THE New York Woodstock Music Festival in 1969 was the most thrilling moment of my musical career. A sea of humanity stretched as far as the eye could see. It was awe-inspiring!
I was the bass guitarist and singer with Sly and the Family Stone, one of the best-known music groups of the time. A tremendous roar of approval came from the throats of half a million people as they called for an encore of our performance.
That was indeed a thrilling moment, but it is now far from the most memorable event of my life. I have found a rare treasure, a ‘one in a million’ find. However, before describing it, let me explain things that shaped my life.
In 1946 I was born into a musical family in Beaumont, Texas, my mother’s only son. She was a pianist with the church choir, and my father was a jazz guitarist. Soon afterward my family moved to Oakland, California, where I started tap dancing at the age of five. Two years later, I learned the piano under the guidance of my grandmother, who cared for me in those early years.
Becoming a Musician
When I was 11, my father gave me his guitar and amplifier, and I eagerly set about learning this new instrument. Later, I learned to play the drums, the clarinet, and the saxophone. By the time I was 13, I had my own professional rock ’n’ roll band called The Five Riffs. At the age of 15, I began playing in nightclubs as part of the Dell Graham Trio, which was made up of my mother on piano, me on lead guitar, and a drummer.
My mother and I later formed a duo. To make up for the lack of a drummer, I thumped and plucked the bass strings of my guitar to accentuate the rhythm. In this way I developed my own distinctive thumping-and-plucking style of bass playing. A regular patron was so impressed that she telephoned a disc jockey, Sly Stone, and urged him to listen to me. The result was that, in 1966, I was offered the role of bass guitarist in a seven-piece group that became known as Sly and the Family Stone.
Our record “Dance to the Music” became an international hit, and we became the most popular black group of the time. Other hits quickly followed, including “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” “Everyday People,” and “Thank You for Letting Me Be Myself Again.” Then came the Woodstock Music Festival, where we played alongside other internationally famous musicians. Later, we played for 300,000 people on the Isle of Wight in Britain and for 350,000 at a music festival in West Germany.
In 1971 I received a threat against my life. I was told that during a performance in the Los Angeles Coliseum, I would be shot as the sound of the music and the roar of the crowd reached a crescendo. I was terrified. However, the electronic equipment malfunctioned, and the concert promoter came out and canceled the performance. I felt that God had somehow intervened to save my life. I ran in panic from the stadium back to my hotel room, where I hurriedly packed and left the city.
This terrifying experience preoccupied me, even when I formed my own musical group called Graham Central Station. My second record album with this group has printed on its cover the words “Produced by God.” I did not intend to be blasphemous, but the words reflected my feeling that I had been saved by God.
A Turning Point in My Life
In 1973 I met Tina, an international airline stewardess. While she braided my hair in preparation for performances, I would often talk to her about my belief in God. About this time, Tina’s mother began studying the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses.
One day Tina found her mother in tears. She was crying because none of her children would be present for her baptism at the district convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Oakland Coliseum. Tina promised that if it meant so much to have her family present, she would attend the baptism on Friday.
Tina was so impressed by what she saw and heard that July day in 1974 that afterward she telephoned me and tried to persuade me to attend Saturday’s session. But I was too tired from recording the night before. On Sunday, Tina again telephoned and urged me to attend. I was curious to see what had impressed Tina, so I went.
A policeman said that since I didn’t have a convention parking ticket, I couldn’t go into the parking lot. He added: “You don’t want to listen to that stuff anyway!” I was temporarily put off and drove away. But later I thought better of it, turned around, and headed back. By the time I got into the Coliseum, there were only a few minutes of the final address remaining.
Having been a performer for most of my life, I have a feeling for crowds. I had been in the Oakland Coliseum many times for other events, but this was unlike anything I had ever seen—60,000 people of different races and social backgrounds all mingling together peacefully. Just the “feel” of the crowd convinced me that this was something important, indeed, a ‘one in a million’ find!
As I left the Coliseum, a young teenage girl, who because of my appearance had no difficulty in seeing I was not a Witness, came up and pressed a copy of the book Is This Life All There Is? into my hand. It was just what I needed! On reaching my car, I opened to page 24 and saw an illustration of a swan, a tortoise, a tree, and some people. Observing that a swan may live 80 years, a tortoise 150 years, and a tree thousands of years, the book asked: “Does man’s short life-span make sense?” The message of this illustration had an immediate impact on me.
Later, I asked Tina many questions, but she knew no more about the Bible than I did. So we decided to visit the woman who had studied with Tina’s mother. As we left her house, I turned to Tina and said: “That woman is a phony! Nobody can be that nice! You watch, next week she will be different!” But week after week, she remained exactly the same, answering all our questions by calmly turning to the Bible.
Tina and I began a regular Bible study in the book The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life. Shortly, however, it came time for me to tour with my group. I was encouraged to telephone the local congregations in each of the many cities I would be visiting across the United States and ask for someone to study the succeeding chapters of the Truth book with me.
