By Jeff Maisey

Thank Frank Zappa for Little Feat.

If you search Wikipedia for how Little Feat hit the pavement as a band back in 1969, you’ll read of three wild stories. But which is true?

“It was the summer of 1969 and we were in Los Angeles,” said co-founding keyboardist Bill Payne. “Lowell (George) presented Frank Zappa the song ‘Willin’,’ and Frank said it had drug references in it. Frank was not enamored with that. He thought Lowell was talented and should form his own group.” 

At the time, guitarist/singer Lowell George was a member of Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. He took Frank Zappa’s advice and formed Little Feat with Payne. 

Zappa is credited with helping Little Feat get a record deal with Warner Brothers, and in 1971 debuted with its self-titled album that included the song “Willin’.” 

For a follow-up album the next year, the band’s “Sailin’ Shoes” put Little Feat on the map and began a string of career-defining popular recordings considered the “classic era” of the group. The album included a reworked, slower version of “Willin’” that most people are familiar with today and a rendition Payne preferred as the “most honest” and true to its roots arrangement.

“Sailin’ Shoes” also established the band’s eclectic sound mixing country, rock, New Orleans jazz, blues, and funk, thus making them hard to pigeonhole as a genre. And, California in the late 1960s, psychedelic rock played an influential role in Little Feat’s sound. They were one of the founders of the funky-jammy styles of some of today’s bands.

“The scene back then was when all that stuff was going (on),” said Payne. “Now its reborn with a whole lot of groups, and why not?”

And, yet, Little Feat is different from most.

“I think the thing that distinguishes Little Feat from a lot of bands is the fact that our music isn’t easy to play,” Payne said. “There are a lot of musicians who say, ‘Ah, man, I was learning your song.’ And I say, ‘It was harder than you thought?’ And they’d go, ‘Yeah.’ We weren’t doing that to throw anybody off, but it was just that we would detail stuff, which was rhythm changes.”

In 1973 — 50 years ago — Little Feat released “Dixie Chicken,” the album that really pulled all of the musical elements of the band onto one outstanding album and honed in to their sound. 

“That’s a very good point,” said Payne. “On our second album that we did, “‘Sailin’ Shoes,’ a lot of people thought that our sound was developed. That’s when Lowell took a more active role — the lead — in creating our music. By the time we did “Dixie Chicken” we had brought in three new players. In that sense, a sound was solidified by the inclusion of those three new players.”

On “Dixie Chicken,” the band members were expanding their scope of instrumentation. Lowell George began incorporating slide guitar. Bill Payne added a synthesizer while in the studio.

“I had never played a synthesizer before,” Payne recalled. “I had to learn how to create sounds. At first I thought, ‘I’m not sure if I like this or not.’ Not long after, Payne got the hang of the mini Moog and enjoyed in the creative process of soundwave manipulation. 

“Dixie Chicken” as an album was also a point where the band’s swamp boogie-meets-blues vibe came into play as a nod to New Orleans culture.

Payne and George were influenced by Crescent City blues thanks to a short lived blues club in Los Angeles. That’s where Payne met Taj Mahal for the first time, and a whole cast of musicians passing through town from the Big Easy. 

“That’s what began to perk our ears as to what New Orleans was,” said Payne.  

Little Feat’s “Boogie Your Spring Away” Tour will include the group’s popular tunes as well as deep cuts. 

Little Feat now features Bill Payne (keyboards, vocals), Kenny Gradney (bass), Sam Clayton (percussion and vocals), Fred Tackett (guitars and vocals), Scott Sharrard (guitars and vocals), and Tony Leone (drums).


Little Feat

April 24

Sandler Center