[12 February 2014]
How do we measure a band’s success? For some, it’s all about the numbers. How many records did they sell? How many gold and platinum albums did they rack up? How much money did they make? But for music purists, the standard for success has always been a band’s influence on other musicians. Rock history is full of acts who by modern standards were not financially successful, but whose influence on other artists is profound.
In my opinion, the most under-appreciated, highly influential band was always Little Feat. They never had a single hit record and their music is never heard on the radio. While the music of Sixto Rodriguez, Ten Years After, Canned Heat, Son House, Montrose, Derek St. Holmes, Death, Haircut One Hundred, Billy Preston, Leon Russell, Moby Grape and Vashti Bunyan continues to stay alive through occasional radio play, word of mouth, YouTube, celebrity endorsements or just plain luck, the same cannot be said for Little Feat. As Ben Fong-Torres writes in Willin’: The Story of Little Feat, modern fans may think of Lowell George, the co-founder and principal singer of the band, “with hazy shades of respect, the way one might think of, say, Nick Drake, Syd Barrett, Alex Chilton, Brian Jones, Tim Hardin, Dino Valente, Laura Nyro, or, yes, Gram Parsons.”
And for no good reason, really. Lowell George and the music of Little Feat was and is timeless and while the band’s sound evolved and changed with the addition and subtraction of band members, their music – a heady mixture of pop, R&B, boogie, country, soul, funk and jazz – is rock ‘n’ roll. Finally, for the first time, we have a solid read about this band by one of rock’s greatest writers, Fong-Torres.
Willin’ starts out on an eerie note as Fong-Torres admits in the acknowledgements that due to the deaths of two of his siblings at the time, this was the hardest book he ever wrote, which coming from the veteran journalist and author of eight other books, almost seems an ominous warning. But that negatively is short lived because Fong-Torres, ever the professional, puts aside any of his own issues and focuses completing on the genesis of Little Feat in such great detail that casual readers may be put off by the intensity of writing. This is, for sure, a serious and detailed biography of a band that Fong-Torres clearly loves and admires and though he constantly battles through competing and conflicting stories and rumors, he puts them all the table to document the evolution of this American band.
So why was it so hard for me to enjoy this book? Unlike Fong-Torres’ other books which I have had the pleasure of reading—Not Fade Away: A Backstage Pass to 20 Years of Rock & Roll, Hickory Wind: The Life and Times of Gram Parsons and Eagles: Taking It to the Limit—Fong-Torres almost seems to be over his head with this book. It’s not that the subject matter is so far removed from what he has done for much of his life, rock journalism, but that what he set out to write and what manifests itself in the almost 300 pages are two very different things.
Willin’ seems at times to be more about the life and legacy of Lowell George and less about the band’s trajectory and continuing musical presence with co-founder, vocalist and keyboardist Bill Payne, who has been with the band since 1969 and vocalist and guitarist Paul Barrere, bassist Kenny Gradney, and percussionist Sam Clayton, who have all been members of Little Feat since 1972. While readin’ Willin’, I wondered aloud if the subtitle should have really been “The Story of Lowell George and Little Feat.
Regardless of the direction this book takes, its contribution to popular music is enormous. To think that this is the first real book on Little Feat is extraordinary, considering how long this band has been around. When we see an entire industry including publishers, presses and fans come together for yearly outpourings on the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead and Led Zeppelin, it seems such a cruel joke that no such industry exists for Little Feat, or as the author writes in the prologue, “Little Who?”.