A half century in, the freaky Heartland perseverance of the band’s eponymous debut still has us Willin’ to keep movin’
Is there another countercultural anthem that cuts to the indefatigable spirit of American perseverance quite like Little Feat’s “Willin’”?
Though the tune became a standard after being covered on Linda Ronstadt’s solo album, Heart Like a Wheel, in ‘74, it was written many years earlier by Little Feat founder and frontman Lowell George.
George was still running around California with Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention back then. The way he tells it, “Willin’” actually played a role in Zappa amicably encouraging his departure from The Mothers, encouraging George to start a new band that would become Little Feat.
By gathering some of his best creative collaborators from the past — along with a piano prodigy who would become the band’s longest running member and eventual leader— George set Little Feat on a journey that would continue to define the group’s melding of disparate American musical styles, cementing its status as an absolutely dynamite jam band throughout the ‘70s.
The genesis of Little Feat’s first record, Little Feat, is also a snapshot of the Topanga Canyon creative scene at the end of the ‘60s. But, like any classic American story, truth can often be obscured by conflicting accounts and foggy memories. Every detail in the story of Little Feat’s formation out there seems to read just a little bit differently, contradicted by various band members and people in their orbit during various interviews throughout the years.
AUDIO: Little Feat “Willin'” (first version)
The best parser of these anecdotes, tall tales and half truths is author Ben Fong-Torres, whose 2013 biography, Willin’: The Story of Little Feat presents conflicting accounts alongside fresh interviews and conjecture to more closely examine the discrepancies between fact and legend.
“From the research I’ve conducted for this book, I would resist calling Lowell George a fabricator of stories,” Fong-Torres writes early in Willin’. “But he contradicted himself on numerous occasions, sometimes giving two or three accounts of a single event. This may be because of memory loss, it may be because of drugs or alcohol, or he may have been having fun with a reporter.”
George grew up as a kid in the old Hollywood of the ‘40s. His dad, Willard, was known as the “furrier to the stars,” and as Lowell’s brother boasted, “Every movie from 1915 to ’57, he provided the furs.” Willard was also reportedly hunting buddies with W.C. Fields.
“The Georges lived just above Grauman’s Chinese Theater in the Santa Monica Mountains on Mulholland Drive between Laurel Canyon and Woodrow Wilson Drive,” Fong-Torres writes. “Although these are all familiar reference points to Angelenos now, back then they were nowhere, so the Georges were pioneers.”
Hence, Lowell George and his family were embedded in Laurel Canyon well before any folk rock scene ever existed, and George was exposed to all that was happening.
VIDEO: The Factory on F-Troop (1965)
In ‘65, George put together a garage band called The Factory, which included drummer Richie Hayward, who would go on to join the founding Little Feat lineup. After some time gigging on the Hollywood club circuit, The Factory caught the attention of Herb Cohen, a talent manager who was working with Frank Zappa. The band cut a few songs as a de facto audition for Cohen and Zappa, and while it didn’t result in a record deal, Cohen agreed to manage them. Zappa agreed to produce two of their songs, and thus began his relationship with George.
“By the latter part of 1967, according to most accounts, The Factory was no more,” writes Fong-Torres. The band’s rhythm section would go on to join the band Fraternity of Man and record, “Don’t Bogart Me,” which would become well known for its appearance on the Easy Rider soundtrack. Little Feat would later cover the tune and label it by its more common name, “Don’t Bogart That Joint” on their incredible 1978 live record, Waiting for Columbus.
In ‘68, George briefly took over for a stint as the lead vocalist in Boston’s The Standells, best known for their hit “(Love That) Dirty Water”. But it didn’t last long, and he didn’t make any recordings with the band.
The departure of vocalist Ray Collins from The Mothers of Invention in ‘68 created an opening, and Zappa thought of George, remembering George from his time producing The Factory. During a radio interview, George recalled the chaotic, confoundingly confrontational energy that The Mothers could conjure up among fans, remembering one particular incident that went down while playing at a Zappa show back at a girls colleague in Massachusetts:
“One guy stood up and said, ‘Fuck you, Frank Zappa’, and some other guy jumped up from across the hall and went, ‘You can’t say “fuck you, Frank Zappa!” . . . You can’t do that.’ And somebody else jumped up and said, ‘You wanna bet? He can say “fuck you” to anybody he wants to!’ There were . . . maybe three thousand people in this hall, and pretty soon the whole place was rocking with people saying ‘You can’t say “fuck you” . . . ’ And Frank turned around to me and said, ‘What do we do now? The show’s over. We did it already. This is what I was aiming at! This is what I wanted to happen!’”
While this interaction typified Zappa’s love of confrontational performance, it also summed up how much of a blur George’s time playing in The Mothers was. His work showed up randomly on three Mothers albums, most prominently on “Didja Get Any Onya?” from Weasels Ripped My Flesh, when George pretended to be a German border guard interviewing travelers crossing the border. Roy Estrada, The Mothers bassist who would eventually join Little Feat, also appeared prominently on that track.
