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The Story Of Little Feat's Fame, Destruction And Revival


This is FRESH AIR. Our rock historian Ed Ward describes Little Feat as the archetypal '70s band. They had a charismatic front man who was a guitar virtuoso. They wrote wonderful songs and they had an influence far in excess of their record sales. They also had awful luck - drug problems and kept breaking up. With the release of a box of all of their Warner Bros. recordings called "Rad Gumbo," Ed tells their story.


LITTLE FEAT: (Singing) Lord it's me and my soul.

ED WARD, BYLINE: If there's anything I did during my brief tenure at Rolling Stone that I'm proud of, it's rescuing Little Feat. During the summer of 1970, there were very few albums out there that I or any of my writers wanted to cover. In one week, I took home a stack of 45s and wrote about them instead. One of them in particular grabbed me right off.


LITTLE FEAT: (Singing) Ripped off and run out of town, had my guitar burned when I was clowning. Haven't slept in a bed for a week. And my shoes feel like they're part of my feet - let me come down - where I won't be a bother to no one - let me unwind - please give me a hole to recline in. Knocked on my friend's door in Moody, Texas, and asked if he had a place for me. His hair was cut off and he was wearing a suit. He said not in my house, no, not in my house. He looked like a part of a conspiracy.

WARD: The record was called "Strawberry Flats" - a slab of out-and-out paranoia set to a nervous backing and the band was called Little Feat. All I could figure out by reading the label was that ex-"Mother Of Invention" Roy Estrada was a member. And I wrote that I hoped an album was in the works. Right off, I got a call from the press guy at Warners - do you really think they're that good, he asked? Adding that he hadn't listened to it. I told him he should. And he said they'd been signed to make the single as a favor to someone and then hung up to check if the option had been picked up. It soon was. And earlier the next year, an album appeared. I loved it - needless to say, it stiffed. But back in those days, record companies stuck by artists they liked. And the "Feat" got a second album in 1972 - "Sailin' Shoes." By now, we knew a little more about them - guitarist Lowell George had had a band - "The Fraternity Of Man" with keyboardist Billy Payne and drummer Richie Hayward who's in an earlier band - "The Factory." Despite a bunch of good songs and a cover by painter Neon Park, the album stiffed again and Estrada quit. It took two guys to replace him, but the lineup had finally stabilized.


WARD: Richie Hayward, drums. Sam Clayton, percussion.


WARD: Paul Barrere, guitar, Kenny Gradney, bass.


WARD: Bill Payne, keyboards, Lowell George, guitar. They made another album filled with great songs, "Dixie Chicken..."


LITTLE FEAT: (Singing) I've seen the bright lights of Memphis and the Commodore Hotel. And underneath a street lamp, I met a Southern Belle. Well, she took me to the river where she cast her spell. And in that southern moonlight, she sang the song so well. If you'll be my dixie chicken, I'll be your Tennessee lamb. And we can walk together down in Dixieland, down in Dixieland.

WARD: And then they broke up again. Late in 1974, Warner's paid them to reform and make another album. "Feats Don't Fail Me Now" was their breakthrough. It got them a gold record and a European tour. And after they returned, they got to work on the next one - "The Last Record Album." It was another hit.


LITTLE FEAT: (Singing) I've been down, but not like this before. Can't be around this kind of show no more. All, all that you dream comes through shining silver lining. Clouds, clouds change of scene. Rain starts washing, all those cautions right into your life. Just stop and realize just what is true. What else can you do? Just follow the rules and keep your eyes on the road that's ahead of you.

WARD: Lowell George's love of injectable drugs was an open secret by now, although he managed to make it through the recording sessions with a case of hepatitis. The next album, "Time Loves A Hero" had only one song for him though. The rest of the band was learning to work around him. And Barrere and Payne were writing great songs.


LITTLE FEAT: (Singing) Now some people are saying that I'm crazy because my real name is just Jesse James. Well, I left them half-crocked, hard-knock to Black Rock County just to ride on that New Delhi train. I'm riding on that New Delhi Freight Train. I'm riding on that New Delhi line. I'm riding on that New Delhi Freight Train and I left my love behind, left my love behind.

WARD: In August 1977, the band took a pile of live recordings from the Rainbow Theatre in London and the Lisner Auditorium in Washington, D.C., and compiled probably the best live album of the decade - "Waiting For Columbus." Some of Lowell George's vocals and guitar parts had to be overdubbed, but the rest of the band and the crowd response sure wasn't. It too went gold and then platinum. It didn't surprise anyone then that early in 1979, Bill Payne announced that Little Feat was over. Lowell recorded a solo album - "Thanks, I'll Eat It Here"- and went on tour with it. On June 29th after a sold-out show at the Lisner in Washington, Lowell was found dead in his hotel room at the age of 34 of a heart attack brought on by drugs. The band reformed in 1987 and has existed in various configurations since then. Neon Park, whose real name was Marty Muller, died in 1993 and Richie Hayward died of liver cancer in 2010. But Little Feat continues to inspire young musicians and their records continue to sell.

GROSS: Rock historian Ed Ward lives in Austin. The Little Feat box set is called "Rad Gumbo: The complete Warner Bros. Years 1971-1990. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ed Ward is the rock-and-roll historian on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
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