If there’s a rock and roll heaven…

Four years ago, when this blog was still pretty new, it seems as if I was writing obituaries every other week.  Rock stars were falling left and right, and I felt compelled to write tributes to them all:  Glenn Frey.  David Bowie.  Keith Emerson.  Maurice White.  Prince.  Paul Kantner.  Leon Russell.  Leonard Cohen.  Greg Lake.  George Michael.  Aretha Franklin.

In Memoriam_0Thankfully, 2019 wasn’t quite as difficult a year.  We lost some giants, to be sure, but most of those who passed away over the past twelve months didn’t feel like as much like blows to the solar plexus as in previous years.

Nevertheless, the names listed below made important contributions to rock music in one way or another, and are worthy of remembrance by all of us who appreciate the stories big and small that make up the historical canon of rock and roll.

Rest in peace to them all.

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qZ6rMExbe4asd84nbtaXAN-320-80Ginger Baker, explosive drummer for Cream, Blind Faith and Ginger Baker’s Air Force, died in October at age 80.  His work in the 1960s and 1970s, particularly his recorded and live work with Cream, earned him the reputation as “rock’s first superstar drummer” for a style that melded jazz and African rhythms, and he helped pioneer both jazz fusion and world music.  See my in-depth piece, “In the white room with black curtains,” published October 11.

merlin_160965711_6b6c984a-ac13-4005-9f67-8b65891f9053-articleLargeRic Ocasek, songwriter/singer/guitarist for The Cars, died from complications following surgery in September at age 75.  He was instrumental in putting The Cars at the forefront of the movement merging 1970s guitar-oriented rock with the new synthesizer-oriented pop that became popular and flourished in the early 1980s.  He wrote a dozen Top 20 singles and many more deep tracks on The Cars’ five multi-platinum albums.  Ocasek later recorded seven solo LPs and gained a reputation as a producer, working with No Doubt, Guided by Voices and Suicide.  See my in-depth piece, “Everything’s a mess since you’re gone,” published September 20.

merlin_151973049_36b84277-6e09-4133-9fbd-72653910cbd7-articleLargeHal Blaine, drummer with the L.A. session musicians known as The Wrecking Crew, died in March at age 90.  Blaine was among the most recorded studio drummers in the history of the music industry, playing on an estimated 35,000 sessions and 6,000 singles. His drumming is featured on 150 US Top Ten hits, including 40 that reached #1 on the charts.  He worked with everyone from The Beach Boys to Frank Sinatra, from The Fifth Dimension to Simon and Garfunkel, from The Ronettes to Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, from Neil Diamond to Elvis Presley.  Between 1966 and 1971, Blaine played on six consecutive Record of the Year Grammy Award winners.  See my in-depth piece, “The drummer of a generation of hits,” published March 22.

pete-tork-1550772846Peter Tork, bass player for The Monkees, died in February at age 77.  He was recruited to join the cast of the 1960s TV show about a rock and roll band after his friend Stephen Stills turned it down.  Tork joined guitarist Mike Nesmith and actors Davy Jones and Mickey Dolenz in playing The Monkees, who enjoyed international success as recording artists (“Last Train to Clarksville,” “I’m a Believer,” “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You,” “Daydream Believer,” “Valleri”).  He occasionally participated in Monkees reunion tours in recent decades.  See my in-depth piece on The Monkees phenomenon, “We’re the young generation, and we’ve got something to say,” published March 1.

https---bucketeer-e05bbc84-baa3-437e-9518-adb32be77984.s3.amazonaws.com-public-images-ab96dcea-a552-4932-8346-8b674ebece15_1040x800Paul Barrère, guitarist for Little Feat, died in October at age 71.  He joined the band in 1972 and was still doing gigs with them in 2019 until illness prevented him from performing.  He was adept at blues, rock, jazz and cajun musical styles, and also recorded with the likes of Taj Mahal, Nicolette Larson, Robert Palmer and Carly Simon.  See my in-depth piece on Little Feat, “We can walk together down in Dixieland,” published November 1.

Dr.-John-portrait-1970-a-billboard-1548Malcom Rebennack Jr., better known as Dr. John the Night Tripper, died of a heart attack in June at age 77.  As a denizen of the New Orleans sound, he was known for performing lively, theatrical stage shows inspired by medicine shows, Mardi Gras costumes, and voodoo ceremonies.  Dr. John recorded thirty studio albums and nine live albums, as well as contributing to hundreds of recordings by other musicians.  He made the pop charts only once, reaching #9 in 1973 with “Right Place, Wrong Time.”  He won six Grammys over the years and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.

13eddiemoney--superJumboEdward Mahoney, known professionally as singer-songwriter Eddie Money, died in September at age 70.  He enjoyed considerable success on the pop charts in the late ‘70s and 1980s, with 11 Top 40 songs including “Baby Hold On,” “Two Tickets to Paradise,” “Think I’m in Love,” “Shakin’,” “Take Me Home Tonight,” “I Wanna Go Back,” “Walk on Water” and “The Love in Your Eyes.”

