The most underrated ’70s band to come out of Los Angeles—no, make that the whole country—Little Feat never had a true hit single. In my years of listening to classic-rock radio, I’ve yet to hear one of their songs in the rotation. Until former Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres published Willin’: The Story of Little Feat in November of last year, no one had written a biography of the band. Fong-Torres’s book is jammed with quotes from the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, and Rickie Lee Jones, testifying to the greatness of Little Feat during their golden age. Marshall Tucker, Eric Clapton, and Robert Plant have called Little Feat their favorite band, and the Stones and Dylan both made sure to see them live.
They still tour, but without their founder, who died in 1979. Happily for Feat’s fans, though, Rhino Records has just released a 13-disc box set of the band’s recorded and live songs, plus outtakes, called Rad Gumbo: The Complete Warner Bros. Years 1971-1990. If you’ve never gotten acquainted with the band, now’s the time.
The band’s origin story begins in 1968, when guitarist and singer Lowell George joined Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. When Zappa heard George’s song “Willin,’ ” he suggested that the guitarist break out and form his own band. You might think of Frank Zappa and the Mothers as stoner music, but Zappa wasn’t into the drug scene; and, according to Lowell George’s biographer, Mark Brend, the references to “weed, whites, and wine” in “Willin’” didn’t feel like part of the Mothers’ catalogue. It’d be an understatement to say Little Feat violated Zappa’s drug-free policy, but George nonetheless learned from Zappa’s managerial style and became an exacting band leader himself. In 1969 he founded Lilttle Feat with keyboardist Bill Payne, combining blues, New Orleans funk, and spacey jams to create a steaming gumbo of Southern rock. (The spelling of “feat,” by the way, is an homage to the Beatles.)
The band is best known for Waiting for Columbus, a live album recorded over seven shows in 1977 and released in 1978. Fleshed out by a stellar horn section courtesy of Tower of Power, Waiting for Columbus is widely considered one of the best live albums ever released; Rolling Stone readers put it at No. 7 on their top 10 list, and, in 2010, Phish played the album in its entirety for their semi-regular “musical costume” Halloween show. For a taste of the Feats in their glory days—and a glimpse of George’s ubiquitous white overalls—you should check out the concert DVD Skin It Back, filmed in Germany just a few days before the band recorded Waiting for Columbus.
“Willin’” remains Little Feat’s calling card. It originally appeared on the band’s self-titled debut album from 1971, and they recorded it again for 1972’s Sailin’ Shoes. (I’m partial to the slightly slower, less polished version of the song that appears on a bootleg from 1974.) It’s a trucker’s anthem, with repeated references to cities in Arizona, California, and New Mexico. (“And I been from Tucson to Tucumcari/ Tehachapi and Tonopah.”) There’s an echo of “Willin’” in “Rock & Roll Doctor,” the opening track on 1974’s Feats Don’t Fail Me Now, which name-checks MobileMoline Nacogdoches, and New Orleans. “Rock & Roll Doctor” is a good example of Little Feat’s off-kilter, syncopated rhythms—kept by drummer Richie Hayward—which may have contributed to the band’s lack of radio play. That’s what Feats guitarist Paul Barrere has suggested, anyway.
“Lowell used to do this thing with cassette tapes where he would take the tape and cut and splice it together, not knowing what was going to happen. [On “Rock & Roll Doctor”] there was like a couple of measures that were 3 1/2 beats instead of 4 beats and he would hand the tape to [keyboardist] Billy [Payne] and say, ‘Normalize this.’ I think within the framework of the verse there’s a 6/4 measure, which is probably why we didn’t get a whole lot of airplay on jukeboxes. If people try to dance to it, it’s like they’re on the wrong foot!”
Dixie Chicken, from 1973, furnished many of Little Feat’s best known songs: the funky/funny “Fat Man in the Bathtub,” penned by George; the title tune, written by George with his childhood friend Martin Kibbee; and “On Your Way Down,” a cover of a song released two years earlier by New Orleans composer Allen Toussaint. Little Feat moved into funkier territory with 1977’s Time Loves a Hero, which was more of a group effort and less dominated by George himself, who at this point was working on solo material. The title track is by Barrere, Payne, and bassist Kenny Gradney, but I like to think of its lyrics as describing their band leader, who would die just two years later, of heart failure: “Well they say/ Time loves a hero/ But only time will tell If he’s real/ He’s a legend from heaven/ If he ain’t he was sent here from hell.”