AUDIO: Frank Zappa “Didja Get Any Onya?” (Full Version)
Eventually, Lowell’s freewheeling, indulgent lifestyle seemed too far apart from Zappa’s well-documented demands of sobriety and insistence that no one in his band get high, a ruling George attributed to Zappa being arrested early on in the history of The Mothers on suspicion of starting a riot.
“George, born and raised in and around Laurel Canyon, was pretty comfortable with the evolving culture of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll,” explains Fong-Torres. “He began to chafe under Zappa’s autocratic, demanding ways, and his distant demeanor. By May 1969, just about half a year after he’d signed on, he was on his way out.”
That exit is inexorably tied to the birth of Little Feat, and “Willin’” in particular. George’s tribute to the truckin’ lifestyle, “Willin’” and its signature chorus stuck out with George’s professing of being just fine with “weed, whites and wine.” And though Geroge intentionally avoided playing “Willin’” for Zappa, Zappa eventually heard it, too. “I was always smart enough not to submit it,” said Geroge. “But he did hear it once, and a few days later I was offered to start my own band, which was a nice way of firing me, I think.”
George and Zappa’s friendship didn’t stop there, though — in fact, Zappa asked George to help produce some tracks for the GTOs (Girls Together Outrageously), a performance project made up of groupies who he signed to one of the two labels Zappa formed with Warner Bros. GTO were part of Zappa’s ‘Bizarre’ label, and the other was ‘Straight’. Once George eventually wrangled together Hayward (who he played with in The Factory), Estrada (who he knew from his time in The Mothers), and an up-and-coming keyboardist named Bill Payne, Little Feat was born.
Depending on who you believe, there are multiple accounts of how Little Feat got their name.
The coolest story, which appeared in Warner Bros. press release for Little Feat, told that the name came from The Mothers’ drummer Jimmy Carl Black, who was backstage at a rehearsal with Geroge one night and joked with George, “You sure got little feet.” The way someone else tells it, the full line was, “you got really ugly little feet.”
“Rick Harper, the late road manager, said it happened at the Shrine Auditorium, at the end of a Mothers concert, when Black pointed to George’s feet and uttered, ‘Little Feet,’” writes Fong-Torres. “Harper took credit for spelling it F-E-A-T.”
George’s first wife, Patte Stahlbaum, remembered the origin differently:
“The band was over at Lowell’s and my house, and they didn’t have a name yet . . . and they were rehearsing and talking about stuff, and one of everybody’s good friends, because she was also the marijuana dealer, her name was Leslie Krasnow. And she looked at all of the guys at the time, and she said, ‘Wow, you guys all have such little feet.’ And Lowell said . . . ‘Little Feet. And we should spell it Little Feat.’”
While Zappa wanted Little Feat for his ‘Straight’ label, but Warner Bros. eventually signed the band to the general label, and Little Feat bagan recording its self-titled debut at United-Western Recorders on Sunset Boulevard. It was produced by Russ Titleman, who had never produced a record before. Estrada said that Titleman’s production was mainly moot, claiming “We produced it on our own. Russ was there with us . . . he never produced us.” Still, four of Titleman’s demos that he cut with George wound up being fleshed out into full tracks on Little Feat — “Truck Stop Girl,” “I’ve Been the One,” and “Crazy Captain Gunboat Willie,” and the legendary first studio version of “Willin’” with Ry Cooder on bottleneck slide guitar.
“Ry Cooder, who could play more than a little slide guitar and had by now worked with the Stones, Randy Newman, Arlo Guthrie, and others, was at Western,” explains Fong-Torres. “He was recording his own debut album for Warners, with Van Dyke Parks on keyboards and Richie Hayward doing some session work. Cooder agreed to help out.”
“So we’re doing ‘How Many More Years’ and ‘44 Blues,’” recalled Payne, “Ry’s out there, and Lowell says, ‘Fuck this, I’m gonna go out there and play.’ So he does, and he’s bleeding all over his guitar, but it was wonderful. It sounded great, and it was actually one of the high points of the record.”
Payne described the tension between Cooder’s slide chops and George’s slide chops as a bit of a Mexican standoff that gave the recordings a competitive edge. By the time the band was recording together for the first time, George had been playing slide for a few years. “Instead of the usual devices—the neck of a wine bottle, a length of tubing, or a medicine bottle—he used a spark plug puller,” writes Fong-Torres.
Payne also confessed that he wasn’t confident in the record Little Feat was recording at the time.
“I was so new to it, I wasn’t really sure, I thought because of all the mental turmoil that was going on, I thought, Oh my God, this is so chaotic,” he told Fong-Torres. “Russ and Lowell are at each other’s throats. There’s the Vietnam War going on, there are riots, Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were murdered. Those kind of things affect everyone, but they especially affect artists, because what do we share with people? What we’re going through, what are we writing about—so our music was all over the map for a lot of reasons because there was so much chaos in the air.”
