Payne and gain: Little Feat and big tales from keyboardist Bill Payne
The Aspen Times
There’s no one who can tell the story of Little Feat like Bill Payne. Payne was the keyboardist when the band was formed in Los Angeles, in 1969, and has witnessed all the group has been through: the making of classic albums, shifts in the membership and musical styles, surprising surges in popularity and disheartening deaths. With the death of drummer Richie Hayward in 2010, Payne is the only remaining member of the original lineup. But even Payne says he can’t give the definitive version of the Little Feat history.
Asked how Little Feat will be remembered, Payne brings up the time, in the mid-1960s, when Chinese Premiere Zhou Enlai was asked about the legacy of the French Revolution, which had occurred two centuries earlier.
“He said it was too early to tell,” Payne said from central California. “I feel that way about Little Feat. It’s a very convoluted story. So many people think, ‘Gosh, this is the way it went.’ And other people think, ‘No, it went this way.’”
The 64-year-old Payne should illuminate at least part of the story tonight, when he brings his show, “Tracing Footsteps,” to Carbondale’s PAC3. The show has Payne playing keyboards and singing, exhibiting his photography and sharing tales from the road. Also on board for the ride is Dennis McNally, who will share stories from another band with roots back to the ’60s, the Grateful Dead. McNally was the person given the task of handling the Dead’s press relations for years and is the author of the respected “A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead.”
Payne began focusing on photography about a dozen years ago and has built a catalogue notable for its breadth. There are landscapes, portraits, images of foreign cultures, architecture and more, captured in black and white and color.
The story of Little Feat is similar, touching a lot of bases. For a lot of people, the band’s place in history is fixed back in the ’70s, when singer-guitarist Lowell George was the central figure and the band was playing its signature brand of funky rock. But it was a decade after George’s 1978 death that Little Feat found its greatest commercial success, with the album “Let It Roll.” The group was firmly based in Los Angeles: George was born in Hollywood; Payne moved from Texas to Southern California as a 2-year-old; and several founding members came from the quintessential L.A. group, Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. But Little Feat’s sound, marked by slide guitar and songs like “Dixie Chicken” and “Oh Atlanta,” seemed to spring from deep in the South. The band was intensely masculine in both membership and lyrical content; witness the songs “Rocket in My Pocket” and “Fat Man in the Bathtub.” But in 1993, they added a female singer, Shaun Murphy, who was a prominent part of the group for 16 years. Little Feat was short on hit songs, but a good number of their tunes, most notably “Willin’” and “Dixie Chicken,” have become rock ‘n’ roll standards. “Waiting for Columbus,” from 1978, is still considered a high mark of the live concert recording; the jam band Phish covered the album in its entirety during their 2010 Halloween show. In a 1975 interview, Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page cited Little Feat as his favorite American band. Still, Little Feat might be known almost as much for their distinctive album covers, almost all of which were created by the late illustrator Neon Park.
“There’s no overriding story; it’s too complicated for that,” Payne, who lives in Montana, said.
Whatever ends up being the accepted story of Little Feat, Payne will be happy to be part of it. “Keith Richards told me, in Amsterdam in 1975, that the Rolling Stones had come en masse to see our band,” Payne recalled. “I went, ‘Wow we’re all part of the same club.’ That was something. I took that to heart.”
Proud as he is of his role in Little Feat, Payne makes it clear that the band does not represent all that he has accomplished. Much of the music he will perform tonight is from “Cielo Norte,” a 2005 solo album that spotlights Payne’s keyboard playing. For last year’s Little Feat album “Rooster Rag,” Payne teamed with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter on four songs. But the two co-wrote another 11 tunes, and Payne is determined to find a way to release the rest of that material. (That’s only a piece of the Grateful Dead/Little Feat connection: Lowell George produced the Dead’s 1978 album “Shakedown Street,” and members of Little Feat, including Payne, have put in time with Phil & Friends, the post-Dead project of Dead bassist Phil Lesh.)
And there are a long string of tales from the sideman work Payne has done. A short list of the people he has worked with includes Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Jimmy Buffett, Dr. John, Emmylou Harris, Beck and Bryan Adams. He played on Bob Seger’s “Hollywood Nights” and Melissa Manchester’s “Don’t Cry Out Loud.” It has been a busy life outside of Little Feat that has given Payne a bunch of stories — like the time he hung out with Barbra Streisand.
“That’s the kind of thing you can call up your mother and tell her, ‘Hey, guess what happened to me today,’” Payne said.
Which gets to the heart of Payne’s Tracing Footsteps show, which he took on tour through the Midwest last year and which has a string of dates across the country through June. Much of the evening is about storytelling. Payne spent only two years in his native Waco, but he believes it was long enough to instill in him the Texas tradition for sharing a tale. “There’s a lot of people there who are good at telling stories. I’m pretty good at it,” he said.
As a musician for more than half a century, Payne has found plenty of time to hone those skills. He brings up a recent recording date, in Los Angeles’ Henson Studios, with French singer Eddy Mitchell. Joining him over those two days were bassist Leland Sklar, guitarist Dean Parks, jazz drummer Peter Erskine and Fred Tackett, who has been a guitarist in Little Feat since 1987. Payne noted that when veteran musicians gather for such sessions, the time is occupied more by story-swapping than by music-making.
“What musicians do when they get together is play music, obviously. But we also tell all the stories,” Payne said. “And I’ve had a long life of having a front-row seat to a lot of musical history, in the studio, out of the studio, producing, writing songs. It’s a good story — a guy who’s been completely visible, but you really had no idea what he did. And I tend to tell stories to people anyway.”
A big part of Payne’s story is about the importance of artistic expression and what a life devoted to the arts can do for a soul.
“Igor Stravinsky one said, ‘I don’t create because I want to. I create because I have to,’” Payne said. “There’s something that’s got to come out. It’s an honest way to make a living and not the easiest way. But if you want to find out who you are as a human being, and who others are, and just connect, there’s a nice handshake that develops as you embrace an artistic field and a career. It’s about being inquisitive and involved.”
Payne is pleased that Little Feat focused more on artistry than commerce. A recurring theme of our conversation was that Little Feat’s history was clouded slightly because they were musicians, not pop stars whose every move was documented.
“We were known as a band of musician’s musicians,” Payne said. “But beyond that, too. People who were into eclectic things — arts, food, reading — a lot of those people gravitated toward Little Feat. I take pride in that.”
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