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.

 

 

In the white room with black curtains

In early 1969, following the breakup of the first “supergroup” power trio Cream, Eric Clapton pondered his next move.

He had been in the Yardbirds during their formative years; he had done a memorable stint with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and he had been a key factor in the international success of Cream.  But a ferocious personality conflict between drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Jack Bruce, along with exhaustion from relentless touring, had taken their

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Blind Faith:  Ric Grech, Ginger Baker, Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton

toll, bringing the group’s existence to an end after only two years, much to Clapton’s relief.

Through it all, there was another musician he had been admiring from afar:  Steve Winwood, first the wunderkind singer/keyboardist of The Spencer Davis Group and then the founder and key sparkplug of the folk-jazz-rock band Traffic.

When Clapton heard Traffic was either taking a break or breaking up, he reached out to Winwood.  What say we get together and jam a bit and see what happens?  Winwood was keen to the idea, so they met in an isolated cottage in the English countryside to try out some new songs.

They’d been there only a day when there was a knock at the door.  Standing there was Baker.  “Here I am,” he announced.  Winwood, knowing Baker’s abilities, welcomed him in with open arms, but Clapton appeared deflated.  Oh shit, he thought, how did he even find us out here?

This anecdote serves as an illustration of Baker’s intimidating presence and aggressive perseverance, even in places where he wasn’t necessarily wanted.  As Britain’s The Guardian put it, “Certainly Baker’s physical makeup doesn’t really help to contradict most people’s image that he’s a direct descendant of King Kong or the Wild Man of Borneo.  He has a huge shaggy head of red hair and a beard to match.  Mere mortals have been known to quail before his glowering, rolling eyes.  His teeth are chipped, his grin evil.”

None of that mattered much when he sat down behind his massive drum kit and started ginger-bakerto play.  He is regarded by many, including most drummers, to be perhaps the best drummer ever, melding a jazz background and inventive African rhythms to create a singular approach that has inspired rock drummers for decades.  In the late ’60s, he pioneered the archetypal rock concert drum solo, and he introduced the two-bass-drum configuration which became standard throughout the industry in the ’70s and beyond.

Now the rock music world mourns Baker’s passing last week at the age of 80, a victim of multiple diseases that he suffered with for his last 10-15 years — obstructive pulmonary problems, degenerative osteoarthritis and progressive cardiac issues.

He was, by all accounts, a difficult man, which is why Clapton had been so wary about including Baker into the fold of Blind Faith, the new group he’d been nurturing with Winwood.

“I’m a prickly bastard, no doubt about it,” he said in a 2004 interview.  Indeed, a 2012 documentary about the mercurial drummer, entitled “Beware of Mr. Baker,” includes a scene when Baker attacked filmmaker Jay Bulger because he didn’t like how the project was progressing.

Born Peter Edward Baker in South London in 1939, “Ginger” (named for his shock of flaming red hair) took to the drums by age 14, inspired by jazz drummers like Britain’s Phil Seaman and U.S. legends like Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich.  He first gained notoriety with The Graham Bond Organisation, an R&B band with strong jazz leanings, where he met and began clashing with bassist/vocalist Bruce.

Despite the unpredictable relationship between Baker and Bruce, the two agreed to work together again couple years later, this time with Clapton on guitar, forming Cream (so named because they were considered the cream of British musicians on their respective instruments).  From mid-1966 until late 1968, the trio reigned supreme, playing more

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Cream:  Clapton, Baker, Bruce

than 400 concerts and releasing four hugely successful albums, becoming monumentally influential even as they were imploding from within.

Baker always felt he wasn’t given due songwriting credit for many of Cream’s songs.  While he is credited for writing obscure deep album tracks like “Pressed Rat and Warthog,” “Blue Condition” and “Passing the Time,” he missed out on any credit for the big-royalty songs from their catalog.  He thought it unfair that copyright laws don’t recognize drumbeats (however inventive or catchy or as integral to a song as they may be) for songwriting royalties.  “It’s crazy,” he fumed.  “One of the most important things in pop music, any music, is the beat.  But in the eyes of the law, it’s melody, harmony and lyrics that matter.  I added the 5/4 time introduction to Cream’s hit ‘White Room,’ and I suggested to Jack Bruce that the tempo for ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’ was way too fast and should be much slower.  These were both important contributions to those tracks, but I got no credit whatsoever.”

Baker also bristled when he talked about his drumming style during his days with Cream.  “I hear they consider me a pioneer of heavy metal drumming.  I loathe heavy metal.  I think it is an abortion.  A lot of younger rock drummers would come up and say, ‘Man, you were my influence, the way you thrashed the drums,’” he noted.  “They didn’t seem to understand I was thrashing just so I could hear what I was playing above the over-amplified volumes from the guitar and bass.  It was anger, not enjoyment.  And it was painful.  I suffered onstage because of all those Marshall amps turned way up.  I didn’t like it then, and like it even less now.”      

He found it amusing when he would be labeled “best rock drummer” in reader polls.

