Little Feat

by Stephen Rose on November 7, 2012

By Stephen Rose

Little Feat came out of Los Angeles in the early ’70s and established a unique identity by merging New Orleans funk with country, jazz, and urban rock, resulting in a string of classic songs and albums that have a timeless quality and still remain contemporary sounding today.

At the forefront of their musical identity was their visionary leader Lowell George, whose groundbreaking style of slide guitar applied Southern Delta blues technique to R&B and mainstream rock. His influence has extended to a generation of musicians including Bonnie Raitt, Ben Harper, blues guitarist Roy Rogers, and bands such as the Radiators, and the Subdudes.

Lowell George was born April 13, 1945 in Hollywood, CA.  At the age of 6 he learned the harmonica and performed a duet with his older brother on Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour (Frank Zappa also performed a puppet show on this program). George started on  guitar when he was 11 with classmate – and future band mate – Paul Barrere, then played flute in the Hollywood High School marching band.

[Lowell George was accomplished enough on wind instruments to play oboe and baritone saxophone on several Frank Sinatra recording sessions.]

In 1965, Lowell George helped found a band called The Factory, and co-authored their single “Smile, Let Your Life Begin.”  The Factory included future Little Feat members Richie Hayward on drums, and lyricist Martin Kibbee (who under the pseudonym Fred Martin co-write several Little Feat classics including “Dixie Chicken,” “Rock & Roll Doctor,” and “Easy To Slip.”  [By using this psuedonym the two songwriters were able to credit their collaborations as “George/Martin,” a tribute to the Beatles’ producer.]

[Frank Zappa produced two tracks for The Factory, which were later released in 1993 on the album Lightning-Rod Man.  The band also made appearances on the television series F Troop (as The Bed Bugs), and Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.]

In late 1968, George signed on as second guitarist with Frank Zappa’s Mother of Invention, performing on the album Weasels Ripped My Flesh, which also featured bassist Roy Estrada.  George sang lead on “Here Lies Love” (from the album You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore, Vol. 5).

[No consensus exists for why Lowell George left The Mothers Of Invention.  One version has it that after George showed Zappa his song “Willin’” Zappa kicked him out of the Mothers because he felt George was too talented to be a member of his or anyone else’s band and should form a group of his own.  A second version has it that Zappa fired him because “Willin’” contains drug references (“weed, whites and wine”).  The third version is that Zappa fired him after George played a 15-minute guitar solo with his amplifier turned off.  Whatever the reason, Zappa was instrumental in helping Little Feat secure a recording contract with Warner Bros.]

In early 1969, Lowell George  joined his good friend Peter Tork in his post-Monkees band, The Release.

Later in 1969, George rejoined former Factory members Richie Hayward, Warren Klein and Martin Kibbee in  The Fraternity Of Man.  The band also included Roy Estrada, from The Mothers of Invention, on bass.

[The Fraternity of Man is most famous for their 1968 song “Don’t Bogart Me,” which was featured in the 1969 film Easy Rider.]

In 1970, Lowell George formed Little Feat in Los Angeles with keyboardist Bill Payne ( who had auditioned with The Mothers of Invention), bassist Roy Estrada, and drummer Richie Hayward.  The band’s name came from a comment by Mother’s drummer Jimmy Carl Black about the size of George’s “little feet.” (The spelling was changed as an homage to The Beatles.)

In January 1971, Little Feat released their eponymous debut.  The album’s cover shows the band standing in front of a mural in Venice, CA painted by the L. A. Fine Arts Squad, entitled “Venice in the Snow.” Although not an essential release – it failed commercially as the band had not yet established their unique identity – several tracks contain the seedlings of the southern funk that would blossom on later recordings, including the opener, Bill Payne’s “Snakes On Everything;” followed by “Strawberry Fists;” and the album’s highlight “Crack In Your Door.”  Lowell George’s penchant for tender country ballads is displayed on “Truck Stop Girl,” “Brides Of Jesus,” and “I’ve Been The One” (featuring Sneaky Pete Kleinow on pedal steel).  They pay tribute to Howlin’ Wolf on the medley “Forty-Four Blues/How Many More Years; while George’s vicious slide guitar and Richie Hayward’s funky drumming is on full display in “Hamburger Midnight.”  Lowell George’s first songwriting classic “Willin” is given its initial treatment as a duo between George on acoustic guitar and Ry Cooder on slide.

