Little Feat live 1977 with George center
Perfect Imperfection, Part IIIn addition to his work with Little Feat, George began to be in demand as a session player and producer on many recording projects by other artists. The extensive list of records that Lowell George lent his talents to is considerable. Among some of his finest work outside of Little Feat can be found on such albums by such artists as John Sebastian, John Cale, Bonnie Raitt, Van Dyke Parks, Robert Palmer, and Valerie Carter. Many of the musical elements that Lowell brought to these projects would later surface on his own solo album, Thanks I'll Eat It Here.
by JP Gelinas
Besides his appearances on albums by well known artists, George was fond of being a mentor to many young musicians who were just starting out in the business. He would frequently use his considerable reputation to help these fledgling musicians get their first break. One such example of this is his support of Ricki Lee Jones during the early stages of her career. George graciously recorded a cover version of her song "Easy Money" in an effort to get her signed to the Warner Brothers label. Another case of this type of mentorship can be found in his active involvement on Valerie Carter's 1977 album, Just A Stone's Throw Away. Carter, largely unknown in the business at the time, was impressed with the extensive work George did on her record. George co-wrote four songs ("Heartache," "Face Of Appalachia," "Cowboy Angel" and "Back To Blue Some More") as well as co-producing several tracks. This type of generous behavior on the part of Lowell George became legendary among the Los Angeles musical community.
Sometime in early 1972, bassist Roy Estrada, frustrated by the band's lack of commercial success, left Little Feat and returned to the Mothers of Invention. For a time, George busied himself with session work on Van Dyke Parks' calypso infused album, Discover America. As these sessions wound down, Lowell began to consider the musical direction of Little Feat. In a bold move, George essentially re-invented the sound of Little Feat by adding three new members; Kenny Gradney (bass), Sam Clayton (percussion) and Paul Barrere (guitar). Gradney and Clayton joined with drummer Richie Hayward to become one of the most renowned rhythm sections in rock & roll and gave the new line-up a funky sound that recalled the great New Orleans band, The Meters. It is the addition of Paul Barrere, though, that gave the band more depth as his presence on rhythm guitar allowed Lowell George to concentrate on his developing slide guitar technique. This line-up of Little Feat would remain in place until Lowell George's death in 1979.
In late 1972, the restructured line-up released its first album. Along with expanding the band's creative boundaries by adding some new members, George somehow talked his record label into letting him produce Dixie Chicken. The record broke new ground with its mélange of swamp funk, acoustic balladry, country and jazz sounds. The album's title cut, a George/Kibbee song which features a convoluted tale of drunken misadventure, and the humorous "Fatman in the Bathtub" still stand as some of Little Feat's best recorded works. The Dixie Chicken album became a turning point for the band as a newfound assuredness in the studio inspired an increased confidence on stage.
Along with his touring commitments with Little Feat, George began to increase his session work. Around this time he appeared on albums by the soul singer Kathy Dalton and former Velvet Underground member, John Cale. Cale's album, Paris 1919, uses George's talents on acoustic and slide guitar to great effect.
With the increased success of Little Feat as a touring band, Lowell George began to experience personal difficulties as he began to depend on liquor and drugs to help him deal with the pressure of being the bandleader, head songwriter, record producer as well as lead singer of Little Feat. His lifestyle was also beginning to impact his relationship with the band. In Rock & Roll Doctor, Mark Brend describes George's growing inability to deal with the creative compromises he was forced to make within the framework of the newly expanded band line-up, "The consequences of his desire to collaborate and his restlessly creative nature can also be seen in the circumstances surrounding Little Feat at this time. The expanded line-up that George had put together as a means to develop creatively ultimately proved to be his undoing. He needed collaborators… and they had to be of a high standard of musical ability. But he only wanted collaboration up to a point, because he also wanted ultimate control. Yet players as talented as Barrere and Payne were never going to be content with being sidemen to a dominant figure… Eventually the collective weight of opinion in the band was to turn against George."
During 1974, after the Dixie Chicken album experienced poor record sales, Little Feat broke up for a brief period. George suggested that the band members go their separate ways and pursue session work until he could renegotiate a better contract with Warner Brothers. One of the projects that Lowell was involved with at this time was his participation in the recording of the Mike Auldridge album, Bluegrass & Blues (1974, Takoma Records). Auldridge, an accomplished dobro player, impressed George with his slide technique. Elements of bluegrass music that recalled these recording sessions would later surface on Thanks I'll Eat It Here. During this hiatus from Little Feat, George also contributed his musical and production talents to Bonnie Raitt's Takin' My Time and John Sebastian's Tarzana Kid. His work on Sebastian's record, particularly on the track "The Face of Appalachia" which he co-wrote with Sebastian, is comparable to the quality of his best Little Feat work
During this same period, Bill Payne landed a gig with the Doobie Brothers and Lowell, along with several of the other members of Little Feat, journeyed down to New Orleans where they were involved in the recording of British R&B singer Robert Palmer's Sneakin' Sally Through The Alley album. Lowell's exposure to the musical culture of the Big Easy would quickly emerge as a primary influence on Little Feat's fourth album, Feets Don't Fail Me Now; a record that extends the funky groove of the Dixie Chicken album as the band conjures up such syncopated classics as "Spanish Moon," "Skin it Back," and the title track. The real highlight of the album is "Rock & Roll Doctor," a George/Kibbee song that delivers a dynamic Lowell George vocal performance that employs a feverish call and response gospel technique as George's slide guitar is coupled to great effect with the second line rhythms of New Orleans.
