We can walk together down in Dixieland

There were so many fantastic bands making incredible music in the 1970s that sometimes it’s easy to neglect some of them.

Here at Hack’s Back Pages, I’ve written about dozens:  Steely Dan.  Stevie Wonder.  The Allman Brothers.  David Bowie.  The Eagles.  Santana.  The Rolling Stones.  Elton John.  Joe Walsh.  Pink Floyd.  James Taylor.  Grateful Dead.  Jethro Tull.  Jefferson Starship.  Paul Simon.  Earth Wind & Fire.  The Who.  And the list goes on.

LittleFeatThumbnails-1500x1000Now it’s time to feature a group that never had a Top 10 album, no big hit single, no induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but nevertheless maintained a solid following throughout their career and are still touring even today.

Let’s talk about Little Feat.

We’re revisiting the group’s music this week in the wake of the death of Paul Barrère, an extraordinarily gifted guitarist whose instrumental and songwriting prowess graced nearly every Little Feat record.

Bill Payne, the band’s co-founder and superb keyboardist, recalled, “Paul auditioned for Little Feat as a bassist when it was first being put together—in his words, ‘as a bassist, I

Little Feat in Negril, Jamaica 2009

Paul Barrère

make an excellent guitarist’—and three years later joined the band in his proper role on guitar.  Forty-seven years later, he was forced to miss the current tour due to side effects from his ongoing treatment for liver disease.  He promised to follow his doctor’s orders and get back in shape, but I guess it was not meant to be.”

 

Any profile of Little Feat must begin with Lowell George, the remarkable singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist who found a way to blend funk, blues, gospel, jazz and country into a compelling stew that was at once lightly comical and deadly serious.

George’s father was a furrier to many Hollywood movie stars who became family friends, and young Lowell couldn’t help but be influenced by the likes of W. C. Fields hanging around the house.  A certain surreal humor was a hallmark of many songs

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Paul Barrère (left) and Lowell George

George wrote as part of the Little Feat canon.

Take the tune “Willin’,” a song he wrote in 1969 while serving as guitarist and backing vocalist for Frank Zappa’s group, The Mothers of Invention.  Despite his maverick persona, Zappa was a firm anti-drugs guy, and when he heard George’s lyrics — “And if you give me weed, whites, and wine, and you show me a sign, I’ll be willin’ to be movin’…” —   he strongly suggested George take his music elsewhere.

George decided, what the hell, I’d rather be in control of my own band anyway.  So in 1970, he teamed up with keyboardist Bill Payne, drummer Richie Hayward and bassist Roy Estrada to form Little Feat, so named, as the legend goes, because of George’s small feet (the spelling was changed to “feat” in homage to The Beatles’ similar spelling change).

The band’s first two records, “Little Feat” and “Sailing Shoes,” were largely ignored outside Los Angeles, the group’s home base.  “Willin'” ended up on both LPs because George didn’t think they’d done the song justice in its first version.  Eventually it

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1970 debut

attracted the attention of other artists including Linda Ronstadt, who covered it on her #1 breakthrough 1974 LP “Heart Like a Wheel.”

In a bold move in 1973, George essentially re-invented the sound of Little Feat by adding three new members — Kenny Gradney on bass, Sam Clayton on congas and percussion, and old high school pal Barrère on guitar.  Gradney and Clayton joined with 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 great New Orleans band, The Meters.  It was the addition of Barrère, though, that gave the band more depth, as his presence on rhythm and lead guitar allowed Lowell George to concentrate on developing his slide guitar technique.

Right from the get-go on the opening title track of 1973’s “Dixie Chicken,” Little Feat hit their stride and began carving an original groove that carried them through their next little-feat-dixie-chickenthree albums — “Feats Don’t Fail Me Now,” “The Last Record Album” and “Time Loves a Hero.”  Newfound assuredness in the studio, with George assuming producing duties as well, inspired increased confidence on stage.

“Lowell and I wanted to keep the band elastic, so if we needed to include more players to keep the music eclectic, we would do so,”  said Payne.  “The idea was that Little Feat would probably not be a household name, but we would make more than a dent within the musical and creative communities, and we’ve certainly done that.”

With swampy rhythms, nasty slide guitar, earthy vocals and whimsical lyrics, Little Feat developed its still-loyal audience and enjoyed increased success as a dynamic band in concert, peaking just as they recorded their double live album “Waiting for Columbus,” which reached #18 on the charts in 1978 and is often mentioned as one of the best live R-1329675-1329852272.jpegalbums in rock music history.

George loved to sit in with, and produce, other artists as a way of maintaining control of his artistic energies.  In particular, he shepherded Bonnie Raitt through her early career, helping her develop a slide guitar prowess that ultimately eclipsed his own.

Payne, too, had been spending time recording keyboard parts with The Doobie Brothers, driven to do so when George’s penchant for endless overdubbing Little Feat tracks in search of perfection exasperated Payne and others.

