Little Feat’s Return a Big Step for Payne

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Times Staff Writer

For a long time, Bill Payne felt it was best to let Little Feat rest in peace.

In a career that spanned the ‘70s, the Los Angeles-based rock band built a respected legacy of versatility and sharp musicianship with a funky-bluesy Southern accent.

Payne was the keyboardist whose buoyant, easy-rolling New Orleans-style piano was a big part of the band’s signature sound. But the indispensable figure in Little Feat was Lowell George, who provided a distinctive, throaty lead voice and much of the band’s best songwriting, including such numbers as “Willin,’ ” “Dixie Chicken” and “Sailin’ Shoes.” When George died in 1979, Little Feat finished the album that was in progress and laid itself to rest.

The five surviving members dispersed to a variety of lower-profile ‘80s gigs. Payne, a popular studio sideman, played in James Taylor’s band for five years. Out on the road, he would meet Little Feat fans who wanted to know whether the band might return.


“I’d say, ‘No, we’ve done everything that Little Feat was supposed to do,’ ” Payne recalled last week as he chatted in a record company office about--you guessed it--the return of Little Feat. The band plays tonight at the Ventura Theatre in Ventura and opens for Jimmy Buffett Friday and Saturday at the Pacific Amphitheatre in Costa Mesa.

The idea that Little Feat might have a future as well as a past was planted about 2 1/2 years ago when the former bandmates regrouped for an informal jam session at a North Hollywood rehearsal studio. As the five alumni worked their way through a repertoire of songs they’d half-forgotten, “the energy was there. I walked out of there thinking of how much fun I’d had playing with Little Feat.”

Payne and the other former members--guitarist Paul Barrere, drummer Richie Hayward, bassist Kenny Gradney and percussionist Sam Clayton--decided that they were still willin’. They agreed to continue their independent musical pursuits while moving cautiously toward a Little Feat revival.

“The obvious question was, what do we do about filling a space that you can’t fill, which was Lowell George,” Payne said. He noted that a fair sampling of Little Feat’s staple repertoire, including “Oh, Atlanta,” “Tripe Face Boogie” and “Time Loves a Hero,” came from other members of the band. “We’re trying to replace somebody who can’t be replaced, but to think that everything was basically Lowell, I find it hard to swallow.”

Before he could go ahead with the plan to reform Little Feat, Payne went off on a long tour with Bob Seger, where he recruited another Seger sideman, guitarist Fred Tackett, for the Little Feat revival. Craig Fuller, formerly of Pure Prairie League and American Flyer, was brought in as lead singer.

After winning a new record deal with its old label, Warner Bros., Little Feat debuted in April at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. The band’s just-released comeback album, “Let It Roll,” is a hybrid of the old, down-home Little Feat style and a more polished, contemporary sound. The question now is whether Little Feat ’88 will be seen as a pallid repetition of a story already told. Payne is confident that with “Let It Roll,” and a tour that will carry through the fall, the band will show it has the right answers.


“Even though I was the one who put it together, I was one of the biggest doubters,” he said.

Payne doesn’t talk like a doubter now: “I love this album. I have too much respect for the legacy of this band to put us in a position to fail.”