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Godfather

Interview

OFFICE — Tell me a little bit about Memphis, where you were born. Is there a lot going on there?

 

DENNIS GRAHAM — Memphis has...a little bit going on. It’s not like LA, or Miami, or Vegas. Most of what’s going on in Memphis is downtown, there’s a street called Beale Street. It’s Memphis’ biggest highlight. It’s a blues street.

 

O — What were your parents like, were they the reason you got into music?

 

DG — My mother was basically a housewife, she started out as a nurse. My dad I didn’t really know. I’ve seen him, and we talked occasionally. My mother used to buy 45s, and I listened to her music and just got an interest. It was just in me. I started playing guitar about ten years old, I just picked it up. I played guitar for revivals. We had a bible class on Wednesdays, the kids would sing and I would back them up on guitar—not that I knew what I was doing, but it sounded good.

 

O — Good enough for bible class?

 

DG — Yeah, exactly. [laughs] Then I got into the drums. I don’t know if you remember these big round metal tubs that people used to bathe in, I used one of those as a bass drum. Then I used a mop, after all the strings were gone off the mop I broke that in half and used it as a mallet. That’s how I started playing drums. 

 

O — Marching band style, just one bass drum?


DG — Yeah just one bass drum, and my cousin played the cardboard box. We used to cook man, we sounded good. Actually we sounded so good it brought James Brown out of his room—we were out in the middle of the street playing our box and tub, and James Brown came out and stood on the balcony of the Sheraton where he was playing, at Union and Dunlap I think it was, he stood there and listened. Then he went back inside, called his drummer out and said “Give ‘em your drums.” That’s where I got my first set of drums.

 

O — When did you realize—or decide—that music was going to be your career? Were you in school at that point?

 

DG — Oh I was in school, I was still in elementary school. Fifth grade, actually. But that’s all I’ve ever done is music, from then on. That’s what I wanted out of life. We started gigging around ’71, I was about eighteen. I started playing piano at the Why Not? lounge, and that’s where I met my first wife. She was a cocktail waitress. I was playing at the Holiday Inn Rivermont.

 

O — Did you two stay in Memphis?

 

DG — No, I left and moved to Las Vegas, somewhere new. She had friends out there, and I got a job playing at the Sahara, in the cocktail lounge. Virginia was doing photography, selling something like that. Photography, or a cigarette girl or something. Making a living. Then we moved from there to Houston, then back to Memphis. Started a band around ’75, ’76, the North Memphis Band, and the Mandrake Band. Then I moved to LA. I played drums here too with a lady that was my mother’s age, Mary Alice Brown from Erie, Pennsylvania. We got connected with a restaurant chain called the Hungry Tiger, so we did all the Hungry Tigers. Then in ’83 I went to Toronto with Jerry Lee [Lewis], we were playing the Skyline Hotel. I knew him from Memphis.

 

O — Playing with Jerry Lee Lewis must have been a trip.You guys ever get in any trouble?

 

DG — Oh god, yeah. We once went to Vegas with Jerry Lee, thirty-nine of us in the entourage. When we got to the hotel Jerry Lee went the counter and said “I’m Jerry Lee Lewis, I need rooms for thirty-nine people.” She said, “I’m sorry Mr. Lewis, we don’t have that many rooms.” So he jumped over the counter, took the cash register and threw it out into the lobby, where everybody goes scrambling for the money. The cops show up and take us to jail, then load all thirty-nine of us onto buses and drop us at the Nevada-Arizona border, at the Boulder Dam. We did eventually get a chance to go back and play, but it was crazy.

 

O — But you’d hooked up with him in Toronto in ‘83, was that your first time in Canada? 

 

DG — Yeah, first time going up there. That’s where I met Drake’s mother. I was at the bar, asking the bartender where I could find cigarettes. So, she goes—Sandi, is her name— she goes “Here, have one of mine.” And that was it. I came back up there and we got married in June of ’85. We had Drake in October of ‘86.

 

O — Was he your only child?

 

DG — I have more kids, one by a girl I went to high school with, and I had a daughter after my wife and I split up. So he’s got two half-siblings.

 

O — So after Drake was born, what was life like in Toronto? What was Sandi doing?

 

DG — Sandi was a schoolteacher, she taught school all her life. But I opened a factory—her parents owned a factory, so they gave me space to open my store, which was interior design. I had coffee tables made out of wood, and I put smoke mirror on them to turn them into like a grand piano coffee table. I sold a lot of those. Mirrored pedestals, oriental screens, floral designs. Yeah.

 

O — And where was Drake?

 

DG — Drake was in my office, in his crib. [laughs] He was in my office upstairs, I did all my designing upstairs so I could watch him.

