A Few Minutes with… Bill Payne of Little Feat, Taking Requests on Their Latest Tour
“When I was a kid, my parents would take me down to the ocean. I would come back in the afternoon, and sit at the piano and try to replicate what I saw and heard and felt: seagulls, waves crashing, the wind, that kind of stuff.”
Bill Payne is the last remaining original member of Little Feat 52 years into their storied career. He’s an artist by almost any definition. He’s a photographer, a writer, perhaps the most credited keyboard session musician in contemporary popular music but, most significantly, the last man standing from the original Little Feat band which whose “By Request Tour” plays The Egg in Albany on Tuesday. November 16th.
Payne is also a rock and roll survivor who rubs shoulders with others in what insiders call “the tribe.” “Keith Richards grabs me. He pulls me in, and he says all night that we’re all part of the same cloth. ‘Welcome to the club’ was what he was saying to me.”
The songs Little Feat play on each stop are all ones requested by their fans. “We’ll be inventive about it,” says Payne in a pre-tour interview while on the road with the Doobie Brothers. “We’re gonna have to be because we don’t have a lot of time to rehearse this stuff. Ultimately, when we get to rehearse and get together to play, we will play what we’re comfortable with doing that night. So, that’s the reality right there. We might want to do 70 songs, but it ain’t gonna happen. We’re just going to have to take it as it comes and get some tunes to play.”
The band got its name from the size of guitarist Lowell George’s feet. He was the founder and writer of such iconic Little Feat songs as “Willin,” “Sailin’ Shoes,” “Dixie Chicken,” and “Fat Man in A Bathtub” After his 1979 death in 1979, Bill Payne told the rest of the band, “We are in competition with ourselves. So, be mindful of that. We’re gonna weigh what we like about the best music from anyone else against the best of ourselves. As it stacks up, if it feels good, we’re going to put out this record and get a new phase of Little Feat.”
Bill Payne would go on to write “Oh, Atlanta,” “Time Loves A Hero,” “Red Streamliner,” “Tripe Face Boogie” and scores more in the next four decades with Little Feat.
Lowell George was the first of three deaths in the band. Drummer Richie Hayward passed in 2010 and guitarist Paul Barrere in 2019. “It’s crushing when that happens. My wife took my photo of Richie and tilted it. So, it looks like he’s riding this steed, a horse, and he had this beautiful smile on his face. It’s wonderful. This was taken at the Vancouver Islands. He came up and sat in with us for about three songs and went back into the dressing room and threw some blankets on. He was shivering and was cold. He and I had some really good conversations toward the end. I wrote a piece toward the end. I’m a writer as well. I love to paint with words. I painted a 10,000-word essay on Richie.”
“All Boats Rise” is the current single released ahead of the tour. “I was talking to Cameron Sears who was our manager at the time. He used that phrase to describe something: “All boats rise.” Some people were going, ‘Well, I don’t even have a boat. What do you mean when all boats rise?’ I said ‘It’s aspirational like liberty and justice for all. We don’t have it, but we like to aspire to it.’ I was like, ‘Come on, people. Put your head together. Go find a filmmaker.’
Payne’s photos appear throughout the video of the song. His son got him into photography many years ago. “I asked my son to take some photos of me off in the Malibu Canyon area, and at one point, I’m like, ‘Hey, let me try that camera.’ Twenty minutes later I pressed down to take the shot, and it was like when I pressed down on the keyboards when I was five years or four. It was like magic, and I took off from there. I travel with a small camera these days.”
On the deaths of Lowell George, Paul Barrere, and Richie Hayward, he says, “It’s like when Jerry Garcia passed away for people. You see the track these guys were on, and there’s nothing you can do to pull them off of it. It’s just we are ordained or whatever, but there it is.”
The current Little Feat lineup is Bill Payne on keyboards and vocals, bass player Kenny Gradney, Sam Clayton on percussion and vocals, guitarist and vocalist Fred Tackett, Scott Sharrard formerly with The Gregg Allmans Band on guitars and vocals, and Tony Leone formerly of Olabelle on drums. The Little Feat show is Tuesday, November 16th at 7:30 p.m. at The Egg at Empire State Plaza in Albany. Masks and proof of vaccination are required.