As much as Dixie Chicken and Feets Don't Fail Me Now established a new direction for the band, 1975's The Last Record Album found George struggling to produce a piece of commercially viable product. While the trademark Little Feat sound is present, many of the tracks seem to reflect the growing obsessive behavior that Lowell was exhibiting in these all-night recording sessions as he searched for sounds that would produce the perfect hit record. Also noticeable is the increased songwriting and vocalizing by both Paul Barrere and Bill Payne. In his book, Mark Brend presents a clear picture of the situation, "George's artistic energy declined and, crucially, his ability to write great songs seems to have greatly diminished. Within another year, Lowell George would no longer be the leader of Little Feat." Another example of George's growing obsessive behavior in the recording studio is the sound of The Last Record Album, which has a tight, compressed quality about it that hints at Lowell's penchant for endless overdubbing tracks in search of perfection. The album's best moment occurs when George delivers his poignant ballad, "Long Distance Love" which features the singer ruminating on the rigors of touring and the damage that the lifestyle of a working musician can imprint on personal relationships.
George's daily use of drugs and alcohol finally caught up with him in 1978 when he contracted hepatitis and was not able to attend the band's initial recording sessions for Time Loves A Hero. With the recording sessions in shambles, Payne and Barrere called in Ted Templeton, who had previously handled the production duties on the band's second record, Sailin' Shoes, to replace George as the album's producer. Templeton, in The Little Feat Saga, explains some of the problems George was having during these recording sessions, "Lowell kind of distanced himself on that record... When we did 'Rocket in my Pocket'... it came time for the solo, he called and said, 'I can't do it today. I'm sleeping in.' So I called Bonnie Raitt and she came down and played a fucking killer solo. So I called Lowell and said 'Listen to this. What do you think? Doesn't this burn?' He actually got out of bed and came down and played the solo..." Incidents like this give further evidence to the dangerous impact that Lowell's lifestyle was having on his ability to make music.
Although George does indeed bring this record to life with his only solo songwriting contribution, "Rocket in My Pocket," Time Loves A Hero is devoid of the engaging musicality that characterized every other Little Feat album up to this point. One track, "Day At The Dog Races," revealed the artistic chasm that had developed between Lowell George and the rest of the band. The song is primarily based in the style of the mid-seventies jazz fusion band, Return To Forever. In The Little Feat Saga, producer Ted Templeton describes Lowell's reaction to this departure from the band's trademark sound, "Lowell was a little upset. He said, 'What is this, fucking Weather Report?'" Upon its release, Time Loves A Hero was considered by the press and public alike to be a major disappointment.
Little Feat's musical credibility was restored somewhat with the 1978 release of the band's first official live album, Waiting For Columbus which saw George restored to his role as the band's producer. The album does an excellent job of capturing the onstage improvisational interplay that characterized many of Little Feat's best concerts. George, in particular, brings a renewed sense of energy to his singing and playing. Little Feat's first live album also produced the first credible record sales of the band's career. For the moment, Waiting For Columbus provided a sense of vindication for Lowell George.
George maintained an extremely busy schedule towards the end of 1978. Besides touring with Little Feat, he was involved in production work on his first solo album as well as producing sessions for Shakedown Street, the next album by the venerable San Francisco jam band, The Grateful Dead. Working with The Dead should have been a window of opportunity for George to establish a more viable musical identity outside of Little Feat and yet the record reeks of mediocrity. Sadly, Shakedown Street stands as one of the worst albums ever released by The Grateful Dead. In Rock & Roll Doctor, Brend explains that, "Although things started well, the project ran out of steam after a few weeks and George withdrew from the sessions before the album was finished. Explanations for this were not forthcoming but no doubt George's perfectionism was at odds with the laidback Grateful Dead approach." I have had the opportunity to hear an outtake of the "Good Lovin" track from this album which surprisingly features Lowell George singing the lead vocal part. His voice is extremely energetic on this version and the contrast between this outtake and the version featuring the weaker vocals of Bob Weir, Jerry Garcia and company that was eventually released is stunning, to say the least. The "Good Lovin" outtake hints at just how good this project could have been had if George had managed to summon the needed energy to finish the production. It was a clear indication that his years of substance abuse had finally begun to impact his musical judgment as a producer and musician. The only positive thing that Lowell seemed to take away from this project was "Six Feet of Snow," a sprightly country tune he co-wrote with Keith Godchaux, keyboard player for The Dead. This song would make an appearance on George's last album with Little Feat, Down On The Farm.
