He has been dead now for as long as he lived, 34 years, but Lowell George still casts a long shadow on rock ‘n’ roll. A guitarist in the Mothers of Invention, George was cast out in the nicest possible way, Frank Zappa telling him that it was time for him to get his own band after George wrote the country-rock standard “Willin’,” with its evocation of “weed, whites, and wine.” As Bill Payne, George’s keyboardist and longtime musical partner, recalls, “I think Frank was both impressed and put off by the song because of the drug reference. He was somewhat conservative on certain levels.”
George accepted Zappa’s invitation, at first playing countrified rock that, as he and Payne extended their reach, deepened into a kind of Southern-fried soul, and then country funk when, in time, they added players from New Orleans. George’s band roared and soared, but Little Feat never quite took flight into the commercial heights, though interpreters of their songs (notably Linda Ronstadt, who made “Willin’” her own) certainly did.
Ben Fong-Torres, the longtime Rolling Stone writer and chronicler of American music, likens George to Gram Parsons, of whom he also wrote a biography: “Gram never had a hit, either, but think of all the artists he’s influenced.” Certainly another band Fong-Torres has chronicled “found all the success that was denied to Parsons,” and denied to Little Feat as well—namely, The Eagles, beloved by some and reviled by others (not the least of them, as connoisseurs will know, Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski).
Little Feat, as Fong-Torres writes in Willin’, came out of the gate in 1969, led by George, who was a hot mess of a human being—probably bipolar, wedded to drugs and alcohol as self-medication, so fond of food that, as Fong-Torres notes, he was perhaps the only person in the world who could gain weight while being addicted to cocaine.
When George died in 1979, it was attributed to a heart attack. A band member, Fred Tackett, offers a twist. As he tells Fong-Torres, the band had stopped in for a pizza on the road from New York to Washington, one of Little Feat’s great strongholds—one pizza for the band, that is, and another one for George alone. “I’ll tell you what killed him: It was the pizza on the New Jersey Turnpike.” Adds Bonnie Raitt, George’s longtime friend and touring partner, “Nobody can carry that much weight and booze and smoke and stay that high without there being some kinda health implications.”
Human shortcomings aside, it was his brilliant musicianship and songwriting that set Lowell George apart, and it was his unfailing eye to spot musical genius in others that made Little Feat unlike any other band of the day or since. George was one of those rarities who could pick up an instrument—a flute, a horn, a sitar—and immediately figure out how to make sounds with it. Payne was a superbly gifted keyboard player and a solid songwriter as well, while drummer Richie Hayward was the heart of a rhythm section that had no serious rivals anywhere in rock and roll.
The band has endured for four decades without George, eventually adding (and then losing) Pure Prairie League founder Craig Fuller. Yet it was with George that they recorded their most memorable tunes, including “Oh Atlanta,” “Dixie Chicken,” “Cold Cold Cold,” and, of course, “Willin’.” That the band was able to make any kind of impression at all without ever hitting commercial success was thanks to disk jockeys, who, in the pioneering days of FM radio, were allowed to play whatever they wanted to. “A lot of those guys loved Little Feat,” says Fong-Torres. “In San Francisco, where I live, that was the case with the station called KSAN, where a woman named Bonnie Simmons played them all the time. That happened in Los Angeles, Baltimore, Washington, New Orleans, and Boston, too. It was enough to keep them going in the early days.”
Longtime fans of the band remember those glory years, and they have been agitating for decades now to see Little Feat inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an honor that continues to elude them. It’s been suggested, says Fong-Torres, that the band wasn’t “rock enough,” what with its forays into country, jazz, and blues—but, he adds, “look at Bobby Darin,” who was inducted 23 years ago. “He didn’t do any rock at all, and yet he’s there.” Fong-Torres argues that the band deserves at least a nomination, not just for the talents of George, Payne, Hayward, and the other members, but also because Little Feat has managed to endure and hold true to a purist musical vision for nearly 45 years now.
“There’s still a lot of attention being paid to the band,” says Fong-Torres. The group is on hiatus, but for the moment, we have an overstuffed discography, most of whose titles are still in print. And we have Ben Fong-Torres’ fine biography of Little Feat—with its large pizzas, huge appetites, and supersize talents—by which to remember Lowell George and company.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.