[Ry Cooder was called to duty after Lowell George hurt his hand in a home accident with a model airplane. Ry Cooder first came to prominence as a member of The Native Sons, a mid-60’s Los Angeles folk-rock band which included singer Taj Mahal and drummer Ed Cassidy (Spirit). Cooder also performed on Captain Beefheart’s 1967 album Safe As Milk; The Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed (1968) and Sticky Fingers (1969); and Randy Newman’s 12 Songs (1970).]

In May 1972, Little Feat released their sophomore effort, Sailin’ Shoes, produced by Ted Templeton.  This release, the first to feature Neon Park’s surreal artwork, was more polished than its predecessor, and can be fairly recognized as Little Feat’s first great album.  It contains many classic songs which remain firmly entrenched within their repertoire.

[Ted Templeton produced the Doobie Brothers most successful albums, beginning with Toulouse Street, released July 1972.]

[Neon Park’s design for Sailin’ Shoes depicts a shoe sailing off the foot of a cake swinging on a tree swing – an allusion to ‘The Swing’  by Jean-Honore Fragonard.  He also painted the cover art in 1970 for Frank Zappa’s ‘Weasel Ripped My Flesh.’  ]

Sailin’ Shoes opens with the Lowell George ballad “Easy To Slip;” followed by “Cold Cold Cold,” which established the band’s soulful style of funk. The acoustic “Trouble” highlights the band’s trademark tempo-changing rhythms; then the funk gives way to the “Tripe Face Boogie” – a contribution from keyboardist Bill Payne and drummer Richie Hayward.  The fifth track is a reworking of Willin’, this time with full accompaniment from the rest of the band (and Sneaky Pete Kleinow on pedal steel); then the band gets raunchy on the Muddy Waters-inspired, “Apolitical Blues” (with Ron Elliott of The Beau Brummels on guitar).  Lowell George channels the spirit of The Big Easy on the title track “Sailin’ Shoes,” co-written with Martin Kibbee.  The album concludes with Bill Payne’s “Got No Shadow,” an ensemble piece that perfectly captures the thick groove this band was capable of laying down; while Payne’s “Cat Fever” swings like a jazzy breeze.

Sailin’ Shoes marked the last album original bassist Roy Estrada appeared on. Frustrated by the band’s lack of commercial success the band broke up after the album’s release and Estrada returned to the Mothers of Invention.  During this time, the other band members pursued studio work, including projects such as Van Dyke Parks’ calypso-infused album “Discover America”; Nolan Porter’s Northern Soul classic “Nolan”; and Robert Palmer’s “Sneakin Sally Through The Alley,” recorded in New Orleans.

[Little Feat broke up pretty often throughout the 70’s. The title of their fifth album, “The Last Record Album” was a toungue in cheek joke about this phenomenon…every album had a good chance of being the last!]

As the session work wound down, Lowell George began to consider the future musical direction of Little Feat. In a bold move, he essentially re-invented the band’s sound by adding three new members; bassists Kenny Gradney (Delaney and Bonnie), percussionist Sam Clayton, and Paul Barrere on guitar. Gradney and Clayton joined with drummer Richie Hayward to become one of the most renowned rhythm sections in rock & roll and gave the new line-up a funky sound that recalled the music of New Orleans championed in previous decades by Dave Bartholomew and The Meters. The addition of Paul Barrere gave the band more depth as his presence on rhythm guitar allowed Lowell George to concentrate on developing his unique slide technique. This line-up of Little Feat would remain in place until Lowell George’s death in 1979.

In late 1972, the restructured line-up released its first album, Dixie Chicken, a tribute to New Orleans. The record  became a turning point for the band as a newfound assuredness in the studio inspired an increased confidence on stage. Lowell George talked the record label into letting him produce the album, resulting in a classic recording that broke new ground with its mélange of swamp funk, acoustic balladry, country, jazz and rock.

Bill Payne summed it up this way: “…a band that is born half-way between Frank Zappa and the world’s best country truck-driving song is clearly going to cover lots of ground.”

The album kicks off with the title track, “Dixie Chicken,” a tale of lost love and drunken misadventure that must be included in any discussion of all-time great rock songs.  The songwriting brilliance continues with “Two Trains Running;” followed by the acoustic ballad “Roll Um Easy,” a song accented by Lowell George’s liquid slide guitar, and whose power and beauty is complemented by its understated presentation.  Two appropriately chosen covers, Allan Toussaint’s slow burner “On Your Way Down,” and Fred Tackett’s “Fool Yourself,” seamlessly fit in with the cajun spirit of George’s original compositions. The final highlight is the whimsical “Fatman in the Bathtub,” whose upbeat bouncing rhythm stands testament to the old adage that if you aren’t dancing you ain’t got a pulse.  Even some of the less memorable tracks such as “Kiss It Off,” “Juliette,” and the Bill Payne/Paul Barrere original  “Walking All Night” are substantive and contribute to the overall mood and flow of this landmark recording.

