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.

 

 

You took the words right out of my mouth

I was surfing on Google recently, just doing some research into various artists and albums, when I came across a most fascinating interview with Todd Rundgren, Todd-Rundgren-009conducted in 2017 for a Billboard Magazine article.

Rundgren had been a critics and fans favorite since he first showed up on the charts in the early ’70s with hit singles like “We Gotta Get You a Woman,” “I Saw the Light” and “Hello, It’s Me.,” and the tour-de-force LP “Something/Anything?.”

The focus of the article was on Meat Loaf’s 1977 LP “Bat Out of Hell,” then celebrating its 40th anniversary.  It’s an album that was rejected by dozens of producers and dozens of record labels but went on to become one of the biggest-selling albums of all time, with more than 43 million copies sold worldwide.  Rundgren had been the album’s producer, Bat_out_of_Helland he was asked how he happened to get involved with the project.

Said Rundgren, “Well, I had a friend and occasional bandmate named Moogy Klingman, and in the mid-’70s, I was getting a lot of production work — Hall and Oates’ ‘War Babies’ and Grand Funk’s ‘We’re an American Band’ and ‘Shinin’ On,’ to name a few.  It was probably more production work than I could handle, because I was still doing my own albums (‘Todd,’ ‘Initiation’) at that time, and the first two albums with Utopia as well.

“So Moogy approached me and said, ‘Well, if I find a band or an act that you think is worth producing, I’ll do the legwork on it, and that’ll help me get into the production game.’  So I said, ‘Okay, that’s a fine idea. If I hear something, sure, we can give that a try.’  A couple weeks later, he came to me with this act.  It was Meat Loaf, and it was also this guy Jim Steinman, who wrote all the material.”

A little background:  Steinman was an up-and-coming musical playwright who had been working on “Neverland,” a futuristic rock musical about Peter Pan, but despite earlier success as a playwright, this one faced challenges in getting made.  Steinman had been working with Meat Loaf, known primarily for his work in “Rocky Horror Picture Show” on Broadway and in film.  The two had also been touring together as part of the National Lampoon stage show.

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Meat Loaf (left) and Jim Steinman in 1977

Steinman and Loaf had been particularly jazzed by three of Steinman’s compositions — “Bat Out of Hell,” “Heaven Can Wait” and “All Revved Up with No Place to Go” — and they became the anchor pieces to the seven-song set that would later become the “Bat Out of Hell” album.

 

“I never intended to do music,” Steinman said.  “I didn’t think I was a good enough musician.  I was gonna do film and theater, but I figured, ‘This is fun, let’s do this,'” Steinman said.  “I didn’t want it to be just a bunch of songs.  I wanted it to feel like you were entering a cinematic or complete theatrical environment.  No one could deal with it.  They couldn’t figure out what it would sound like finished.

“All I can say is that thank God we knew nothing about making albums, because otherwise it couldn’t have happened.  I wanted to make an album that sounded like a movie.”  But they could find no financial backing nor a label that showed any interest in the concept, which was ‘admittedly overwrought and pretentious,” said Steinman.

Rundgren picks up the story:  “The only way that these guys would demo the material was to do it live.  They didn’t have a demo tape, or they didn’t want me to have a demo tape,  because they thought that was not representative of what they were trying to do.

“So they set up in a rehearsal studio, Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf and (singer) Ellen Foley, just the three of them, and they essentially performed most of what turned out to be the first record.  They did it all live, with all the familiar tropes that would become the video later, the whole ‘Paradise By the Dashboard Light’ thing, that whole part of it.  They told me that they’d essentially done this for any producer who would entertain coming to see them, and that they had been essentially turned down by everybody.  I could certainly understand why, because it didn’t have an obvious commerciality.”

But here’s the surprise nugget from the interview:  “I saw the whole presentation as a spoof of Bruce Springsteen.”

That made me sit up and take notice.  I had been a Springsteen fan since his early albums, and had fallen head over heels in love with the “Born to Run” song and album.  And when the “Bat Out of Hell” LP came out two years later, I really enjoyed that too, but it never occurred to me it might be related to Springsteen’s opus in some way.