Sadly, George’s hedonistic approach to life got the better of him by then.  He ate too much, drank too much and experimented with any number of substances as he pushed away his bandmates with ever-erratic behavior.  He often declined to participate in sessions for the group’s next LP, “Down on the Farm,” instead spending his time on his long-delayed solo debut, “Thank’s I’ll Eat It Here,” released in 1979.

In the summer of 1979, George died of a heart attack.  He was only 34.

Already estranged from George, the band chose to break up at that point anyway, with other members taking studio session work when the opportunity arose.  By 1987, though, Payne, Barrère, Hayward, Gradney and Clayton chose to reunite, signing up ex-Pure Prairie League vocalist Craig Fuller and guitarist Fred Tackett in the process.  The result Little_Feat_-_Let_It_Rollwas a sort of “Little Feat 2.0” that put them back into a heavy schedule of touring and recording.  1988’s “Let It Roll” proved to be an excellent comeback, and I saw the band put on an excellent show the following summer as the warm-up act for Don Henley.  Two more LPs — “Representing the Mambo” and “Shake Me Up” — continued this phase with lesser degrees of success.

Over the past 25 years, Payne, Barrère, Gradney, Clayton and Hayward soldiered on, only occasionally recording new LPs while they toured off and on.  Hayward’s death in 2012 brought in new drummer Gabe Ford.

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Bill Payne

The future of Little Feat without Barrère is uncertain, said Payne, but it’s likely he and his bandmates will continue making music in one form or another.  “It’s all we’ve been doing all our lives.”

Payne had these parting words for his late collaborator:  “Paul, sail on to the next place in your journey with our abiding love for a life always dedicated to the muse and the music.  We’re grateful for the time we’ve shared.”

Full confession:  I was among the many rock music lovers who let the great records of Little Feat slide under my radar when they were being released.  It wasn’t until a good friend turned me on to the wonders of “Waiting for Columbus” around 1980 that I finally became hip to the band’s irresistible sounds, and I spent the next several years catching up, adding album after little_feat_5-copy-2album to my collection.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Little Feat, I strongly recommend you get with the program beginning right here and now.  Those who already know and love the band will no doubt rejoice in being reminded of just how good they were, and still are.

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I’ve compiled my own playlist of Little Feat tracks I consider representative of their finest recorded moments.

 

 

All things must pass away

“Hallelujah, you were an angel in the shape of my mum, you got to see the person I have become, spread your wings, and I know that when God took you back, He said, ‘Hallelujah, you’re home’…”  Ed Sheeran

Music can be such a powerful force.

It can make us joyous and get us up off our feet, it can soothe our aching wounds, it can take us back in time, it can bring us to our knees.  In celebration or in desolation, it’s always there to help us crystallize our thoughts and emotions about the joyous and tragic events of our lives.

Through the years, popular music has tended to be mostly sunny and optimistic, but there have been hundreds of examples of songs that deal with loss and grief.  For example, we can reach back to George and Ira Gershwin’s groundbreaking 1935 opera “Porgy and Bess,” which includes a heart-wrenching song of longing called “My Man’s Gone Now”:   “My man’s gone now, ain’t no use listening for his tired footsteps climbing up the stairs, old man sorrow’s come to keep me company, whispering beside me when I say my prayers…”

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Five years ago, on her 90th birthday

Earlier this month, I lost my mother, who passed away at age 95.  It was quite a long and wonderful life she had, but it still hurts mightily — for me, for my sister, for the grandchildren and other relatives, and for the many who called her their friend — to lose her.

“Sometimes I feel my heart is breaking, but I stay strong and I hold on, ’cause I know I will see you again, this is not where it ends, I will carry you with me…”  David Hodges/Hillary Lindsey/Carrie Underwood

These kinds of events take your breath away in their suddenness and their finality, and no one knows exactly what to do, or feel.  It just doesn’t seem real, like a nightmarish scene from a bad movie.  And those left behind to mourn are searching for ways to cope, to heal, to put it all in perspective and somehow make sense of it.

“Like a comet blasting ‘cross the evening sky, gone too soon, like a rainbow fading in the twinkling of an eye, gone too soon…”  Michael Jackson

The Internet is full of documented scientific studies that show conclusively that music can reduce the intensity of pain, improve sleep, reduce stress, enhance blood vessel function, raise spirits and enhance mood, induce meditative states.  I’m pretty certain, though, that mankind has known this for many centuries before science proved it.  As they say, music has charms to soothe the savage breast:  “Music, sweet music, you’re the queen of my soul…”. Hamish Stuart

Musical eulogies come in a variety of forms, and they can provide just the right words and musical passages to help with what you’re going through.  Hymnals are full of songs to help deal with loss.  Gospel music reaches to the heavens to search for answers in life and death.