On their fourth album, Little Feat abandoned their eclectic mix of previous efforts for a groove album that rocks steady from beginning to end.  Released in 1974, these 8 tracks combine to provide an accurate representation of the band’s live sound, especially the extended jam of “The Fan,” and the resurrected “Tripe Face Boogie.”  Lowell George penned several more classic songs including “Spanish Moon,” “Rock and Roll Doctor,” “Feats Don’t Fail Me Now,” and “Cold Cold Cold.” Other highlights include Bill Payne’s concert standout “Oh Atlanta;” and Paul Barrere’s “Skin It Back.” Emmylou Harris and Bonnie Raitt provided backing vocals on this release, again produced by Lowell George.

Feats Don’t Fail Me Now was released amid growing internal tensions within the band.  Several members of the group were growing frustrated by George’s erratic behavior and drug use.  He increased his songwriting collaborations with high school pal Martin Kibbee (who co-wrote “Rock and Roll Doctor,” and “Feats Don’t Fail Me Last-Record-Album-275.jpg” alt=”” width=”275″ height=”272″ />Although Little Feat was beginning to develop a favorable cult reputation, they were finding commercial success elusive.  On 1975’s The Last Record Album, Lowell George began exhibiting obsessive behavior during frequent all-night recording sessions in a struggle to produce an album that would appeal to mainstream audiences.  The album contained another great batch of songs, but the sterile production values squeezed the life out of the music.  The sound of The Last Record Album has a tight, compressed quality about it that hints at Lowell’s penchant for endlessly overdubbing tracks in search of perfection.

The album’s best songs include George’s poignant ballad, “Long Distance Love;” the group sing-along “Day or Night;” and the Payne/Barrere collaboration “All That You Dream.”  Other highlights include the opening track “Romance Dance,” “One Love Stand,” “Down Below the Borderline,” and the closing track “Mercenary Territory.”

In his book, Mark Brend presents a clear picture of the situation, “George’s artistic energy declined and, crucially, his ability to write great songs seems to have greatly diminished. Within another year, Lowell George woulLast-Record-Album-275.jpg” alt=”” width=”275″ height=”272″ />Although Little Feat was beginning to develop a favorable cult reputation, they were finding commercial success elusive.  On 1975’s The Last Record Album, Lowell George began exhibiting obsessive behavior during frequent all-night recording sessions in a struggle to produce an album that would appeal to mainstream audiences.  The album contained another great batch of songs, but the sterile production values squeezed the life out of the music.  The sound of The Last Record Album has a tight, compressed quality about it that hints at Lowell’s penchant for endlessly overdubbing tracks in search of perfection.

The album’s best songs include George’s poignant ballad, “Long Distance Love;” the group sing-along “Day or Night;” and the Payne/Barrere collaboration “All That You Dream.”  Other highlights include the opening track “Romance Dance,” “One Love Stand,” “Down Below the Borderline,” and the closing track “Mercenary Territory.”

In his book, Mark Brend presents a clear picture of the situation, “George’s artistic energy declined and, crucially, his ability to write great songs seems to have greatly diminished. Within another year, Lowell George would be finished as the leader of Little Feat.”

In response, Bill Payne and Paul Barrere took over as the band’s main songwriters, and were primarily responsible for steering the band’s sound in a new direction towards jazz-fusion and away from New Orleans funk.

In 1977, as the band began work on Time Loves A Hero, George’s abuse of drugs and alcohol finally caught up with him in when he contracted hepatitis and was not able to attend the initial recording sessions. In response, Payne and Barrere replaced George as producer with Ted Templeton, who had produced Sailin’ Shoes.

George’s only songwriting contribution to the album was “Rocket In My Pocket.”  The remainder of the album steered more towards jazz-fusion, including the instrumental “Day at the Dog Races.”

Ted Templeton describes Lowell’s reaction to this departure from the band’s trademark sound, “Lowell was a little upset. He said, ‘What is this, fucking Weather Report?'”

Ted Templeton explains some of the problems George was having during these recording sessions, “Lowell kind of distanced himself on that record… When we did ‘Rocket In My Pocket’… it came time for the solo, he called and said, ‘I can’t do it today. I’m sleeping in.’ So I called Bonnie Raitt and she came down and played a fucking killer solo. So I called Lowell and said ‘Listen to this. What do you think? Doesn’t this burn?’ He actually got out of bed and came down and played the solo…” Incidents like this give further evidence to the dangerous impact that Lowell’s lifestyle was having on his ability to make music.