While much of the rancor between Lowell George and the rest of Little Feat had temporarily subsided due to the success of Waiting For Columbus, work on the next album reawakened some of the problems the band had been having during the production of Time Loves A Hero. George would waste countless hours of expensive studio time doing endless retakes of the same material as he drove everybody crazy with his obsessive behavior, always searching for a perfect take. Suddenly, in the midst of the chaotic recording sessions, George lost all interest in working on Down On The Farm. Instead, he turned his attention to finishing Thanks I'll Eat It Here. This infuriated the rest of the band and a permanent split within Little Feat seemed imminent. Down On The Farm would end up being released shortly after the death of Lowell George.
Thanks I'll Eat It Here was a project that Lowell had dabbled with, off and on, since 1975. The current problems he was having with Little Feat seemed to provide George with the impetus to complete this long awaited album. While George's solo record is often dismissed as an incomplete album that suffers from an overabundance of divergent styles of music, I personally find that it offers up the most intimate portrait of Lowell George's true musical personality on record. Lowell's debut solo record presents a heady mixture of soul, country, folk, mariachi band music and the familiar swamp funk of Little Feat, backed up by Bonnie Raitt and the cream of the 70's studio musicians crop (Nicky Hopkins, Jim Keltner). His masterful vocal work on the blue-eyed soul songs, "What Do You Want The Girl To Do" and "I Can't Stand The Rain," stands as the most accomplished singing of his career. The serene acoustic ballad, "20 Million Things To Do," recalls the elegant "Long Distance Love" from The Last Record Album and shows that Lowell still had some substantial music left in him.
In an effort to promote the album, Lowell embarked on a small U.S. tour. I was fortunate enough to catch one of these shows at The Bottom Line in New York. Despite whatever problems Lowell George had been dealing with as a songwriter and record producer, Lowell George's live show was filled with an urgent energy and charisma that had been missing from the recent Little Feat shows that I'd witnessed. I noticed that his vocal work had taken on a slightly smoother quality and his passionate phrasing seemed very precise; almost as if a great deal of thought had gone into thinking about exactly how these new songs should be sung. The only element that seemed to be missing was a sense of camaraderie between George and his band, which was largely made up of L.A. session players. At the end of this show, as George returned to the stage for the final encore he intoned, "This is the only other song we know…" as the band went into a version of "Lafayette Railroad," an instrumental off of the Dixie Chicken album. It was indeed a transcendent moment as the sound of Lowell's mournful slide guitar filled the room. On June 29, 1979, while on a tour stop in Washington D.C., Lowell George died from a heart attack after staying up all night while working on a tape for an upcoming radio show to promote his solo record.
The news of Lowell George's death at the age of 34 brought forth a flood of tributes from the musical community. Bonnie Raitt referred to Lowell as the "Thelonious Monk of Rock & Roll." Neon Park evaluated his old friend's music by saying, "The thing that showed in his music: building networks of supreme logic then inserting key moments of insanity." Martin Kibbee, in Scoppa's biography, summed up Lowell's unique contribution to music, "Perhaps the most important thing Lowell achieved was a seamless blend of his Hollywood/white-boy irony with a totally black musical sensibility."
Shortly after George's death, Warner Brothers released Down On The Farm. While the record has an overall unfinished quality about it, are a few bright moments that recall Lowell's finest moments. As on Thanks I'll Eat It Here, his vocal work seems to achieve new heights of sophistication, particularly on the tracks "Perfect Imperfection," "Front Page News," "Be One Now" and "Six Feet Of Snow". His work on these songs, along with the material from his solo record, provide us with a brief glimpse of where his music was headed; a mature synthesis of country, blues and soul.
In the years after George's death, many archival recordings have been released by Little Feat. The best of these can be found on the 1981 collection, Hoy Hoy, and the box set, Hotcakes & Outtakes: 30 Years Of Little Feat.
As a final absurd word on Lowell George, I'll turn to guitarist Fred Tackett, who was part of George's backing band on the Thanks I'll Eat It Here tour and is presently a member of the present day line-up of Little Feat. In The Little Feat Saga, he recalls one night on the solo tour shortly before George's death, "We were driving down the New Jersey Turnpike in this bus and we stopped at this pizza joint off the highway. Everybody in the band shared a cheese pizza but Lowell bought a large pizza with everything on it, carried it to the back of the bus, and he ate the entire pizza by himself. He died two or three days later. So, when people ask me, 'What really killed Lowell?' I say, 'It was a pizza on the New Jersey Turnpike.'"
ED NOTE: Little Feet will release their new Join The Band CD on August 26, 2008.
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