Perhaps the world just wasn’t quite ready for a uniquely mixed sound at the time, perhaps lead singer Lowell George and his band of brothers were ahead of their time, perhaps they refused to be placed in a box. Whatever it was, the legacy of the American rock band Little Feat, peppered with tragedy, is beautifully layered.
The story of Little Feat can be traced back to 1969, where George, formerly of Frank Zappa’s band Mother of Invention was encouraged by Zappa himself to branch out into his own work. George quickly assembled a team of wildly talented musicians, including keyboardist Bill Payne, drummer Richie Hayward, and bassist Roy Estrada. With the foundations laid, the band put out their first record, self-titled, in 1971, which featured their now timeless classics “Willin’.” The following year, Little Feat released their second record, “Sailin’ Shoes,” which included tracks like “Easy to Slip” and “Tripe Face Boogie.” The same year, Estrada left the band and a few new faces joined the group -- Paul Barrere on guitar, Sam Clayton on drums (brother of the famous session singer Merry Clayton), and Kenny Gradney on bass. The six-piece lineup had no plans to slow their roll.
Over the next several years, Little Feat would produce album after album, each setting themselves apart from the last. “Dixie Chicken” came in 1973, offering the jam-band style title track, “Feats Don’t Fail Me Now” arrived in 1974, and “The Last Record Album,” with tracks like “Rock & Roll Doctor,“ and “Oh, Atlanta” was released in 1975. Little Feat kept plugging along, making music that was both fresh and funky.
The year 1979, though, brought irreversible change. George, who had begun gravitating towards his own solo work, met an untimely death in June at the age of 34. Shortly after, Little Feat released their eighth album “Down On The Farm.” It was, in essence, the end of an era. With their fearless leader gone, Little Feat ceased writing, recording, and performing together -- things just weren’t the same.
It wasn’t until 1988 that the surviving members decided to give it another go, determined to keep creating music in the spirit of their former days. Two new members, Craig Fuller and Fred Tackett, joined the group and the resulting seven-piece band got back to work, with Fuller stepping into the vocal shoes of the late George. Over the next several decades, Little Feat dished out several new albums, including “Representing the Mambo” in 1989, “Shake Me Up” in 1991, and “Under The Radar” in 1998, among many others.
What most people remark on when it comes to Little Feat is their refusal to adhere to one genre. While rock ‘n’ roll might work as an umbrella term, Little Feat’s sound stretched much deeper and wider. Their earlier albums stick closer to their country rock roots, but they quickly expanded over the years to incorporate the sounds of Laurel Canyon, California and the traditional blues feel of the deep south. As the years went on, Little Feat got even bolder with their approach, experimenting with more Grateful Dead/Phish-esque jam band styles of music, proving that despite the heartbreaking loss of their frontman, Little Feat could roll with the punches and remain relevant through the changing times. They nodded to nearly every genre on the market -- boogie, soul, folk -- the list is endless.
Perhaps it was this unique ability to do it all that made Little Feat a favorite amongst dozens of other legends. In a 1975 interview with Rolling Stone, Jimmy Page name-checked Little Feat as his favorite American band. Their consistent praise earned them spots performing alongside fellow greats like Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, Beck, and Robert Plant.
Sadly, several cornerstone members of the band have since passed on. Richie Hayward died in 2012, and Paul Barrere recently passed away at the end of 2019. The remaining members of Little Feat continue to play shows around the country, still willin’ to keep the band going.
Written by Allison Rapp