 

In 1978, at the height of the band’s  commercial popularity, Little Feat released the live double-album Waiting For Columbus.  Produced  by Lowell George,  and featuring the Tower of Power horns, this progressive jazz-tinged set captured the band in fine form, especially on their most recent compositions such as “All That You Dream;” and “Time Loves A Hero,” which segues directly into “Day Or Night.”  Other standouts include the closing two tracks: “Mercenary Territory,” and the bass-driven “Spanish Moon.”  The encore includes a heartfelt “Willin;'” a bluesy “Apolitical Blues;” and a trip to the crescent city with “Sailin’ Shoes.”

[The 2002 Rhino expanded edition added several worthy outakes including “One Love Stand,” “Rock And Roll Doctor,” “Cold Cold Cold,” Paul Barrere’s “Skin It Back,” Allan Toussaint’s “On Your Way Down,” and the jazz-fusion jam “Day At The Dog Races.”]

In 1979, Little Feat began work on Down At The Farm. However, Lowell George left the group midway through the project. Increasingly frustrated at the group’s growing improvisational and jazzy nature, he announced the band’s breakup and went to work on his solo album Thanks I’ll Eat It Here.

Thanks I’ll Eat It Here opens with an effective cover of Allen Toussaint’s “What Do You Want The Girl To Do;” and includes several new Lowell George compositions including “20 Million Things,” and “Honest Man” (co-written with Fred Tackett).  Bonnie Raitt provides backing vocals.

[Fred Tackett wrote “Fool Yourself” for  the Dixie Chicken album, and played acoustic guitar on Time Loves A Hero. He became a full time member of Little Feat in 1998.]

After the album’s release Lowell George went on the road to  promote the album.  On June 29, 1979, while on a tour stop in Washington D.C., Lowell George died from a heart attack, possibly brought on by cocaine abuse. He had been up all night working on a tape for an upcoming radio show to promote his solo record.

“He was fantastic, an incredible songwriter,” recalled Paul Barrere. “A wonderful singer, great player. And, just an enigma of a man. It was always this sort of love-hate relationship going on, mood swings that I attribute to the times, and what we were doing in those times.”

Martin Kibbee summed up Lowell’s unique contribution to music, “Perhaps the most important thing Lowell achieved was a seamless blend of his Hollywood/white-boy irony with a totally black musical sensibility.”

Down On The Farm was patched together and released after his death, followed by the rarities collection Hoy Hoy in 1981.

Little Feat regrouped in 1988 to release Let It Roll, featuring new band members Craig Fuller (Pure Praire League) and Fred Tackett.  The album attained R.I.A.A certified gold status in February 1989, and the single “Hate To Lose Your Lovin” earned the band their  first #1 hit on the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart.  Other standout tracks include “Long Time Till I Get Over You,” “Changin’ Luck,” and the folk ballad “Voices On The  Wind.”

In 1998, Sanctuary Records released “Rock and Roll Doctor: A Tribute To Lowell George.”  Artists paying tribute include Bonnie Raitt, David Lindley, Taj Mahal, Allen Toussaint, Chris Hillman, Jackson Browne, and Lowell’s daughter Inara George.

 

 


Video

Rock and Roll Doctor (Ultrasonic Studios, Hempstead, Long Island, 9/19/1974)

Oh Atlanta (Ultrasonic Studios, Hempstead, Long Island, 9/19/1974)

Tripe Face Boogie (Ultrasonic Studios, Hempstead, Long Island, 9/19/1974)

Willin’ (L’Olympia Theatre, Paris, France, 1975)

Teenage Nervous Breakdown (L’Olympia Theatre, Paris, France, 1975)

Rock and Roll Doctor (1975)

Skin It Back (Pinkpop Music Festival, The Netherlands, June 1976)

Fat Man in the Bathtub (Pinkpop Music Festival, The Netherlands, June 1976)

Dixie Chicken (The Midnight Special, 1977)

Olds Folks Boogie (The Midnight Special, 1977)

Dixie Chicken (Rainbow Theatre, London, 1977)

Rock and Roll Doctor (UK TV Performance, 1977)

All That You Dream (Rockpalast, 1977)

Willin’ (Rockpalast, 1977)

Lowell George Interview (Germany, 1977)

Bill Payne – Tragic Deaths: Lowell George and John Belushi

 

 

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