You can hear the chaos seeming to manifest in the breakneck earnestness of the album’s production, when sharp lead lines often come in so hot that they threaten to derail the groove at any moment. There’s a seeming spontaneity to the mix, an adventurousness not wholly adjunct from Zappa’s production style. Because George considered Zappa a mentor, Fong-Torres suggests, he was also learning and absorbing how Zappa worked in the studio, then applying some of those skills and processes to the recording of Little Feat. The production choices give the Americana energy of Little Feat a decidedly weird, freaky coat of paint.
Titleman, by contrast, wanted Little Feat to sound like the work of The Band, who were his favorite group at the time. Because Titleman wanted things to sound straighter and safer, he and the band often butted heads. Splitting the difference, the tunes on Little Feat unfurl with a certain gonzo heartland spirit that’s not wholly unsimilar to The Band’s many sonic hallmarks, but nonetheless much stranger, much more surreal, and much more out of left field.
While Little Feat sold abysmally upon release in January ‘71, it was loved by heads and critics alike. The astounding level variety and fully-developed songcraft on display also let us roll on down the highway with the album’s other fantastic road songs besides “Willin’”, like “Truck Stop Girl” and the album’s lead single “Hamburger Midnight.” We hear George’s pathos haunting the band’s Howlin’ Wolf medley, “Forty-Four Blues / How Many More Years” with a genuine delivery of sorrow and weariness to which you can toe tap.
The words floating above those lush orchestrations on psych-gospel ballad “Brides of Jesus,” meanwhile, seem to tell the story of Saint Matthew the Evangelist lusting after nuns (or maybe the story of his martyrdom, when an Ethiopian King who resented Matthew had Matthew executed for rebuking him upon learning the king lusted after his daughter, who was a nun). If the latter is true, “Brides of Jesus” may just be a gritty American equivalent to the Italian Baroque master Caravaggio’s “The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew.”
AUDIO: Little Feat Live in Houston, TX, 1/14/71
While there are other Little Feat albums that get more love than the debut — especially ‘72’s Sailin’ Shoes and ‘73’s Dixie Chicken — it’s the self-titled debut that proves Little Feat were truly at the center of a Topanga Canyon rock scene in the throes of revolutionary transformation, reckoning with its past life of ‘60s psych and garage while diving headfirst into the coke-fueled, southern rock-heavy ‘70s. Little Feat documents this transition with a groovy, spark plug-fried set of songs.that carries over more than a few trace elements of absurdist magic from George and Estrada’s time in The Mothers.
Moving into a fuller rock sound on Sailin’ Shoes, and a NOLA-inspired funk/R&B groove on Dixie Chicken, Little Feat rolled each stylistic evolution together to become a truly beloved live band throughout the ‘70s.
Listening to the evolution of “Willin’” — from the sparse duet between George and Cooder that appears on Little Feat to the slightly lusher and more produced version on ‘72’s Sailin’ Shoes and the live cut on ‘78’s Waiting for Columbus — provides a good compass for charting the evolution of the band’s sound throughout the years. While the live rendition from that ‘78 release more closely resembles the Sailin’ Shoes’ studio cut, with its harmonies and slow down before the iconic “weed, whites and wine” line, the extra flourishes, breath and improvisations that each player adds also showcase how tight of a band Little Feat had become over the decade, eight members strong (not including the five-member Tower of Power horn section).
On all of Columbus, and Little Feat’s live take on “Willin’” in particular, you can hear the sound of a band telling its whole story all at once, often in one song, and it’s still breathtaking to revisit. It’s more breathtaking, still, to remember that it all grew out of the first, underappreciated Little Feat record.
George died of a heart attack brought on by his coke habit in June ‘79, less than a year after Columbus’ release, instantly turning the already incredible performances on that record into the sounds of legend. Little Feat would break up, then reform again in 1987 under various incarnations, with Payne acting as the band’s lone constant member and north star.
Payne has been a faithful steward of the Little Feat legacy, a powerhouse member when George was around who tastefully stepped into the limelight when they decided to reunite in ‘87 (amid the Dead’s first peak commercial period). These days, the modern jam band scene has embraced Little Feat and kept them going — jam band scion Pete Shapiro’s Fans store exclusively sells their merch, fans showed up for the bands annual frequent Jamaican fan excursions, and Phish covered Waiting for Columbus in full during one of their Halloween 2010 sets.
Though it was released half a century ago, I’ve been listening to “Willin’” often these days, inspired at its evocation of simple desires of an American traveler whose story is seldom told, the kind of trooper who carries the load of others on their back and remains content to get by with simple things in life, be they simple relationships or simple substances.
There’s a lesson there that seems particularly potent right now.
AUDIO: Little Feat (full album)