such as Luther Vandross, Glenn Jones and Jeffrey Osborne; female vocalists such as Patti LaBelle, Mikki Howard and Anita Baker and groups like Atlantic Starr and Surface.

That crowded market might explain why Chillin’ is just now getting its close-up – more than 30 years after Graham completed the project. I think a more likely reason might be that musical tastes and therefore industry support was beginning to trend younger by the mid to late 1980s, as hip-hop claimed a growing proportion of radio and sales.

And Chillin’ epitomizes a sophisticated, upscale adult sensibility that had a significant though shrinking presence on radio in the 1980s. Graham showcased a muscular and rangy baritone that could stretch into the high tenor territory as heard on tracks like “Every I Love You,” or could handle socially aware storytelling on tunes such as the mid-tempo funk heard on “Beggars Can’t Be Choosey.” That track, which I think is the best and most distinct cut on Chillin’ finds Graham recalling a conversation with a homeless man who says death would be preferable to his current situation.

Graham then takes his listeners on a tour of an urban skid row where he paints a picture of people eating food out of trash cans, sleeping on the street and pushing their belongings in shopping carts. The song features a rapped verse, which might be commonplace now, but was rarer in R&B songs of the 1980s. Remember, there were people who openly questioned whether America had a homeless crises in the 1980s, but here was Graham singing about social inequality and homelessness at least a couple of years before Phil Collins had a hit with “Another Day in Paradise.” However, the R&B music of that era wasn’t exactly known for taking on social issues.

Chillin’s relaxed feel might have been somewhat out of step with the emerging youth-oriented music. However, one thing any fan or musician can learn from listening to the music written and produced by Graham and Preston Glass is how to pen a lyric. On “Unconditional Guarantee,” Graham compares the love he shares with his lady to unalterable forces of nature such as the return of summer or the stars that dot the night sky. “Everybody loves the summer/When it leaves nobody wonders/will it ever come again,” on a track that sports a smooth, bass driven steppers groove.

You can’t fully tell the story of the music in what is called the rock era without including the tunes that Larry Graham played as a member of Sly and the Family Stone, while fronting his own funk band, Graham Central Station, or as a tailored suit renderer of the romantic ballad. You can throw a pretty funky house party with the music Graham made in the 1960s and 70s, and with Chillin’ the Bass Master has created the right kind of soundtrack when the crowd dwindles down to two. Solidly Recommended.

By Howard Dukes

 
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