Why the second Little Feat LP still matters
We’re well past the point where Lowell George has been gone longer than he was alive.
His career was all too short, eight years from the release of Little Feat’s debut album until his death from a cocaine-induced heart attack in an Arlington, Virginia hotel room at the age of 34 while on tour for his first solo album.
In those eight years, the first full sign of what George and Little Feat would become was the album Sailin’ Shoes, released 50 years ago this past May.
Little Feat began in 1969 when, depending on the story, Frank Zappa either suggested to George that he was too good to remain a sideman or fired him for (A) suggesting the Mothers do “Willin'” with its drug references or (B) soloing too long onstage one night.
It started with George and pianist Bill Payne, who had become friendly with him while trying to get into the Mothers himself. They recruited drummer Richie Hayward. He’d been in George’s pre-Zappa band The Factory, as well as a member of Fraternity of Man, who’d had “Don’t Bogart That Joint” on the Easy Rider soundtrack.
The band went through numerous bass players in its first year, including future Little Feat guitarist/vocalist Paul Barrere, a high school friend of George’s.
“Paul goes, ‘I play guitar’ and Lowell said, ‘Well, there’s two less strings.’ Thanks, Lowell, ” a chuckling Payne told The Load Out podcast earlier this year.
Eventually, fellow Zappa alum Roy Estrada (more on him later) settled in.
Even if Zappa had fired George, he still thought enough of him to help him get a deal with Warner Brothers.
The band’s self-titled debut, released in January 1971 would utterly tank commercially, only selling around 11,000 copies initially. Although less loose and funky than Little Feat would later become, it had all the elements there, including George’s songwriting. While he had some co-writes with Payne that would be among the album’s highlights, “Willin'” – a sole composition — sat atop that list.
VIDEO: Little Feat performs “Willin'” in 1977
The weary truckers anthem became a standard, later covered by Linda Ronstadt, among others.
This was a point in time where there was still a chance where someone with an abysmal-selling debut could get a second chance.
Little Feat was pushing that, however. The combination of low sales and George’s falling out with producer Russ Titelman didn’t bode well. That might have been it, if not for Van Dyke Parks, then working as an A&R man at Warner Brothers, along with a few other champions at the label.
Titelman went on to produce Randy Newman throughout the rest of the ’70s, including the classic Sail Away, which also turned 50 in May. He’d eventually win Grammys for his work with Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton starting in the late 80s, but there’s no way Little Feat would work with him again.
Into the door stepped Ted Templeman, a one-time drummer for one-hit wonder Harpers Bizarre (“The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)”) turned A&R man for Warners. He quickly moved up from listening to demo tapes into producing. He produced a band from San Jose he’d discovered called the Doobie Brothers, as well as co-producing Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey.
It wasn’t just George who caught Templeman’s eye when he’d seen Little Feat live, it was Heyward.
“I used to go and watch their shows, ’cause I never quite heard a drummer play like Richie. It was just a killer, ” Templeman said in Ben Fong-Torres’s Willin: The Story of Little Feat. “And I wanted to produce them. I was a drummer myself, and when you hear a drummer like Richie, plus the tunes. I think I was assigned to it, but at Warners, nobody was assigned anything. ‘If you want it, fine.’ But I was jumpin’ at it ’cause I had been doing the Doobie Brothers and working with Van Morrison all at once. And these guys were monsters in terms of musicians.”
The band put the album together in late 1971, with one of its centerpieces being familiar. “Willin'” would get another chance, likely for a couple of reasons. One was that George had been unable to play the slide guitar on the debut version, having injured his hand working on a model airplane. So Ry Cooder came in to play the part. Not too shabby a guest star, but one couldn’t blame George, as talented as he also was, for wanting to play on it. One also couldn’t blame him and the band for thinking it deserved to be heard by more than 11,000 people.
The song had its origins from a day George, while still in the Mothers of Invention, was hanging out at Hayward’s house. Someone else there started talking about the “Three Wicked Ws” — weed, whites and wine. Hayward’s sister-in-law came in and noticed that one of the chairs had been warped by the rain. George realized there was a song in what he was hearing and he put them together with an instrumental he’d put together the day before.
The version on Sailin’ Shoes surpasses the original, utilizing the full band. Payne’s piano playing, along with Hayward’s deft drumming, fleshes it out. George’s vocal feels less tossed off than before, bringing out the hook while keeping it grounded in the reality of the ’70s 18-wheel operator’s life of the aforementioned weed, wine and “trucker’s pep pills.”
The label pushed George to come up with a song that had a chance to be a hit. His answer, with co-writer and former Factory bandmate Fred Kibbee, was “Easy to Slip”, a terrific country rock song (one begging to be revived by a cover by Jason Isbell or pick your own favorite artist who gets labeled as Americana these days). It’s a post-breakup song, one about wanting to get out of stasis — the memories of the relationship starting to fade, but the need to remember to forget is still there.
As was Little Feat’s luck for much of the George era, the single failed to chart. It fell by the wayside as releases from the same period like “Song Sung Blue”, “Lean on Me”, “Rocket Man” and “Alone Again (Naturally)” became big hits.
And the California-based band that took off would be the Eagles, who hit the singles charts for the first time the month after Sailin’ Shoes’ release with “Take It Easy”, the first of 18 Top 40 singles.
