Little Feat Biography
Although the band has undergone several changes in its lineup, the music remains an eclectic blend of rock and roll, blues, R&B, boogie, country, folk, gospel, soul, funk and jazz fusion influences.
Lowell George era (1969-1979)
Lowell George met Bill Payne when George was a member of Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention. Payne had auditioned for the Mothers, but had not joined. They formed Little Feat along with former Mothers' bassist Roy Estrada and drummer Richie Hayward from George's previous band, the Factory. The name of the band came from a comment made by Mothers' drummer Jimmy Carl Black about Lowell's "little feet." The spelling of "feat" was an homage to The Beatles.
There are three legends about the genesis of Little Feat. One has it that George showed Zappa his song "Willin'," and that Zappa fired him from the Mothers of Invention, because he felt that George was too talented to merely be a member of his band, and told him he ought to go away and form his own band. The second version has Zappa firing him for playing a 15 minute guitar solo—with his amplifier off. The third version says that Zappa fired him because "Willin'" contains drug references ("weed, whites and wine"). George often introduced the song as the reason he was asked to leave the band. On Oct. 18, 1975 at the Auditorium Theater in Rochester New York while introducing the song, George commented that he was asked to leave the band for "writing a song about dope.
The band in 1975.
In any version, Zappa was instrumental in getting George and his new band a record contract. When "Willin'" was recorded for the Little Feat album, George had hurt his hand in an accident with a model airplane, so Ry Cooder sat in and played the song's slide part. Lowell's accident is referenced on the cover art of the band's 1996 album Under the Radar. "Willin'" was re-recorded (this time with Lowell playing) on Little Feat's second album Sailin' Shoes, which was also the first Little Feat album to include cover art by Neon Park, who had painted the cover for Zappa's Weasels Ripped My Flesh.
The first two albums received nearly universal critical acclaim, and "Willin'" became a standard, subsequently popularized by its inclusion on Linda Ronstadt's album Heart Like a Wheel.
Lack of commercial success led, however, to the band splitting up, with Estrada leaving to join Captain Beefheart's Magic Band. In 1972 Little Feat reformed, with bassist Kenny Gradney replacing Estrada. The band also added a second guitarist, Paul Barrere, who had known George since they attended Hollywood High School in California, and percussionist Sam Clayton. Both Barrere and Clayton added vocals on many songs, although all the band members provided backing vocals in various tunes.
This new lineup radically altered the band's sound, leaning toward New Orleans funk. The group went on to record Dixie Chicken (1973)—one of the band's most popular albums, which incorporated New Orleans musical influences and styles—as well as Feats Don't Fail Me Now (1974), which was a studio-recorded attempt to capture some of the energy of their live shows. (The name of the latter album pays homage to the Fats Waller song.) An interesting recording in this period is the collaboration of Payne, Gradney, Barrere, Clayton and George (credited as George Lowell) with jazz drummer Chico Hamilton on the Stax album "Chico the Master", which is a strong showcase for the band's leanings toward funk and R&B.
The release of The Last Record Album in 1975 signaled another change in the Little Feat sound, with Barrere and Payne developing an interest in jazz-rock. Prior to the recording of The Last Record Album, drummer Richie Hayward had a motorcycle accident and the liner to the LP release of The Last Record Album was decorated with copies of his many hospital bills. Also present was evidence of a late change to the running order of tracks. The lyrics for Paul Barrere's song "Hi Roller" were printed on the sleeve, but scored out, and the words "maybe next time" scrawled over them. Sure enough, "Hi Roller" was the first track on the subsequent album Time Loves a Hero.
Lowell George continued to produce the albums, but his songwriting contribution diminished as the group moved into jazz fusion, a style in which he had little interest. In August 1977, Little Feat recorded a live album from gigs at the Rainbow Theatre in London and Lisner Auditorium in Washington, DC. Waiting for Columbus is considered by many rock music critics to be one of the best live albums of all time, despite the fact that significant portions of George's vocals and slide work were in fact over-dubbed later in the studio. It was released in 1978, by which time it had become apparent that Lowell George's interest in the band was waning, as was his health.
After Time Loves A Hero and before the Down on the Farm sessions, Little Feat were used as the backing band for Robert Palmer's album Pressure Drop, which featured his cover version of Lowell's song "Trouble."
