Little Feat is an enormously versatile rock band with an ever-growing cult following in the United States and Europe. Detroit Free Press contributor Gary Graff describes Little Feat as “one of those groups that baffled record company executives and radio station program directors [with] a Cuisinart blend of rock, country, jazz, soul, blues and gospel, chopped and mixed into a dish that defied categorization.” In fact, the band probably owes its current existence to the popularity of album-rock and classic-rock radio stations. Many Little Feat albums from the 1970s are still selling today thanks to the enduring allure of Feat hits such as “Dixie Chicken” and “Oh Atlanta,” and the group’s new work is finding enthusiasts as well.
Little Feat’s down-and-dirty blues-rock was primarily the invention of Feat founder Lowell George. George and bass guitarist Roy Estrada were veterans of the Frank Zappa band Mothers of Invention before they formed their own group in 1970. The original incarnation of Little Feat also included keyboardist Bill Payne and drummer Richard Hayward, both of whom had
Band formed in 1970, with members Lowell George (vocals, guitar), Roy Estrada (bass guitar), Bill Payne (keyboards), and Richard Hayward (drums); played first gigs as Country Zeke and the Freaks, changed name to Little Feat. Signed with Warner Brothers, 1970, released first album, Little Feat, 1970.
Estrada left the group in 1972 and was replaced by Ken Gradney; Paul Barreré (guitar, vocals) and Sam Clayton (percussion, conga) joined in 1972. Group disbanded in 1979 after sudden death of Lowell George; re-formed in 1988 with the addition of Fred Tackett and Craig Fuller and released album Let It Roll.
Addresses: Record company— Warner Bros. Records, 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, Calif. 91505.
spent years establishing themselves in the California rock scene. Much of the early Little Feat material was composed and sung by George, a talented songwriter and producer. The group’s first live gigs were performed under the dubious name Country Zeke and the Freaks, but George eventually hit upon the name Little Feat when he recalled how former band companions had teased him about his feet.
George was so well-connected in the music business that he had little trouble persuading Warner Brothers to sign his new band. Their debut album, Little Feat, was released in 1970. A “fine set of post-psychedelic country-influenced rock,” to quote the Rolling Stone Record Guide, Little Feat sold steadily behind the group’s spirited concert performances. A second album, Sailin’ Shoes (1972), was hailed by critics for its ground-breaking fusion of widely varied musical elements and for its catchy lyrics, most of them provided by Lowell George. Unfortunately, the band’s eclectic sound defied easy categorization, so pop stations were not quick to play Little Feat cuts. As a result the band sold more albums in Europe than it did in America, although concert attendance was hefty on both sides of the Atlantic.
Roy Estrada left Little Feat in 1972, and George recruited several new members to fill the gap. That year bass guitarist Ken Gradney, guitarist-vocalist Paul Barrere, and conga player Sam Clayton joined the group. These performers form the nucleus of the current version of Little Feat, and in the early 1970s they proved to be valuable members of a promising band. The first album produced by the expanded Little Feat band was Dixie Chicken, released in 1973. The title song from this release is probably the best-known Little Feat number, a swinging, good-natured rocker with elements of gospel in its sound. A 1974 album, Feats Don’t Fail Me Now, also sold well and produced another popular single, “Oh Atlanta.”
A rock band’s success is measured in increments of one million, and under those criteria Little Feat did not seem so successful. Album sales in the United States averaged a half-million per title or less, despite critical acclaim. Still, the band was prosperous enough to continue recording and performing, with Payne and Barrere contributing more and more material to the albums as the decade wore on. George gradually diminished his role in the group as he sought a solo career, but he was still a member of Little Feat and can be heard singing on the 1979 album Down on the Farm, which was released after his death from a heart attack.
George’s untimely death proved to be the undoing of Little Feat. For several years the band suffered caustic reviews that suggested its reputation rested solely on George’s talent. Rather than put that hypothesis to the test, the group disbanded in 1979. Then a curious thing happened. Little Feat actually gained popularity. Copies of the classic Little Feat albums continued to sell, much to the delight of Warner Brothers executives. The group’s best numbers began to be featured on classic-rock radio stations. Like other hard-rocking bands of the early 1970s, Little Feat got a second wind from the music public’s taste for vintage recordings.
Little Feat re-formed in 1988 with a fine representation of original members—Payne, Hayward, Gradney, Barrere, and Clayton—and with new associates Fred Tackett and Craig Fuller. In little more than two years the group released two albums of new material, Let It Roll and Representing the Mambo, which both sold more initial copies than any of the classic Little Feat works. The group’s music was also used in the soundtracks of two feature films, Pink Cadillac and Twins. On tour once again, Little Feat played to appreciative audiences in smaller arenas, drawing the kind of devoted followers usually associated with cult bands like the Grateful Dead.
The comparison between Little Feat and the Grateful Dead is not an idle one. Both groups are at their most brilliant in live settings—a fact not lost on Little Feat’s critics over the years. Little Feat’s virtuoso instrumentation plays extremely well in mid-size theatres. The band’s current audiences are as eclectic in make-up as is the music itself—young rockers who list the group as an influence on their work, middle-aged business people with a fondness for real rock, and vintage hippies rejoicing over the rediscovery of an old friend. In the Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul, Irwin Stambler describes Little Feat as “a premier concert band, one able to involve the crowd passionately in its constantly changing mixture of vocal and instrumental sounds.”
Needless to say, Little Feat’s original aim was to ascend to the highest pinnacles of rock music fame. That ambition has been denied the group, but more satisfying accomplishments have come in droves—praise from critics, influence, and most importantly, lasting music. “What we do is rather special,” Bill Payne told the Detroit Free Press. “Basically, what we’re trying to do is develop this thing into a nice, long run. It takes work to bring that growth, and we’re willing to do it.”
Little Feat, Warner Brothers, 1970.
Sailin’ Shoes, Warner Brothers, 1972.
Dixie Chicken, Warner Brothers, 1973.
Feats Don’t Fail Me Now, Warner Brothers, 1974.
The Last Record Album, Warner Brothers, 1975.
Time Loves a Hero, Warner Brothers, 1977.
Down on the Farm, Warner Brothers, 1979.
Let It Roll, Warner Brothers, 1988.
Representing the Mambo, Warner Brothers, 1990.
Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia, Grosset, 1978.
The Rolling Stone Record Guide, Rolling Stone Press, 1979.
Stambler, Irwin, The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul, revised edition, St. Martin’s, 1989.
Detroit Free Press, May 11, 1990.
High Fidelity, December 1988.
—Anne Janette Johnson
"Little Feat." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 16, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/little-feat
"Little Feat." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved February 16, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/little-feat
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