That’s 18 more than Little Feat would manage, but it wasn’t for lack of quality material. Not only was George coming into his own as a songwriter, the band was getting tighter, always dextrous enough to handle what he came up with.
Sailin’ Shoes is a definitive Little Feat sampler, touching bases on the styles and influences that fed them.
Being stuck in a crappy hotel (inspired by a surreal night in one next to Houston’s Astroworld theme park) without a woman or drugs gets set to the blues-via-the Stones strut of “Cold Cold Cold.”
“A Apolitical Blues” is even more straightforward, sounding all the world like it was meant to end the album as a closing time coda for bar patrons barely able to stand.
If the band wisely keeps a song like ‘A Apolitical Blues’ fairly short, one wishes they’d stretched out to jam more on the fast-paced gem “Teenage Nervous Breakdown” (as, say, a band like the Faces would have).
For a band led by two guys from the L.A. area, they enjoyed taking a musical (if not literal) tour to New Orleans for the title track. It is, go figure, a drug song, complete with imagery like the lady in a turban and the cocaine tree.
It, too, would get more notice with a cover version, as album rock stations turned the first three songs on Robert Palmer’s debut album — “Sailin’ Shoes” (with George and The Meters backing him), “Hey Julia” and “Sneakin’ Sally Thru the Alley)” into one extended piece that got airplay.
“Trouble” is another winning ballad that may not have had the hook of “Willin'”, but shows George could be an empathetic writer (“Well I’ll write a letter, and I’ll send it away/And put all the trouble in it you had today”).
While George was Little Feat’s center of gravity in his lifetime, even an album heavy in his credits like Sailin’ Shoes gets key contributions from others.
“Tripe Face Boogie”, co-written by Payne and Hayward, is a rollicking highlight that deservedly became a fixture at the band’s shows.
Payne also contributed the grooving, if overlong, “Got No Shadow” and sang on his “Cat Fever”, a good showcase for the piano skills that didn’t just make him a key component of Little Feat, but a respected session player.
The album marked the first time Neon Park, best known at the time for the cover of Zappa’s Weasels Ripped My Flesh, would do the cover art, as he would for every Little Feat album until his 1993 death from ALS.
It contains some of Park’s trademarks, starting with the nods to other art. Here, it’s a pair of paintings — Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s ‘The Swing’ and Thomas Gainsborough’s ‘The Blue Boy’ (with the titular subject’s head being replaced by Mick Jagger’s).
There’s also the surrealistic smuttiness, with the snail looking up, its head ever-so phallically pointing towards the feminized, anthropomorphic cake, right where a slice has been cut out.
Park’s unique style made his covers instantly identifiable and tied to the band, much as Roger Dean’s sci-fi landscapes did with Yes in the same decade.
Even with an improved batch of songs and a distinctive cover, Sailin’ Shoes didn’t become a hit.
The good news was that it sold more than the debut, enough for Warner Brothers to keep the band.
Sailin’ Shoes marked the end of this lineup for the band. Estrada would quit to join up with Captain Beefheart.
Thankfully, he never returned to Little Feat’s lineup, as he turned out to be just a monster. He was sent to prison in 1994 and again in 2012 for sexual abuse of children. He is now incarcerated in Texas, effectively for the rest of his life.
It wasn’t just addition by subtraction in terms of character. Little Feat’s peak era lineup would soon take shape with the addition of Barrere along with bassist Kenny Gradney and percussionist Sam Clayton, both of whom had played with Delaney & Bonnie.
Building on the foundations of Sailin’ Shoes, the new lineup would release Little Feat’s best album– Dixie Chicken — in 1973. But that’s a story for another time.
The group developed a reputation as a musicians’ band. Both Robert Plant and Jimmy Page revealed themselves as fans when interviewed by Cameron Crowe for Rolling Stone, with Page calling them “my favorite American group.”
As time went on, George would handle less of the songwriting. Barrere and Payne became more involved there, due to a combination of their growing confidence and the effects of the drug temptations of the ’70s on George especially.
There was a terrific live album that was the only Little Feat release to go platinum –Waiting for Columbus, in 1978.
It’s unknown what could have happened from there. Work had started on a new studio album, although George had disbanded the group during the sessions. He decided to finish off a solo album — Thanks, I’ll Eat It Here — to fulfill a contract he’d signed years earlier.
He told interviewer Bill Flanagan in the days before his death that his plans were to reform Little Feat, this time without Payne and Barrere. He claimed his desire to get the group’s sound back to where he wanted, to stop jazz fusion from creeping in.
It seems a little harsh in retrospect. It’s not like Little Feat was in danger of turning into Weather Report.
He also could have changed his mind. After all, the most fusion-like moment on Sailin’ Shoes happens during the album-closing “Texas Rose Cafe,” which he wrote.
With their leader gone, the surviving members cobbled together a version of that final album they’d started work on — Down on the Farm, complete with George’s contributions — before disbanding.
Those remaining members would reform the band in 1987, experiencing some success, including their most radio airplay ever, with Craig Fuller from Pure Prairie League as George’s first replacement. The group has continued in various forms ever since.
Little Feat kept its strong live rep intact from the George days. Still, even with the talents of all the other key players back, his wit and presence as a writer, player and idiosyncratic heart of the band always left a void.
Sailin’ Shoes remains the first statement in why that void exists in that first place — a statement of how good Little Feat was becoming.