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Baker in 2007

“Oh, for God’s sake, I’ve never played rock,” he said in 2013. “Cream was two jazz players and a blues guitarist playing improvised music.  We never played the same thing two nights running … It was jazz.”

Baker’s playing made use of syncopation and “ride cymbal” patterns characteristic of bebop and other advanced forms of jazz, as well as the frequent application of African rhythms.  He often utilized differing timbres and tempos in his percussive work, using a variety of other percussion instruments in addition to the standard drum kit.

Said Baker in 2012, “Drummers are really nothing more than time-keepers.  They’re the time of the band.  It’s the drummer’s job to make the others sound good.  I don’t consider I should have as much recognition as, say, a brilliant guitar player.  I think the best thing a drummer can have is restraint when he’s playing – and so few have that these days.  They think playing loud is playing best.”

If you listen to songs like Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home,” it shows Baker’s mastery of the high hat and the restrained approach he referred to in the 2012 comment.  Still, the incendiary drumming you hear in most live Cream recordings — most notably “Spoonful” from “Wheels of Fire” — is jaw-dropping in its complexity and performance.

Said Neal Pert of Rush last week, “His playing was revolutionary – extrovert, primal and inventive.  He set the bar for what rock drumming could be.  Every rock drummer since has been influenced in some way by Ginger, even if they don’t know it.”

Michael Balzary, better known as Flea, the bassist of The Red Hot Chili Peppers, said he was in awe of Baker’s legacy.  “There was so much freedom in his playing.  What a wild man.  Those rhythms we’ve heard all our lives, he just plucked them out of the sky.”

blind-faith-eric-clapton-1Following the short-lived Blind Faith experience, Baker formed Ginger Baker’s Air Force in 1970, a somewhat bloated group of jazz-rock fusion musicians that included, at various times, Winwood, Traffic flautist Chris Wood, Afrocentric drummer Rebi Kebaka and ex-Moody Blues guitarist Denny Laine, among many others.  They relied on lengthy jams and unrehearsed noodlings that found their onto two LPs in 1970 but never sold well.

“I can only echo the words and thoughts that have been shared by various mutual friends,” said Laine following Baker’s death.  “I think we gelled musically in a way that is rare and that is really all that matters.  I will always defend his reputation as a hard nut to crack because his honesty was second to none, and his heart was an open book for all to see.”

Baker dabbled in heroin and other drugs during that period, and it took watching his good friend Jimi Hendrix die after a debauched night on the town together for Baker to finally begin the difficult journey of recovering from substance abuse.  Feeling he couldn’t pull that off in Europe, he packed up and traveled to Africa, where he spent most of the rest of his life.  He opened a studio in Lagos, Nigeria, where Paul McCartney was one of the first to visit.  “We worked together on the ‘Band On the Run’ album in his ARC Studio there,’ said McCartney last week.  “Ginger was a wild and lovely guy.”

While living in South Africa, Baker withdrew from the public for years at a time, pursuing a passion for and investing much of his wealth in polo ponies, which left him in financial straits.  Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Baker traveled the world, working with nearly anyone who would hire him, constantly struggling to pay the bills and stay sober.  He played with such bands as Hawkwind, Public Image Ltd, and the hard-rock group Masters of Reality before teaming up with Bruce once again in BBM, a short-lived power trio that included guitarist Gary Moore.

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Cream’s reunion gig in 2005

In 1993, Baker was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as part of Cream, and in 2005, Cream finally reunited for a concert at Royal Albert Hall, which was then made into a successful CD and concert DVD.  Both are well worth your time.

I was pleased to see that, despite the years of acrimony, the family of the late Jack Bruce offered this statement upon Baker’s death: “We would like to extend our sincere condolences to Ginger Baker’s family, friends and fans.  Ginger was like an older brother to Jack, and they fought like brothers often do, but they survived their love-hate relationship long enough to work together in The Graham Bond Organisation, make history with Cream and, much later, collaborate in BBM.  Each time, their musical chemistry was truly spectacular.  Rest in peace, Ginger, one of the greatest drummers of all time.”

Mark Holan, my former editor at Scene Magazine in Cleveland, is a huge fan of Baker’s work, and has posted several items this past week on Facebook about him.  Yesterday he displayed the cover of Cream’s debut LP “Fresh Cream” and reminisced, “I remember 72799625_10157922448373313_8637118432698957824_olistening to this album over and over, trying to figure out how Ginger could make that drum kit sound like a bulldozer gone berserk.”

I spent the other day listening to the 16-minute live drum solo “Toad” from Cream’s “Wheels of Fire” for the first time in decades.  When I was 14, I found that track compelling, listening to it dozens of times because of its mesmerizing rhythms and seemingly impossible techniques.  Even though it gave birth to the unfortunate practice of including momentum-killing drum solos at so many rock concerts in that 1970s era, I still have a soft spot for Baker’s virtuosity on display on “Toad” as well as on his solo in Blind Faith’s “Do What You Like.”

R.I.P., Mr. Baker.  Your work here is done and has not gone unappreciated.