The compact rock n roll funk displayed by Little Feat put them out of step with other Californian rock bands of the early 70s. By combining elements of country, folk, blues, soul and boogie they unwittingly created a sound that became their own, and has to date never been replicated or bettered.
The original line-up of the band in 1969 comprised the brilliant slide guitarist Lowell George (Lowell Thomas George, 13 April 1945, Hollywood, California, USA, d. 29 June 1979, Arlington, Virginia, USA; guitar/vocals), who had already had experience with the earthy garage band the Standells and the Mothers Of Invention, Roy Estrada (b. 17 April 1943, Santa Ana, California, USA; bass), Bill Payne (b. 12 March 1949, Waco, Texas, USA; keyboards) and Richie Hayward (b. Richard Hayward, 6 February 1946, Clear Lake, Iowa, USA; drums). Although they signed to the mighty Warner Brothers Records in 1970, no promotional push was given to the band until their second album, Sailin Shoes. It remains a mystery as to why Little Feat was given such a low profile. George had already been noticed as a potentially major songwriter; two of the songs from their excellent self-titled debut, Truck Stop Girl and Willin, were covered by the Byrds. Little Feat would prove to be the most blues-orientated of the bands albums (featuring a medley of the Howlin Wolf songs Forty-Four Blues/How Many More Years), but Georges American-influenced lyrical quirks were already to the fore on Hamburger Midnight and Crazy Captain Gunboat Willie. Payne was also evident as a songwriter, co-writing a number of tracks with George and providing the excellent opener Snakes On Everything.
The album sold poorly and, quite inexplicably, so did Sailin Shoes (1972) and Dixie Chicken (1973). The former introduced the distinctive sleeve covers of artist Neon Park that would grace the rest of the bands output, with the design on Sailin Shoes an allusion to Fragonards The Swing. Parks surreal landscapes proved the perfect visual foil to Georges increasingly quirky lyrical forays, which shone through on the title track of Sailin Shoes and Kiss It Off and Fat Man In The Bathtub from Dixie Chicken. The latter album featured a revised line-up including Paul Barrère (b. 3 July 1948, Burbank, California, USA; guitar), Kenny Gradney (b. New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; bass) and Sam Clayton (b. New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; percussion), but minus the departed Estrada. The bands sound had also evolved, with a rich vein of New Orleans funk and soul now running through the music (Dixie Chicken even included a terrific version of Allen Toussaints On The Way Down).
The band was understandably depressed by its lack of commercial success and began to fragment. George began writing songs with John Sebastian amid rumours of a planned supergroup featuring Phil Everly. Fortunately, Warners made a further advance to finance the boogie heavy Feats Dont Fail Me Now. Deservedly the band made the album charts in the USA, although the excellent material was no better than on the three previous albums. Feats Dont Fail Me Now marked the emergence of the other members as songwriters and Georges role began to diminish, although he would remain in the producers chair (a role he had assumed on Dixie Chicken) and contributed the stand-out tracks Rock & Roll Doctor and Spanish Moon.
The European critics were unanimous in praising the band in 1975 on the Warner Brothers Music Show. This impressive package tour featured Graham Central Station, Bonaroo, Tower Of Power, Montrose, Little Feat and the headliners, the Doobie Brothers, who were then enjoying unprecedented acclaim and success. Without exaggeration, Little Feat blew everyone off the stage with a series of outstanding concerts, and, from that moment onwards, they could do no wrong. The Last Record Album in 1975 saw the first signs of Payne and Barrères guidance of the band into jazz rock territory, most notably on the vapid Day Or Night. George contributed only three tracks, all excellent, and including his finest (albeit short) winsome love song, Long Distance Love; the sparseness of the guitar playing and the superb change of tempo with drum and bass, created a song that evoked melancholy and tenderness. The opening question and answer line: Ah hello, give me missing persons, tell me what is it that you need, I said oh, I need her so, youve got to stop your teasing - is full of emotional pleading.
George, meanwhile, was overindulging with drugs, and his contribution to 1977s Time Loves A Hero was minimal (the low-key slide workout Rocket In My Pocket). Following the terrific double live Waiting For Columbus and abortive sessions for a new album, the band disintegrated and George started work on his solo debut, Thanks Ill Eat It Here. The album highlighted Georges vocals rather than his distinctive guitar playing, and only included four original compositions (including the wistful 20 Million Things) alongside material by Allen Toussaint, Rickie Lee Jones and Jimmy Webb. During a solo concert tour, however, George suffered a fatal heart attack, the years of abuse having taken their toll. The remaining band re-formed for a benefit concert for his widow and at the end of a turbulent year, released the final George sessions as Down On The Farm. The record became a considerable success, as did the compilation Hoy-Hoy!
In 1988, almost a decade after they broke up, Little Feat re-formed to record Let It Roll. Long-term side man Fred Tackett (b. Arkansas, USA; guitar/mandolin) and ex-Pure Prairie League member Craig Fuller (b. USA; guitar/vocals) were recruited to replace George, and the musical direction was guided by the faultless keyboard playing of Bill Payne. A second set from the re-formed band came in 1990, and although it disappointed many, it added fuel to the theory that this time they intended to stay together. Shake Me Up saw the critics accepting that the band was a credible force once again and could claim rightful ownership of both its name and history, without forgetting Lowell Georges gigantic contribution. Fuller departed in 1994 and was not present on Aint Had Enough Fun, the band having recruited occasional backing vocalist, Shaun Murphy (b. Cheryl Murphy, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, as their new lead singer.
Little Feat continues to perform and record, latterly through their Hot Tomato Records label. Even though most of the original members are still involved, the absence of George leaves a hole that even the considerable individual talents of Hayward, Payne and Barrere are unable to fill.
Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.