George did some work on what would eventually become Down on the Farm but then declared that Little Feat had disbanded. In an interview with Bill Flanagan (for the book Written In My Soul) conducted eleven days before his death, George made it clear that he felt the demise of Little Feat was due to his having allowed the band to be run democratically, with the result that Payne and, to a lesser extent, Barrère, had a presence as songwriters and in production which was disproportionate to their abilities. George was particularly scathing about Payne's attempts at jazz/fusion, citing an instance when Payne jammed with Weather Report on a TV show and dropped "into one of his 'Day at the Dog Races'. I just got out of there as fast as I could. It was embarrassing". In the same interview, George stated that he planned to reunite Little Feat without Payne and Barrère.
At this time Warner Brothers released George's only solo album Thanks, I'll Eat It Here for which he had signed a contract in 1975. The album was mostly a collection of cover versions of other people's songs that George had been working on as a side project for several years and, in his biography of Lowell George, Rock And Roll Doctor, Mark Brend states that George had hinted he only signed the solo contract in order to obtain funds to finance Little Feat (and Bill Flanagan states in Written In My Soul that George "didn't want his audience to assume a collection of other people's material marked the direction of Lowell George's solo career").
While touring in support of his solo album in June 1979, at the age of 34, George collapsed in his hotel room in Arlington, Virginia. An autopsy determined the cause of death was a heart attack, although it is considered likely that George's excess weight, (formerly chronic) drug usage, and the strain of touring contributed to his condition.
Lowell George was respected for his idiosyncratic genius, for crafting sophisticated melodies and lyrics; writing memorable songs, and for his high production standards. He is also remembered for his exuberant, unique slide style, which featured sustained, ringing legato lines.
The surviving members finished and released Down on the Farm before disbanding in 1979. A subsequent retrospective double album compilation of rare outtakes and live tracks, Hoy-Hoy!, was released in 1981. The album is an overview of the history and sound of Little Feat and includes a cover of the Hank Williams song "Lonesome Whistle".
Paul Barrere, Sam Clayton, Kenny Gradney and Richie Hayward performed several shows as Feats in 1981 and 1982.
The Craig Fuller years (1987-1993)
In 1986 Richie Hayward, Paul Barrere and Bill Payne were invited to play on Blue Slipper, the 1987 debut album by Helen Watson. They subsequently appeared on her second album The Weather Inside. The surviving former members of Little Feat then reformed in 1987 when Barrere, Clayton, Gradney, Hayward and Payne added songwriter/vocalist/guitarist Craig Fuller, formerly from the band Pure Prairie League and Fred Tackett on guitar, mandolin and trumpet. The band admired Fuller's previous work and were impressed when he toured with them in 1978 as part of the Fuller/Kaz band. They didn't require an audition, having played with him on tour, and thus, the new Little Feat lineup was formed. The initial release by the new lineup, Let It Roll, was a tremendous success and Fuller's presence proved to be a major factor. His strong vocals and songwriting abilities were showcased, co-writing 8 of the 10 songs and handling a large share of lead vocals. The first single, "Hate to Lose Your Lovin'", earned the band their first #1 hit on the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart. All Music Guide critic Stephen Erlewine stated " What's surprising about Let It Roll is not just that it works, but that it works smashingly." The LP garnered Feat a certified gold record status on February 14, 1989. On the heels of this success, previous Feat releases experienced a sudden surge in sales. The February 10, 1978 live release Waiting For Columbus went certified platinum on November 8, 1989. Dixie Chicken, originally released on January 25, 1973, went certified gold also on November 8, 1989. The band received more exposure than ever, including an appearance on Saturday Night Live. Concerts were booked nationally and Little Feat played enthusiastic, sold out shows. Barrere, Payne and company were pleased by the audience reaction: not only were they able to put over the Feat classics, but the new music proved to be artistically and commercially successful. While some Little Feat diehards initially had difficulty accepting the band without Lowell George, the success of Little Feat with Fuller could not be disputed. The band made a comeback that introduced a whole new generation to Little Feat and reignited their past.