I visited congregations from the west coast to the east coast and from the north and midwest down to Texas and the southern states. Those who conducted the Bible study with me came from a variety of races and socioeconomic backgrounds. But everywhere I went, the message was the same. It impressed me greatly that I had found not just a local phenomenon in the Oakland Bay area but a countrywide organization that was truly united in spiritual harmony.
A Complete Change of Life
When I toured Europe after completing our U.S. tour, I continued my studies with Witnesses there. Reaching Paris, I telephoned Tina and proposed marriage. A few weeks later, in February 1975, we were married in Nevada. After only five days of marriage, I began another tour of the United States, but Tina joined me this time.
In Brooklyn, New York, we visited the international headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses. We were outlandishly dressed, wearing black matching outfits with glittering red and silver dragons on the trouser legs and on the backs of our jackets, which still embarrasses us when we think about it. But we were kindly treated, and no one made remarks about our dress.
Tina and I were baptized at the district convention in Oakland in July 1975, exactly one year from when we had walked into our first convention at the same site. What made the occasion even more joyous was the fact that Tina’s two sisters, Denise and Shelia, and my own mother, all of whom began studying soon after we did, were baptized at the same time. A few years later, my grandmother, at the tender age of 82, also got baptized.
The things I was learning are apparent from the record covers of some of the albums my group produced. The 1976 album entitled Mirror showed on the cover photographs of me and other band members. On one side we appeared with long hair, sunglasses, and faddish clothing, while on the other a mirror-image depicted us as clean-cut, with shorter hair, and modest styles of dress.
The songs included one entitled “Forever.” It was dedicated to my hope of seeing my father in the resurrection, when life forever will be in front of us. The words of one song reflected my feelings as a newly baptized Witness.
We have had many opportunities to share our faith. An organist and a drummer responded and dedicated their lives to Jehovah. That drummer is now an elder and a regular pioneer in the West Hollywood Congregation.
During a tour in 1975, I took our organist witnessing for his first time in a wealthy, all-white area of Atlanta, Georgia. As we were going from house to house, police cars suddenly screeched to a halt, and policemen jumped out demanding to know what we were doing there. At the same time, a police helicopter appeared overhead and hovered just a few feet above us. Apparently the police had received reports of “suspicious characters” in the neighborhood, but when our mission as witnesses of Jehovah was explained, the police left us alone. It was quite an introduction to the witnessing work for our organist!
On this tour, following our baptism, we made a giant audiovisual display with 15-foot [4.6 m] screens. This was the feature of the show. It required the use of two large semitrailer trucks and two tour buses. The audiovisual show depicted the horrors of world conditions and then pointed to the solution through God’s Kingdom. The slides included photographs of the Oakland Coliseum convention and our own baptism. This was set to music, and I gave a commentary between the songs.
During one tour, I was out in the field service in Hollywood, Florida, and we were being assigned to work from door to door by the one conducting the group. Suddenly, I heard one of my records being played at a house nearby. I knocked on the door, and the three young men there getting high on drugs were dumbfounded suddenly to see standing at their door the singer of the song they were listening to! I have since learned that two of these men have become Witnesses.
In 1979 we moved to Los Angeles into a large house with a swimming pool and landscaped gardens overlooking the city. I set up my own 24-track recording studio next to it. The first record that I recorded there was entitled “One in a Million You,” which sold over a million copies. Shortly afterward I was privileged to serve as a ministerial servant, and in 1982, just one week before our daughter, Latia, was born, I was appointed an elder.
One Sunday I was conducting the Watchtower Study when a young Hawaiian man entered the Kingdom Hall and stared at me in amazement. He had seen me in Hawaii in 1975 when I was a long-haired pop performer, so he was now shocked to see me modestly dressed and conducting the Watchtower Study. Although he had moved to Los Angeles with the intention of making it big in the music field, he agreed to study with me. He now serves with our congregation as a regular pioneer.
Simplifying Our Life-Style
Tina and I can truthfully say that we have been the happiest since entering the full-time ministry as pioneers in 1982. A further refinement in our spiritual advancement has been the simplifying of our life-style. We were spending 90 percent of our time at home in only two rooms of a large house that required the services of gardeners and maids to operate effectively. We could not fully utilize the Lincoln Town Car, the 1955 Thunderbird, the Cord, the Mercedes-Benz, the 25-foot [7.6 m] motor home, a van, and several motorcycles. So after the district convention in 1985, we sold our house and most of the vehicles.
We now live in a modest townhouse, which Tina finds easier to keep while pioneering. Although I still do limited work as a musician, my real happiness now comes from serving as a pioneer and seeing our little daughter advance spiritually. She has set firm goals despite her young years and constantly talks about the time when she can symbolize her dedication to Jehovah.
Another blessing I long for is to see my mother again in the resurrection and to tell her about the events that have transpired since she died faithful as a regular pioneer in April 1987. Yes, instead of being thrilled by entertaining hundreds of thousands of music fans, I now get true satisfaction by doing my best to obey the words of the psalmist: “Praise Jah, you people! Sing to Jehovah a new song, his praise in the congregation of loyal ones.” (Psalm 149:1)—As told by Larry Graham.