Under the leadership of Lowell George (1945-1979), Little Feat were the “band’s band” of the ‘70s. They were admired by such superstars as Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and Eric Clapton, but the esteem did not translate into chart-topping sales. To be honest, I had long ago given up on seeing a Little Feat book, as it seemed their time had come and gone. Yet at the end of 2013, here it is – Willin’: The Story of Little Feat by Ben Fong-Torres.
Fong-Torres was the perfect choice for this book. He was on staff at Rolling Stone almost from the beginning, and was there during much of Little Feat’s first run. While he has a lot of respect for the band, he is also honest. This group had troubles, a lot of them caused by their leader’s turbulent lifestyle, and it definitely affected the music.
There are some great stories in this book. They may be well-known to Little Feat fanatics, or “Featfans” as they call themselves, but not to the general public. Before forming Little Feat, or even his stint with Frank Zappa, George was in a band called Factory, who appeared on the ’60s sitcom F Troop as “The Bedbugs.” This was in 1967, and they were also on an episode of Gomer Pyle, USMC that year. Another one that really caught my attention was the time that the Stones came to see Little Feat, and asked to join them onstage. Lowell George said no.
As the author puts it in the Prologue: “The story if Little Feat is the story of Lowell George – that’s not in dispute.” Be that as it may, he does address the re-formed Little Feat, who have been a going concern since 1987. There is also plenty of discussion about the other members of the group, as Little Feat were a band, not a solo show.
In essence, this boils down to the six studio albums released during George’s life. What we see is a very talented man who was “there” for the first three, and progressively less involved as the decade wore on. Towards the end of his life, George was described as being “overworked and overtired,” and his drug intake certainly did not help. He spread himself way too thin with production duties for other artists, a penchant for partying, and work on his solo album Thanks, I’ll Eat it Here (1979) in addition to his Little Feat duties. Something had to give, and it was his heart, when he was just 34 years old.
Little Feat’s Waiting For Columbus (1978) is considered by many to be one of the greatest live albums ever released, but questions about post-concert overdubbing have always dogged it. Fong-Torres shows this to be mostly myth, there were a few, but not nearly the amount that was previously assumed.
Down on the Farm was the album the band were working on when their leader died, and it was released posthumously. After the release of an anthology titled Hoy-Hoy (1981), Little Feat seemed over. Then in 1987 they got back together, with a vocalist by the name of Craig Fuller. Their Let It Roll album was a big hit, bigger out of the box than any of their previous records, which was a huge surprise.
The final two chapters of Willin’ document the events of Little Feat since Let It Roll. They had a female singer by the name of Shaun Murphy for a time, and Lowell George’s daughter Inara George appeared with them for some songs on the Live From Neon Park (1996) live recording. Much of their latter-day activity has been fanned by the fans, with the ‘zine FeatPrints, and online sites.
In the prologue, Fong-Torres mentions that his book would probably not exist without the efforts of these hardcore Featfans, so we owe them a debt of gratitude in that regard. Little Feat were a cult band in the best sense, and left behind some amazing music. Just listen to the live version of “Time Loves A Hero” from Waiting For Columbus for one small example. Those harmonies are absolutely gorgeous. Listen to the whole album really – and read the book. It is the way I spent a cold Pacific Northwest Saturday recently, and it was marvelous.
It is a sad fact that millions of people know about the Dixie Chicks, but only a fraction have ever heard Little Feat’s Dixie Chicken (1973). Willin’ is not going to change that, but for those of us who have been waiting for the definitive Little Feat book to come along, this is it.