 

O — He was born Aubrey Drake Graham—where’d the name come from?

 

DG — My wife’s mother, they’re Jewish, and she wanted to name him Abraham, and I said “Oh, hell no! No, you’re not naming my son Abraham.” So we compromised and came to an agreement on Aubrey. And I named him Drake. Drake was my acting name from when I was living here, Drake Madison.

 

O — Wait...acting? We skipped over that...

 

DG — Yeah, yeah I went to acting school here in LA. I studied with Lee Strasberg. I did commercials for Gillette, Budweiser, I was in a movie with Tommy Lee Jones called The Park Is Mine, and then I had a series in Toronto that I used to do.

 

O — So the music, the acting—Drake’s really followed in those footsteps of yours.

 

DG — Oh yeah. He made me a bet when he was, what, eight? He goes, “Dad, I’m going to do more movies than you ever did, and I’m going to do more music than you ever did.” I bet him five dollars. He came to Memphis in 2009, that was his first tour with Lil Wayne, and I had to pay him his five dollars. We laughed about that on the tour bus. 

 

I named him Drake. Drake was my acting name from when I was living here, Drake Madison.

O — Did you encourage him to get into acting as a child?

 

DG — Well, we got him into print work first. He was a model, he did Toys “R” Us, Sears, Royal Bank, Esso. He was eight or nine years old. We took him for a lot of auditions, and eventually he booked a role on Degrassi, which he was on for like seven years. He started writing his raps, actually he started rapping on Degrassi.

 

O — You must not have been able to imagine how stratospheric this kid could go. 

 

DG — He was going to be a star, I knew that from the age of one. He had that glow about him, I just knew. I told him, “You’re going to be a star. And when you get older, you’re not going to use Aubrey, you’re going to use Drake.” I told him that years ago, he’ll tell you. Like he said, “My dad’s living vicariously through me.” I wanted to be that big star. I worked my ass off for it, but I just didn’t have the opportunities that he had. He had grandparents who invested in his music. They owned Bo- Peep Nursery, which was a mattress factory that did baby car seats and strollers, they serviced all of Canada. So they were able to put up big money for him to do certain things. For instance, on his first CD [So Far Gone] he did a thing with Trey Songz called Successful—they were able to give Trey Songz that forty grand that he wanted to do a feature with Drake. So once they did that it was over, he took over. The fuse was lit. Sandi’s parents, they were the sole reason. That’s why he just opened a private club in Toronto in their honor. It’s called the Sher Club, their last name was Sher.

 

O — And your relationship with Drake now, it’s good?

 

DG — My relationship with him has always been good. He put out a few songs that made people think that we were not close, but I got on him about that. I said “Drake, why in the—why would you tell people that?!” He goes, “Dad. This sells records.” I thought, OK, I understand that. Put some drama into it.

 

O — Well the public narrative is that whatever issues there may have been with your relationship, whether real or exaggerated, are now behind you both.

 

DG — I mean don’t get me wrong, I’ve had my ups and downs through my life, when I was living in Toronto. Things weren’t as ideal as they should be. But I never, ever lost track of my son, or deserted him or anything like that. I mean that’s my baby. My only son that I knew and raised.

 

O — Did you ever take him to visit Memphis?

 

DG — Every year. I brought him down to Memphis in a car seat, from a car seat to the age of seventeen, when he helped me drive. Once we got down there he would hang out at my mother’s house, his grandmother’s. I’ve got five brothers and two sisters, and all their kids would be there. People say that Drake doesn’t know anything about the hood and all that— he grew up in the hood. In Toronto we lived on Weston Road, which was a pretty rough area.

 

O — The child of a successful and famous parent can feel like they’re growing up in that parent’s shadow, but as a parent with a successful kid, are you able to enjoy that?

 

DG — I love it. I love it. I’ve got to be the proudest dad in the world. He did exactly what I thought I was going to do.

 

O — Have there been any moments in his career that have been especially moving for you?

 

DG — When I was at the Grammys with him, that was the epitome of...everything.

 

O — And what about you, what does your future hold?

 

DG — I got a single coming out, that’ll be out in maybe a couple weeks. Shot my video in Sweden, went over there five times to finish it.

 

O — Why Sweden?

 

DG — There was a young lady at a party that Drake gave, at his house in...wherever. She was twenty one at the time, and a videographer. I met her, and she said “As soon as you get ready to do something I want to shoot your video for you.” So I had the single coming out, and before you knew it I was in Sweden. She’s from Stockholm.

 

O — What sort of song is it?

 

DG—It’sR&B,andthere’sayoungladywhorapsonit named Ze Monroe.

 

O — But you’re not rapping...


DG — [laughs] Nah, I’ll let Drake do that. – END 

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