Country music is famous for its down-home laments about heartbreak and suffering: “The roses aren’t as pretty, the sun isn’t quite as high, the birds don’t swing as sweet of a lullaby, the stars are a little bit faded, the clouds are just a little more gray, and it feels like things won’t ever be the same…”  Gordon Garner

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With granddaughter Emily, 1994

If it makes you feel better to get right down into the depths of grief and have a really good cry, there are so many songs that can accompany you on that journey.  Some are merely about relationships that ended, but once you’ve lost someone, the same song takes on a more profound meaning: “She’s gone, she’s gone, oh why, oh why, I better learn how to face it, she’s gone, I can’t believe it, she’s gone, I’ll pay the devil to replace her…” Daryl Hall and John Oates

If, instead, you feel the need to snap out of it and celebrate the wonderful memories you have of the person you’ve lost, there are plenty of tunes for that too (“Celebrate good times, come on…”)  When I lost my dear friend Chris nine years ago, we didn’t have a funeral, we had a “celebration of life,” and it was wonderfully cathartic.  We listened to “Reelin’ in the Years,” among many others, and cherished him for the way we know he would have insisted that we focus on the positive and not dwell on the loss.  My mother felt much the same way.

Pop music can be so fleeting, but it can still tug at the heartstrings when it addresses serious topics, and very effectively:

“And I know that you’ve reached a better place, still, I’d give the world to see your face, it feels like you’ve gone too soon, the hardest thing is to say bye bye…”  Mariah Carey

“I’m so tired but I can’t sleep, standing on the edge of something much too deep, it’s funny how we feel so much, but we cannot say a word, we are screaming inside, but we can’t be heard…”  Sarah McLachlan

“Now you’re gone, now you’re gone, there you go, there you go, somewhere I can’t bring you back…”  Avril Lavigne

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With granddaughter Rachel, 1997

Even hip-hop, infamous for its rage and bombast, can offer solace. In 1997, rapper Puff Daddy and Faith Evans collaborated on “I’ll Be Missing You,” which used The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” to create a eulogy to The Notorious B.I.G., who died that year.  “Every step I take, every move I make, every single day, every day I pray, I’ll be missing you…”

Perhaps words of any kind are distracting, and you need instruments without voices.  Classical music is often ideal in that situation.  Or perhaps jazz, or “easy listening” music like Sinatra or Nat King Cole.  Anything that lets you float in your thoughts.

Sometimes the lyrics aren’t quite right for what you’re feeling, but the music… the music is exactly what you need to hear.  For instance, check out the majestic chorus of the amazing Leonard Cohen piece, “Hallelujah,” a waltz/gospel piece written in 1984 and interpreted by dozens of artists in arrangements that are alternately melancholy, fragile, uplifting or joyous.

Of course, there will always be specific songs that acutely remind us of the departed — songs you danced to together, songs you laughed to together, songs you sang with them at the top of your lungs.  And songs that you know they loved deeply, songs that will now always, always remind you of them.  If they liked Johnny Mathis or Frank Sinatra or even The Beatles, like my mother did, well then, perhaps that’s what you need to crank up.  Whatever works.  I feel pretty confident in saying that, somewhere, there is music that will help.

If I may be so bold, let me strongly suggest:  Immerse yourself in music.  It can be profoundly beneficial.  But don’t say I didn’t warn you.  Just hearing something as iconic as James Taylor’s line “Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone…” will take on a whole new meaning for you now.  It may make you cry initially, but eventually it will help you heal.

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The Hacketts in 1990

Losing a loved one is so profoundly painful.  But it’s a certainty.  We will ALL lose people we love.  Grandparents, parents, friends, brothers, sisters, children, grandchildren.  It never seems fair, or right, or in any way good, but we all must eventually find a way to cope with the loss, to fill the void, to find the answer.

One of the time-honored ways for easing the pain is to surround yourself with friends and family who share your loss.  They get it.  They know exactly what you’re going through, and can call up a fun memory, an old story, a time from the past when it was all good and fun and right. “With a friend at hand, you will see the light, if your friends are there, then everything’s all right…”  Bernie Taupin  

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With the family in 2013

You can also look through old photos, which can be wonderfully comforting.  They transport you to an earlier time.  They can remind you, emphatically, why you miss this person so much. “Looking through some photographs I found inside a drawer, I was taken by a photograph of you, there were one or two I know that you would’ve liked a little more, but they didn’t show your spirit quite as true…”  Jackson Browne

But music…well, if you’re like me, and you’re motivated to compile a mix of songs that focus on what you’re going through, you might look at these selections:

“Tears in Heaven,” Eric Clapton

“See You Again,” Carrie Underwood

“She’s Gone,” Hall and Oates

“All Things Must Pass,” George Harrison

“Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel),” Billy Joel

“Supermarket Flowers,” Ed Sheeran

“Gone Too Soon,” Michael Jackson

“Hallelujah,” Leonard Cohen

“Here Today,” Paul McCartney

“Candle in the Wind,” Elton John

“Dreaming With a Broken Heart,” John Mayer

“I Grieve,” Peter Gabriel

“Everybody Hurts,” R.E.M.

“Let It Be,” The Beatles

“Heaven Got Another Angel,” Gordon Garner

Music is a remarkable medicine.  Let it help you cope with loss.

“The darkness only stays at nighttime, in the morning it will fade away, daylight is good at arriving at the right time, it’s not always gonna be this grey, all things must pass, all things must pass away…”  George Harrison