Photo of Clydie KingClydie King an in-demand session singer in the ’70s and ’80s, died in January at age 75.  In tandem with Venetta Fields and Sherlie Matthews, King sang background vocals on many dozens of classic rock albums, including Steely Dan’s “Can’t Buy a Thrill,” “The Royal Scam” and “Aja”; The Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street”; Linda Ronstadt’s “Heart Like a Wheel”; Bob Dylan’s “Saved” and “Infidels”; Joe Walsh’s “The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get”;  Joe Cocker’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” and Barbra Streisand’s “A Star is Born.”

Leon Redbone in Concert at Symphony Hall in Atlanta - August 20, 1977Dickran Gobalian, a Cyprus-born singer-songwriter-guitarist known professionally as Leon Redbone, died in May.  His age was listed at 69, but a family member released a whimsical report that Redbone “crossed the delta for that beautiful shore at the age of 127.”  Recognized by his ever-present Panama hat, sunglasses and black tie, Redbone specialized in jazz, blues and Tin Pan Alley classics.  He made numerous “Saturday Night Live” appearances in the late ‘70s, specializing in songs he claimed to have written despite the fact they originated well before he was born.

237946080e3443a194e648d8f5a88a70_mdArt Neville, singer-songwriter-keyboardist from New Orleans, died in July at age 81.  Neville was a co-founder of the prototype funk group The Meters, whose musical style set the tone of New Orleans funk.  A three-time Grammy winner, Neville was also co-founder of the rock-soul-jazz band The Neville Brothers with brother Aaron, and performed on many recordings with other major artists including Labelle, Paul McCartney, Lee Dorsey, Robert Palmer, Dr. John and Professor Longhair.

Unknown-76Richard Mansour, known professionally as Dick Dale, died in March at age 81.  Dale was known as “the king of surf guitar” and was at the vanguard of the surf music sound, popular in Southern California in the early ’60s.  He also worked with guitar manufacturer Leo Fender and others to produce custom-made amplifiers.  He was one of the first to push the limits of electric amplification technology and reverberation.  “Let’s Go Trippin'” and especially “Misirlou” were Dale’s signature songs that eventually earned him appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”  The use of “Misirlou” in the 1994 film “Pulp Fiction” revived his name and gave him new recognition.

Robert Hunter, singer-songwriter-poet best known as lyricist for The Grateful Dead, died in September at age 78.  He enjoyed a successful collaboration with Jerry Garcia, The Dead’s primary guitarist, singer and songwriter, providing lyrics for such signature pieces as “Truckin’,” “Dark Star,” China Cat Sunflower,” “Ripple” and “Terrapin Station.”  He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a lyricist in 1994.

Ian Gibbons, keyboard player with The Kinks from 1979 to 1993, died in August at age 67.  He played with various rock and new wave bands until being asked to join Ray Davies’ band just as the group was enjoying a resurgence in the early ’80s.  Gibbons also freelanced on recordings with Suzi Quatro, Ian Hunter, Sweet, Dr. Feelgood and Randy California.

Dave BartholomewDave Bartholomew, legendary songwriter-trumpeter-arranger-producer, died in June at age 100.  His partnership with the late Fats Domino produced more than forty hits for Imperial Records, including the #1 pop chart hit “Ain’t That a Shame” as well as “I Hear You Knocking,” “Blue Monday” and “I’m Walkin’.” He remained a major figure in the New Orleans music scene from the 1960s through the 2000s until his health failed.

Gary Duncan, guitarist and singer with Quicksilver Messenger Service, died in June at age 72.  His complex interplay with Quicksilver’s other guitarist, John Cipollina, helped define the unique sound of the San Francisco-based band.  The group was known for counterculture classics like “Fresh Air” and “What About Me.” 

Ted McKenna, Scottish drummer for numerous bands, died in January at age 68.  His first claim to fame was as the drummer for The Sensational Alex Harvey Band from 1972-1977, followed by stints with guitarist Rory Gallagher, The Greg Lake Band and The Michael Schenker Group.

Stephan Ellis bassist for the ’80s arena rock band Survivor, died in March at age 69.  He joined the band in 1981 and was on hand when Sylvester Stallone approached them to write a hit for the film soundtrack of “Rocky III.”  The result was “Eye of the Tiger,” which topped the pop charts for six weeks in 1982, won a Grammy and secured a Best Song Oscar nomination.

Unknown-77Lastly, there’s Russ Kibb, who died in April at age 88.  He wasn’t a musician but a disc jockey who played a pivotal role in the notorious “Paul is Dead” hoax in the fall of 1969.  Gibb was a DJ at WKNR-FM in Detroit when he received an anonymous call claiming Beatle Paul McCartney had died in images-801966, and that clues about the death were allegedly hidden in Beatles album covers.  Spurred on by a satirical article published in the University of Michigan student newspaper two days later outlining additional clues, Gibb chose to air a special two-hour program a few days later called “The Beatle Plot.”  The story went viral, got picked up in newspapers around the world, and fueled the insatiable rumor for several weeks until Life Magazine tracked down a very much alive McCartney at his reclusive farm in Scotland.

 

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

lowell-george-little-feat

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.