Folk | Americana
Bill Payne of Little Feat
For the past four decades, Bill Payne has spent more time on the road, in studios, and working with rock n’ roll hall of famers than most of that rare group of musicians who can pay the bills with their talent and endurance. He’s one of rock’s most talented keyboardists, a legitimate legend among peers. A founding member of Little Feat, he’s appeared on hundreds of studio albums and toured with the likes of Jimmy Buffet, James Taylor, and the Doobie Brothers. Most people in the music industry or familiar with rock’s meaningful past know this amazing musician’s songs and recognize his chops instantly. Countless musicians have shared time with him in the studio or onstage. More would like to, because he makes most musicians better. Born in Waco, Texas, on March 12, 1949, he was raised in Ventura, California, where he began his journey as a musician from the comfort of his Mom’s lap in front of an old upright piano down in the basement. By the time he was five, he was taking classical lessons with music teacher Ruth Newman. He continued for 10 years, fueled by a growing desire to interpret, play and create music. Then he took off on his own, playing in garage bands and strengthening his skills. As Bill learned to master those black-and-white keys, he also was broadening and heightening his perception and grasp of a once-conventional America that was no longer black-and-white. His lifestyle – in fact his very existence in the ‘60s – had an immediate impact on his artistic vision. After he graduated from high school, he had a cup of coffee in junior college, and even had John Madden as a volleyball coach. But in the Summer of Love, he found himself in San Francisco chasing his dream. While angling for a chance to play with avant-garde avatar Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, he managed through his tenacity on the telephone to set up a chance meeting with one of the Mothers, Lowell George. Hooking up with Lowell up was a great first step in the right direction for Bill - in fact, it would become a huge step. Lowell and Bill bonded immediately and began to collaborate. Lowell was still a Mother, so Bill marked time and hung with the fine crowd of young musicians – Jackson Browne, Fred Tackett, Ray Collins, Richie Hayward – drawn to Lowell’s pad. When Bill wasn’t with Lowell or that remarkable crowd, he found himself playing with the GTOs (Girls Together Outrageously), a Frank Zappa enterprise, often sleeping in Lowell’s car because he was allergic to his cats. I was clear that Bill had the talent; all he needed was that big break. It would come soon. In Bill’s early sessions with Lowell, this genesis of Little Feat churned out deep and diverse songs: “Truck-Stop Girl,” “Strawberry Flats,” “Brides of Jesus,” “Gunboat Willy.” One day, Lowell shared a song called “Willin” with Bill, a tune that, legend has it, made Zappa suggest Lowell form his own band. Eventually, Bill, Lowell, former Mothers of Invention bassist Roy Estrada and Fraternity of Man drummer Richie Hayward – who also had history with Lowell – formed Little Feat. The first album included many of the songs Bill and Lowell had collaborated on in San Francisco. And “Willin’.” More would follow, many more: “Sailin’ Shoes,” “Cold Cold Cold,” “Tripe Face Boogie,” “Dixie Chicken.” By the time of the album Dixie Chicken, the band had found its signature New-Orleans based fusion of rock, funk, jazz, and you-name it, along with members Paul Barrere, Kenny Gradney, and Sam Clayton. Now firmly established as one of America’s great bands, they assembled one of greatest live rock recordings ever, Waiting for Columbus, from 1977 shows in Washington, D.C., and London, releasing it in 1978. Bill’s keyboard sounds – all of them, from hammering blues piano to sweeping Hammond B-3 chords to elegant synthesizer touches – joined Lowell’s slide and Barrere’s guitar to make up the sound that unmistakably meant Little Feat. But the locomotive that was Little Feat was derailed when Lowell died from a heart attack in 1979. The band went into hiatus. As Bill then told People magazine, “Without Lowell George, there is no Little Feat.” The disbanded band worked for hire individually and sometimes sort of collectively with fine folks such as Bob Seger, Robert Palmer and Catfish Hodge. Bill was working everywhere and with everyone. In the studio. On the road. With Linda Ronstadt. Jackson Browne. Stevie Nicks. Nicolette Larson. Diana Ross. Even Barbie Benton. In the process, he expanded his artistry on the keyboard, worked in varied genres, and became one of rock’s most sought-after keyboardists. Bill never expected to be doing Little Feat again, but in a chance 1986 jam session that included Paul Barrere, the notion of a Little Feat reformation surfaced. Two years later, it materialized with two new members: former Pure Prairie League front-man Craig Fuller, who largely handling lead vocal duties, and multi-instrumentalist Fred Tackett, who had worked with the band on previous albums. The return album was Let It Roll, and the band did. Little Feat was tighter than ever, and, as always, multidimensional, especially on its next two albums, Representing the Mambo and Shake Me Up. Bill was doing or collaborating on much of the songwriting and that trend continued on later albums. His songs covered everything from his past and the road to glimpses of lives, women and fantasies. Beginning with Let It Roll, Bill has been involved in the production of every Little Feat album to date, working with George Massenburg, Bill Wray and Paul Barrere. He has also helped produce albums for other artists, including Bonnie Raitt, Carly Simon and Toto. His attention to detail and ear for quality made him a natural, and he excelled in using the studio as an instrument and in applying technology and his ingenuity to strengthen songs. Always a collaborative musician, it took Bill many years to think in solo terms. Finally, in 2005, he produced his first solo album, Cielo Norte (“North Sky”), an elegant, often delicate soundscape of keyboard notes, a musical equivalent of an impressionist painting. Seven years later, he played his first solo show, “Tracing Footsteps,” which debuted in 2012. “Footsteps” combines stories of his first encounters with music and with Lowell George, life on the road, and solo performances of such classic songs as “Truck Stop Girl” and “Oh Atlanta.” There’s a sampling of work from his photography – it’s something else he’s gifted at – and a Q & A that gives the audience a chance to enjoy an intimate encounter with an artistic gambler who is willing, in fact obliged, to take the untraveled path and to live and thrive in the gray area the divides black and white. Bill Payne is not a musician of habit, nor one who needs his ego stroked regularly to inspire his creativity. Bill’s presence in rock has been defined by his talent, resourcefulness, longevity and penchant for straying. His laid-back demeanor provides a perfect camouflage for the intensely passionate artist he shelters within. He lives and breathes to create, not to smell the roses. He doesn’t spend his time looking back at what he and Little Feat have accomplished. Rather, he’s always looking ahead to start anew, to be inventive, to be original. Bill doesn’t produce product, he creates, plays and produces music. He is an artist. It’s what he’s always been about.