Prince Covers a Friend With ‘I Believe in You’
Worldwide fame comes with all kinds of perks for an artist, but the most meaningful might be the ability to shine an overdue spotlight on the overlooked contributions of your biggest influences. It's a power Prince leveraged repeatedly throughout his career, and Graham Central Station founder Larry Graham reaped some of the longest-lasting rewards.
A former member of Sly and the Family Stone, Graham moved on to solo stardom with Graham Central Station, scoring a series of pop, soul, and R&B hits throughout the '70s before shedding the band mantle toward the end of the decade. Although he notched a number of hit singles during the post-Central Station years, his momentum had cooled by the mid-'80s, and aside from a pair of live releases with a new version of the band, he spent much of the '90s out of the spotlight.
This was an unacceptable state of affairs for Prince, who — unlike the vast majority of Graham fans — was in a position to actually do something about it. He signed Graham to his NPG Records label, honoring an artist he publicly credited as one of his earliest and most important influences while continuing a streak of like-minded signings that included Mavis Staples and Chaka Khan.
The business relationship between Prince and these artists clearly included an imbalanced dynamic in terms of the amount of commercial capital he could expend on their behalf. But he vocally resisted the notion that he was salvaging their careers somehow. "This is not a rescue mission," he told Mojo. "I couldn’t presume to produce a Larry Graham or a Chaka Khan. If anything, these people have produced me, you know?"
And aside from putting his money where his mouth was by releasing their new music, Prince was also generous enough to make room in his set list — as he did on Feb. 13, 1994, performing Graham's "I Believe in You" at a show held in Paisley Park. Although hardcore fans would have already been aware of Prince's fondness for Graham's music, the show predated the elder artist's Paisley Park product — his first release for the label, the Graham Central Station record GCS 2000, arrived in early 1999.
It was a collaboration that would continue for years — and in a variety of arenas. Aside from periodically sharing the stage and studio with Prince, Graham proved a crucial component of his spiritual life, introducing him to the Jehovah's Witness faith and joining him regularly at church services over the last 13 years of Prince's life. Looking back on that change in conversation with the New Yorker, Prince credited it to two years of religious debates with Graham, and compared it to the fundamental awakening experienced by Keanu Reeves' character in The Matrix.
"I don’t see it really as a conversion," insisted Prince. "More, you know, it’s a realization. It’s like Morpheus and Neo in The Matrix."
While Prince and Graham would continue to make music together over the years — Prince contributed to a trio of tracks on Graham's 2012 release Raise Up — it was the spiritual aspect of their relationship that may have resonated most for Graham. Looking back on their bond of faith after Prince's passing, Graham reminded the Star Tribune that their collaboration was only a part of what he'd lost.
"A lot of people will remember Prince for his music," Graham mused. "But he’d also want people to know what he learned from the Bible. We lost a really good friend and a spiritual brother."