The follow-up album Representing the Mambo, released in 1990 proved to be the group's last album for Warner Brothers who were uncomfortable with the album's more jazzy leanings. The third and final album by this line-up, Shake Me Up (1991) was released on Morgan Creek as was the soundtrack of the 1992 film White Sands, which contained one song by Little Feat called Quicksand and Lies but this label folded soon afterwards and Little Feat were moving from one label to another until the establishment of Hot Tomato Records in 2002. Fuller departed in 1993, stating that touring required too much time away from his family. He has since joined a reformed Pure Prairie League. In 2005 they released the critically acclaimed All in Good Time which heavily featured his songwriting, singing and acoustic guitar. He has performed about 40 shows yearly with them as well as occasional shows with Little Feat in addition to performing solo shows.
The Shaun Murphy years (1993-2009)
Craig Fuller was replaced by Shaun Murphy in September 1993. Shaun had sung on all of the recent Little Feat albums and throughout 1993 she had toured as part of Bob Seger's band with Fred Tackett and Bill Payne.
Shaun's first album with the group was Ain't Had Enough Fun. As well as having material specifically written for her, for increasing fan draw attracted to her hard-edged powerhouse voice, further albums, Under the Radar and Chinese Work Songs saw Murphy become an integral part of the group sharing lead vocals and writing with Payne and Barrere. Her rendition of Bob Dylan's work, "It Takes a Lot to Laugh", was first recorded in studio on Chinese Work Songs, and became a favorite in live appearances with Murphy as lead singer prior to her departure in 2009. After recording five studio albums and performing over 1,400 concerts with the band, Murphy's position was made redundant, and the group pared down to a six-piece collective entity. Shaun would subsequently form The Shaun Murphy Band, with a specific blues-oriented niche. As of May 2011, Shaun had released two albums, returned to take her place with the Silver Bullet Band in the 2011 tour of Bob Seger, in addition to many scheduled live appearances with The Shaun Murphy Band, one of which to release a third album, and DVD, live in Detroit.
Hayward health and death
In August 2009, Richie Hayward announced that he had recently been diagnosed with a severe liver disease and would not be at work indefinitely. A benefit concert was organised and a website created where fans unable to attend could donate towards his treatment costs. Little Feat announced that their drum technician Gabe Ford would take his place.
Hayward married and was living on Vancouver Island B.C., with his liver cancer in remission while waiting on a liver transplant. Sunday July 11, 2010 Little Feat played at Vancouver Island Music Fest, and Hayward was slated to play just a couple of tunes, but once he sat behind his kit, he finished out the night. Hayward had intended to return to the band in the event of recovery but he died on August 12, 2010 from pneumonia and complications from lung disease.
Legacy - today and tomorrow
Some of the prominent musicians and bands to play and record the music of Little Feat include Phish , The Black Crowes, The Byrds, The Bridge, Garth Brooks, Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Taylor Hicks, Ron Holloway, Keisuke Kuwata, Nicolette Larson, Nazareth, Robert Palmer, The Radiators, Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, John Sebastian, Richard Shindell, Carly Simon, Mick Taylor, Van Halen, Joe Walsh, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Sam Bush, Coco Montoya, Vince Herman, Inara George, Stephen Bruton, Widespread Panic and Jimmy Buffett .
In 2008, Little Feat reached their 20th anniversary as a once-again active band, and with just one line up change since 1988. Jimmy Buffett has been an enthusiastic booster of the band for many years and his private record label was partnered with Feat's Hot Tomato Records to produce the CD Join the Band. Released in mid-August 2008, the album features collaborations with Buffett, Dave Matthews, Emmylou Harris, Bob Seger, Béla Fleck, Brooks and Dunn, Chris Robinson (Black Crowes), Vince Gill, Mike Gordon (Phish), and Inara George.
Little Feat's songs, "Sailin' Shoes" and "Fat Man in the Bathtub" were featured prominently in the 2010 Edward Norton film Leaves of Grass.
On October 31, 2010, at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, NJ, the band Phish covered Little Feat's album, Waiting for Columbus, for their annual Halloween show. As a result of this concert and the distribution of its recording, Waiting For Columbusgained recognition from a wider audience among younger listeners.
In 2012, Little Feat, announced the release of their first album of new material in nine years, Rooster Rag.