Little Feat è un gruppo rock statunitense formato nel 1969 dal cantautore, cantante e chitarrista Lowell George e dal tastierista Bill Payne a Los Angeles. Il gruppo si sciolse nel 1979, prima della morte di George, e si riformò nove anni dopo. Nella loro musica coesistono influenze blues, R&B, country, funk e rock and roll[1
Lowell George incontrò Payne quando George era un membro dei Mothers of Invention di Frank Zappa. Payne fece un’audizione per i Mothers, ma non s’unì al gruppo. A loro si affiancarono l’ex bassista dei Mothers Roy Estrada e il batterista Richie Hayward della band precedente di George, The Factory. Il nome del complesso fu preso da un commento fatto dal batterista dei Mothers Jimmy Carl Black sui “little feet” (piedi piccoli) di Lowell.
Ci sono tre aneddoti sulla nascita dei Little Feat. Uno è che George presentò a Frank Zappa la sua canzone Willin’, e che Zappa lo licenziò dai Mothers perché sentì che George aveva troppo talento per esser semplicemente un membro del gruppo, e gli disse di formarsi una sua propria band. La seconda versione è che Zappa lo licenziò per aver suonato un assolo di chitarra per 15 minuti con l’amplificatore spento! La terza versione dice che Zappa lo allontanò perché Willin’ conteneva riferimenti alla droga. Ironicamente, quando Willin’ fu incisa per il primo, eponimo album dei Little Feat, George si ferì alla mano e non poté suonare, così Ry Cooder lo rimpiazzò e suonò la sua parte. Ciò fu una ragione perchéWillin’ venne re-incisa e inclusa nel loro secondo album Sailin’ Shoes. Quest’ultimo è stato anche il primo disco dei Little Feat a contenere disegni di copertina di Neon Park, che disegnò quella di Weasels Ripped My Flesh di Zappa.
I primi due album, Little Feat e Sailin’ Shoes, ricevettero un’acclamazione quasi unanime. La canzone di George Willin’ divenne un punto di riferimento, resa poi popolare dalla sua inclusione nell’album Heart Like a Wheel di Linda Ronstadt.
La mancanza di successo commerciale portò comunque alla divisione del gruppo, con Estrada che se ne andò per unirsi alla Magic Band di Captain Beefheart. Nel 1972 i Little Feat si riformarono, con il bassista Kenny Gradney a sostituire Estrada. La band aggiunse anche un altro chitarrista/cantante, Paul Barrere, e il percussionista Sam Clayton. Questa nuova formazione cambiò radicalmente il sound del complesso, virando verso il New Orleans funk. Il gruppo proseguì registrando Dixie Chicken (1973) uno dei loro album più conosciuti, che includeva influenze e stili musicali di New Orleans, come pure Feats Don’t Fail Me Now (1974), che era un tentativo in studio di catturare parte dell’energia dei loro concerti dal vivo. I membri dei Rolling Stones e dei Led Zeppelin erano tra i fan fedeli dei Feat, dando prova della loro influenza musicale. Mick Taylor, ad esempio, può essere ascoltato come ospite in Waiting for Columbus. Lowell George era rispettato per il suo genio idiosincratico, per creare melodie e testi sofisticati, e per il suo alto standard di produzione. Però egli è probabilmente ricordato di più per il suo esuberante, unico, slide style, caratterizzato da linee di legato sostenute, cristalline. La sua voce calda, espressiva ha influenzato molti artisti.
L’uscita di The Last Record Album nel 1975 segna un altro cambiamento nelle sonorità dei Little Feat, con Barrere e Payne che cominciarono ad interessarsi al jazz-rock. Da questo album, la canzone All That You Dream fu utilizzata nell’ultima scena della serie TV The Sopranos. Il loro jazz venne in seguito esteso in Time Loves a Hero del 1977. Prima dell’incisione di The Last Record Album, il batterista Ritchie Hayward ebbe un incidente motociclistico e la copertina del LP venne illustrata da copie dei suoi numerosi conti ospedalieri.
Lowell George continuò a produrre gli album, ma il suo contributo di cantautore diminuì quando il gruppo passò al jazz fusion. Nell’agosto 1977 i Little Feat registrarono un album live di successi al Rainbow Theatre di Londra e all’auditorium Lisner di Washington. Waiting for Columbus è considerato da numerosi critici musicali uno dei migliori dischi dal vivo di tutti i tempi; uscì nel 1978, anno da cui divenne chiaro che l’interesse di George per la band stava calando, come anche la sua salute. George lavorò un po’ a quello che sarebbe divenuto Down On the Farm, invece incise un album solo, Thanks, I’ll Eat It Here, e annunciò che i Little Feat si erano sciolti.
Durante il tour di Thanks, I’ll Eat It Here del giugno 1979, George venne trovato morto nella sua stanza di hotel ad Arlington, Virginia. L’autopsia rivelò che la morte fu causata da attacco cardiaco: è probabile che il peso di George, l’uso di droga, e la fatica del tour abbiano contribuito al decesso.
I membri rimasti terminarono e incisero Down on the Farm, prima di sciogliersi nel 1979. Un retrospettivo album doppio, compilation di registrazioni rare e tracce dal vivo, Hoy-hoy, uscì nel 1981.
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. Hayward had also been a member of the Fraternity of Man whose claim to fame was the inclusion of their “Don’t Bogart Me” on the million-selling Easy Rider film soundtrack. 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 stories 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 October 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”.
In any version, Zappa was instrumental in getting George and his new band a contract with Warner Bros. Records. The eponymous first album delivered to Warner Bros. was recorded mostly in August and September 1970, and was released in January 1971. When it came time to record “Willin’,” 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 1998 album Under the Radar. “Willin'” would be re-recorded with George playing slide for 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.
Sometime during the recording of the first two albums, the band members along with ex-Mothers of Invention drummer Jimmy Carl Black (“the Indian of the group”) backed soul singer Nolan Porter on his first album, No Apologies.
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.)
In 1973, Payne, Gradney, Barrere, Clayton and George (credited as George Lowell) collaborated with jazz drummer Chico Hamilton on his Stax album Chico the Master, which is a strong showcase for the band’s leanings toward funk and R&B. In 1974 Lowell George, along with the Meters and other session musicians, backedRobert Palmer on his Island Records debut solo release Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley which opened with George’s “Sailing Shoes.” The whole band chipped in on Palmer’s 1975 release, Pressure Drop, which contained another George composition, “Trouble.” 1976’s Some People Can Do What They Like, his third opus, opened with the Bill Payne/Fran Tate composition “One Last Look,” and later featured Lowell’s “Spanish Moon,” although George and Kenny Gradney sat this one out.
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 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.
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 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.
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, Barrere, 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 Bros. 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 that George had been working on as a side project for several years and, in his biography, 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 use, and the strain of touring contributed to his condition.
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”.
Barrere, Clayton, Gradney and Hayward performed several shows as Barrere, Clayton, Gradney and Hayward in 1981 and 1982.
Barrere then released two solo albums, 1983’s On My Own Two Feet (Mirage) and 1984’s Real Lies (Atlantic). Richie Hayward was the drummer on Robert Plant‘s 1985 funk and new wave flavoured Shaken ‘n’ Stirred (Es Paranza). Payne has always been a popular and busy session musician, as well as a songwriter, and during the band’s first hiatus performed on a variety of albums by many famous musicians includingJ.J. Cale, the Doobie Brothers, Emmylou Harris, Pink Floyd, Bob Seger, Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, and Stevie Nicks. He was a guest performer on Raitt’s Sweet Forgiveness in 1977, which featured his composition “Takin’ My Time.”