Willin': The Story of Little Feat By Ben Fong-Torres Da Capo Press, 296 pp., $26.99.
As a band, their music was beloved and respected by a wide array of artists from Eric Clapton, Robert Plant and Linda Ronstadt to the Marshall Tucker Band, Bonnie Raitt and Jimmy Buffett.
But the musical mad doctors in Little Feat, supposedly named for founder/singer/guitarist's Lowell George's own smallish appendages, never saw that critical acclaim translate into commercial success. The band never had a hit single, and the peak of their vinyl notoriety came with the 1978 live (but mostly overdubbed) double record Waiting for Columbus
And even then, that effort was released as the band was disintegrating and a year before from George's death from a heart attack, likely brought on by a combination of obesity and rampant substance abuse.
George and his career with the band has been the subject of a previous book -- Rock and Roll Doctor by Mark Brend -- but in this book, former Rolling Stone scribe and music journalist Fong-Torres digs deep with many new, original interviews with band members (including original bassist Roy Estrada, interviewed from a Texas prison where he is currently serving time on a child sex conviction), former lovers, high-profile fans, and '70s scenesters.
It brings into focus a band seemingly always on the verge of breaking up, with competing musical egos and talents: in addition to George, guitarist Paul Barrere and keyboardist Billy Payne also wrote and sang.
And yet, Little Feat's mixture of rock, R&B, country, jazz, soul and funk was utterly unique on records like Sailin' Shoes, Dixie Chicken, Feats Don't Fail Me Now, and Times Loves a Hero.
While they enjoyed being word-of-mouth favorites of other musicians and discerning fans, Little Feat did crave wider success. To promote the Dixie Chicken record, the band took to visiting radio stations around the country in costume with George in a chicken suit (Barrere would wear the head) and bringing buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken with their own modified labels to DJs.
But Willin' is also the story of the often self-destructive tendencies of Lowell George in many areas of his life, including romantic adventures. His charm was so great that he managed to have relationships (extramarital and otherwise) with women including Raitt, Ronstadt and Rickie Lee Jones.
In one incident Fong-Torres recalls, Ronstadt opens her front door one morning to find George's wife, Liz, looking for him. Having not bothered to tell Ronstadt that he was actually married, a hung-over, bleary George opened his eyes to see two not-very-happy women hovering over him and -- not remembering which house he was at -- casually asked Liz to make coffee.
Lowell, you have some 'splainin to do.
Story continues on the next page.
Houston holds a special place in the band's memory as the first city whose ladies, um, took a shine to the band on the second week of their first national tour. Accommodating Bayou City groupies are given tribute in the songs "Texas Rose Café" and "Tripe Face Boogie." Even decades later, in my 2002 interview with Payne prior to a show here, he was waxing fondly about the group known as the "Houston Welcoming Committee."
Bassist Kenny Gradney also lived in Houston briefly, including after the KKK purportedly railroaded his father out of town in the 1940s.
The book also chronicles the reformation of the band in 1987 and subsequent career under the leadership of Barrere and Payne, initially with singer/guitarist Craig Fuller filling George's (despite the band's name) sizable shoes.
Also, female singer Shaun Murphy's later stint with the group which -- as recounted candidly in the book -- was not a wholly appreciated move, even among some band members. It's the book's biggest surprise revelation.
Willin' ends in 2013, with the group on something of an indefinite hiatus after the 2010 death of drummer Richie Hayward and the recent health challenges of Barrere (though their Web site lists two dates in Jamaica in 2014). Various members also play solo and guest spots with other groups.
But even if the band never mounts another tour or records another track, the story and music of Little Feat are due for reevaluation among classic-rock fans, and Willin' is a big step in that direction -- with or without weed, whites, and wine.
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