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Has it Been 28 Years Since the Rock and Roll Doctor Paid his Last House Call?

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Lowell George, Little Feat's front man and founder, passed away on June 29, 1979 and we all miss him and his nasty slide guitar. This writer had the good fortune to see the Fat Man play two nights at New York's famed Bottom Line only days before his fateful passing. Lowell was touring on his first and only solo effort Thanks I'll Eat it Here, a soulful compilation of songs that allowed Lowell to stretch his chops beyond the jazzy, keyboard jams Little Feat were experimenting with at the time (see i.e. "Red Streamliner" or "Day at the Dog Races").

He was a consummate show man and adored the band he tirelessly helped found. He had very little of that "ego" that plagued most rock stars and that was a quality about him that I found most satisfying. He was down to earth, earnest, funny and his performances highlighted this personality trait. He often told the story on stage about a time when he first met Howlin' Wolf. When Lowell finally got up the gumption and courage to introduce himself backstage to the R&B legend and offered him his guitar to play that evening, Wolf's curt response was: "….f#*k off kid!". Needless to say, the audience went nuts!!

His shows with Little Feat were nothing less than electrifying. He would sing a verse, back away from the mic and pull out a glass slide of some sort, and lean his body into a screeching jam that left little doubt about who was the pre eminent guitar player of his era. Then he would casually walk off stage to allow the band to kick it it another gear and then after 5 minutes or so, would scurry back and finish the song without missing a beat. Lowell was picked by Frank Zappa to be a member of the Mothers of Invention before he formed Little Feat. Just for grins, pick up Burnt Weeny Sandwich/Weasels Ripped My Flesh and listen for George's early guitar solos and be prepared to hear the trappings of what would become quintessential late 70's guitar driven rock and roll. What struck me most of Lowell's genius however was not only his guitar playing, but also his efforts at producing albums that embraced his musical universe before it was cool to be into reggae, cajun/creole zydeco, and straight rhythm and soul.

He produced the Grateful Dead's Shakedown Street and gave the Dead a real straight ahead rhythmic pulse that translated perfectly to their live shows. Little Feat also backed up early Robert Palmer albums such as Sneakin Sally Thru the Alley and the Jamaican tinged reggae offering Pressure Drop. All albums that travel way below the radar and sound as fresh and inspiring today as they did when they were recorded. It certainly is hard to miss someone who has been gone for as long as Lowell has – who left us with so little fanfare. Another casualty of the too much excess, too long on the road syndrome.

He was no icon but he did not need to be. He played music for himself and his fans and I am not ashamed to admit that I was one of them. His music came "Straight From the Heart" and it went straight into ours. I find it hard not to think of him and what could have been if only… and then I'll pop on a Bonnie Raitt CD and listen for that signature slide and just smile.

But what would probably make lowell happiest if he were here today would be a listen to his daughter, Inara George's new album The Bird and the Bee a breezy, cool, pop album that has a little of that early 60's psychedelic feel. Inara is relatively new on the music scene and I am sure if she just channels a little of that Waiting for Columbus mojo she'll do just fine. I am just not sure that I can wait any longer without hearing some of that down home country boogie beat Lowell made so well. And miss so bad.

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  • http://blogcritics.org Eric Olsen

    what a touching and lively memorial Dave, thanks so much! It is stunning to think Lowell has been gone so long. I too saw him not long before his death, his last Little Feat tour, and though he had grown REALLY large, his playing and singing were still sweet, thick, and tart. You didn’t much mention his songwriting, and at his best, his songs were up to the greatness of his guitar and voice. Thanks again Dave!

  • d alper

    Eric,
    Thanks for those kind words! I have a rather interesting aside in line with your “large” comment.
    I was sitting in the Bottom Line with my friends anticipating the second ‘late’ show of the evening and as it happened, Stanley Pepper, one of the Owner/Proprietors of the Bottom Line was standing directly behind me. My circle of friends were commenting on the 1st set, how great it was etc. and I turned to around to Mr. Pepper and mentioned that in my humble opinion Lowell “looked” unwell. He was a touch pale, maybe perhaps a symptom of his travel itinerary, and more importantly, his face, particularly around his ‘sinus’ area looked somewhat red and inflamed?(What did I know?) Mr. Peppers response was non committal and I left it at that. Moments later, the lights went down, Lowell walked onstage, and burst into Fatman in the Bathtub! The house went nuts, and upon completion of the tune Stanley gently tapped me on the shoulder and whispered…”so, does it SOUND like anythings the matter with him?” That was on June 26th 1979…
    And, yes i agree, his songwriting was poignant and insightful. The Feat canon just got better and better as they released album after album.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer/cristofer_gross Cristofer Gross

    Dave and Eric,

    Good to share your memories. I unfortunately missed ever seeing the band before Lowell died, but I owned all the lps and have seen the survivors, who it should be mentioned still put on a great show. (They happened to be coming to Southern California in less than two weeks.)

    The mention of Lowell pulling out his glass slide reminds me of the advisory about “Sears socket” for a socket wrench that Lowell tells between a couple cuts on Hoy Hoy. I had forgotten it was the anniversary yesterday, but “coinicidentally” had found that old lp near my turntable and had listened to it.

    I mentioned it the last time I saw someone write about Little Feat, but if you haven’t heard it, the song “Hanging on to the Good Times,” from “Let it Roll,” still works as a nice ode to Lowell, whether or not it really is meant to.

  • d alper

    Thanks Chris, will be sure to give a listen to Hoy Hoy, havn’t in a while. Just finished listening to Sailin Shoes and Dixie Chicken though. (Lafayette Railroad whew…..)

  • http://www.morethings.com/log Al Barger

    Brother Alper, this is a most righteous tribute, with considerable information that even such a connoisseur as myself did not know. Very good work.

    Suggested follow up: Put together and write up for us a mix CD of non-Little Feat Lowell George – from the Zappa and Robert Palmer and such. That’d be an outstanding public service.

  • SFC SKI

    I was fortunate enough to learn about Little Feat before Lowell George died, but far too young to see them in concert. Both Lowell George’s solo album and LF’s albums are still in heavy rotation in my house. Great mention of George’s production credits, Sneakin’ Sally Thru the Alley is one great album as well, with the Feat-funk coming out of every groove.

  • duffy

    If you’re a Lowell or Little Feat fan (but especially an LG fan) you absolutely must pick up the Hotcakes and Outtakes 4-CD box set. It retails for abt $50, but I picked it up at a used place for $42. Steep, I thought? Yeah, but it’s turned out to be the best $ I ever spent. The in-depth history of the band that comes with it is worth the $ alone. Oh, but that beautiful slide of Lowell’s – and that voice! I saw them in ’78… he was just a monstrous talent and it’s so sad he left us so early.

    Also consider picking up “Rock n Roll Doctor” by Mark Brend, a biography of Lowell available on Amazon. It’s a little lite, leaves you wanting more, but if you’re like me and can’t get enough Lowell or LF with Lowell, it’s mighty satisfying.