11SNAPExh210212“In 1975, the mid-’70s, the themes were kind of nostalgic,” said Rundgren.  “Even though Bruce Springsteen would represent them as still being real, the iconography was still out of the ’50s, you know? It was switchblades and leather jackets and motorcycles and that sort of junk.  It was so annoying to me personally that Springsteen was being declared the savior of rock and roll.  You know, he was on the cover of Time and Newsweek, and I thought, ‘You know, this music is going nowhere.’  He may have represented the image that people wanted, but from a musical standpoint, I thought it was going backwards.  So I thought he needed to be spoofed.  I saw the whole ‘Bat Out of Hell’ concept as being a parody of Bruce.  That’s why I decided to get involved.

“There was a lot of interesting stuff in there.  Jim Steinman kind of wove this sense of humor into the material in a way that Springsteen never did.  I was rolling on the floor laughing at how over-the-top and pretentious it was.  I thought, ‘I’ve got to do this album.’

“We had the guys from Utopia playing on it, and also Edgar Winter on sax.  And as it turned out, you know, Max Weinberg and Roy Bittan from the E Street Band wound up Musicourt '82playing on the record, so that kind of made it even spoofier.  I recruited them to work on it, but I don’t think I instructed them to think of it differently than they would have otherwise. But quite obviously they were cast because they could bring that ‘Springsteeniness’ to the whole project.”

Rundgren added, “Everyone kind of puts the focus on Meat Loaf, but the reality is, everything’s coming from Steinman.  Meat Loaf is essentially someone that Steinman cast in an imaginary musical.  So it isn’t like a calculated attempt to break into radio or anything like that.  It’s really Steinman trying to realize his vision of a musical, albeit somewhat compromised from the original, because his original idea was to retell the story of Peter Pan. So just imagine Meat Loaf as Peter Pan.”

Rundgren claims to barely know Springsteen and has never spoken to him about the fact that he always envisioned “Bat Out of Hell” as a Bruce spoof.  “I have not really had any communications with Bruce.  I’ve run into him once or twice in backstage situations, but we haven’t had much to talk about.  As far as I know, he’s unaware of the fact that it’s a spoof of him.  That’s how I regard it anyway.”

Apparently, when the operatic “Bat Out of Hell hit the radio airwaves in 1977, only a few critics saw the Springsteen comparison.  “Every track sounds like a fever-dream rendition of ‘Thunder Road’ or ‘Jungleland,'” said Rolling Stone.  “Some of the people who 8127ICDt45L._SY355_bought it might have just gotten sick of waiting for ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ (whose release had been delayed and wouldn’t finally occur until the following summer).”

Steinman concedes that he shared some of the same influences as Springsteen — ’50s rock and roll, Chuck Berry, the “wall of sound” approach of producer Phil Spector, the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack” tragedy, the Motown sound.  “They’re all in there,” Steinman said, “but then I also added in Wagner and the drama of opera music.  I was quoted at the time as saying, ‘If there’s a market for a 350-pound guy singing Wagnerian ten minute rock & roll epics, we’ve got it covered!’”

The album proved the classic “sleeper.”  It was ignored in most U.S. markets and in England for the first six months after its release, but then “The Old Grey Whistle Test,” a British music TV program, took the ambitious step of airing a film clip of the live band performing the nine-minute title track.  Response was so overwhelming, they screened it again the following week.  Soon enough, “Bat Out of Hell” was an unfashionable, uncool, non-radio record that became a “must-have” for everyone who heard it, whether they Unknown-61understood Steinman’s unique perspective or not.

Eventually every track on the album became a hit single in England, and even “Paradise By the Dashboard Light” snuck into the U.S. Top 40.  The album became a phenomenon, the most profitable release in Epic Records history, beating even Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” which had cost ten times as much to make.

Steinman described Rundgren as “the only genuine genius I’ve ever worked with.”  AllMusic calls Steinman “a composer without peer, simply because nobody else wanted to make mini-epics like this.”  AllMusic praised Rundgren’s production on the album, claiming, “It may elevate adolescent passion to operatic dimensions, and that’s certainly silly, but it’s hard not to marvel at the skill behind this grandly silly, irresistible album.”