The slide perfeccionist

By Sergio Ariza

Lowell George was born in the very mecca of cinema, Hollywood, on April 13, 1945; the son of a furrier who worked for the studios and decorated his house with photos of the great stars. But, from childhood, it could be seen that George was not called to follow in his father's footsteps in the film industry but to become a great musician.   

Before he was five years old he already could play the harmonica well and at six he appeared on television playing a duet with his older brother. Shortly after, he switched to the flute and at age 11 he picked up his first guitar, a Spanish six string that his brother had left in his room after enlisting in the army. Soon, Lowell was already playing it better than his brother ever would. At college, he switched to an electric and bought a Fender Mustang and a Champ amplifier but he was not captivated by any particular sound until he came across the model that would define him forever, a Stratocaster. During this period he also learned to play the saxophone and the sitar. He had a natural facility for music and at that time, in the early 60's, he was more interested in west coast jazz than in rock. His skill led him to participate in some recording sessions playing the flute and the saxophone, some say that he even played for Frank Sinatra himself but, like many things in his career, a halo of mystery does not allow us to differentiate the reality from the myth.

What is clear is that in 1965 he formed his first band, The Factory, with which he would record a single, Smile, Let Your Life Begin, produced by Frank ZappaWhen in 1968 the band split up, George momentarily joined the Standells, until Zappa decided to welcome him into his womb and sign him for his Mothers Of Invention to replace Ray Collins. His time there was a learning period, and there are not many examples of his contributions beyond something sporadic on Weasels Ripped My Flesh and the first álbum of You Can not Do That on Stage Anymore,Vol. 5. But that experience served him well, not only did he learn a lot from Zappa himself, but he also met keyboardist Bill Payne, who was rejected at an audition, and bassist Roy Estrada, who was a member of the band. Together with them and drummer Richie Hayward of The Factory, he would form Little Feat, a group that would get its name from a comment by another member of Zappa's band, drummer Jimmy Carl Black, who called George "little feet", the change from the original "feet" to "feat" was a small tribute from the guitarist's to the Beatles.

But perhaps the most important contribution of Zappa to George's career was the fact that he fired him. Again there are various legends about the reasons for this dismissal, among them that Zappa was not happy about George’s drug taking, or the funniest, the fact that Lowell did a solo of 15 minutes with his amplifier off, but what seems clear is that all of them lead to the same common point, the fact that Zappa felt that Willin' was a good enough song for George to continue as a simple secondary in his band.

Little Feat was born, like Lowell George, in sunny California but few bands have sounded more southern as them, like a good New Orleans stew in which there was room for everything, from the funk of the Meters to the country of Willin'. There were some who labeled them southern rock (we included them on our list of the 10 essential bands of that style) but in this band there was room for everything: rock, boogie, blues and funk. Instrumentally they were a great band and their distinctive element was George's slide. A style that he learned almost at the same time that the band was formed, at the end of 1969, while playing with a friend. George used to play using an open D tuning, so his friend taught him the Open G, picked up a glass vase and started playing the slide. George had found the sound he had sought all his life and again demonstrated his ability to learn quickly. When he began recording his first album, in August 70, he had already achieved his characteristic slide sound, with the tuning in open A, which he played with a Stratocaster to which he added a Telecaster pickup and a lot of compression. In a few months you could say that his playing was only one step below Duane Allman himself.

Their first album is close to ‘roots rock’ terrain and what would later be called 'Americana'. It is an excellent album, with good contributions from all, the perfect opening Snakes On Everything was written by Payne, and Estrada contributes on the very Rolling Stones sounding Hamburger Midnight, although the absolute peak is Willin' by George, the song that marked his career. But, by a coincidence of fate, George had injured a hand when they were going to record it and could not play the slide. That's how he decided to call the guy who he thought was the best at it, Ry CooderThey liked the result so much that he also participated in Howlin 'Wolf's song medley. The admiration between both was mutual and George showed, in the songs on which he did play the slide, that in a few months he had already joined the group of the most personal slide musicians on the planet. The critics were enthusiastic but, in spite of everything, the record sold less than 12.000 copies at the time.

Lowell was a perfectionist who believed strongly in himself and knew that the band had huge potential, so for his second album he decided to give the best of himself. Sailin Shoes opens with another classic of the band, Easy To Slip, the song that should have given them fame and fortune but that was again ignored by the general public. He also re-recorded Willin', this time with him on the slide, and made the definitive version of it. As if that were not enough, the great Sneaky Pete Kleinow, who had already appeared on his debut, contributes his pedal Steel to eh song. The album is a marvel from beginning to end, with the rocker Teenage Nervous Breakdown being a perfect vehicle to show his skills with the slide and A Apolitical Blues demonstrating his expertise in the most leisurely blues. Despite being praised again by critics, the album sold little again and Estrada left the band.

1973 should have been the year of Little Feat and Lowell George; not only did they release the best album of their career, but they collaborated on wonders such as Paris 1919by John Cale and Bonnie Raitt and Harry Nilsson’s albums. Maybe they were not triumphing commercially but Little Feat and George were becoming big names among other bands and artists, something like a ‘band of other bands’. For the recording of Dixie Chicken, bassist Kenny Gradney, guitarist Paul Barrere and percussionist Sam Clayton joined the band. This new line-up gave George's music a much more funky sound as would be demonstrated on a record that brings them closer to New Orleans funk, without losing its own flavor. It was the masterpiece of his career, with songs like the title track, Two Trains or Fat Man in the Bathtub, becoming fixed in his repertoire. Instrumentally, George had reached a peak as can be seen in his spectacular collaboration with Cale, songs like Macbeth sound like Little Feat, on the beautiful Roll 'Em Easy by Dixie Chicken, or on From a Whisper to a Scream from Sneakin' Sally Through The Alley (an album that opened with a version of his Sailin' Shoes) by Robert Palmer that he recorded with his beloved Meters.

This was in 1974, the same year that Feats Don’t Fail Me Now appeared, an album with a very significant title. The lack of success, despite a loyal following, was badly affecting relationships between the band members, with George's leadership and perfectionism brought into question. You could say it was his swan song, the band's last great record. It opened with Rock'n'Roll Doctor, another great example of George on slide guitar, but the best came with Spanish Moon, pure New Orleans funk, smoky and sparkling like the Meters, or the Dr. John of In The Right Place. The title song also has a lot of Creole flavor while the ending is top-end stuff, with Cold Cold Cold / Tripe Face Boogie offering a medley that joins a blues with a boogie that had already appeared on Sailin 'Shoes (again the perfectionism of Geroge Ied him to re-record the songs). The finale, with just George’s slide at the end of the first one is a true beauty, at the level of this forgotten record that it is worth re-claiming. Here again his favorite amp can be heard, a Howard Dumble, and also on this álbum a Gibson ES-345 Custom, one of the few ‘non-Stratocaster’ guitars that he used. Of course, he also ended up adding a Telecaster pickup.

From then on Payne and Barrere began to take the band to a territory that was close to jazz rock, to the discontent of a George who was increasingly affected by drugs. Although in 1975 Jimmy Page called them "the best rock band in the world" and Robert Plant and Mick Jagger (who had appeared painted on the cover of Sailin 'Shoes) proclaimed them their favorite band, George failed to convert Little Feat into the American Stones, something that he was very close to doing. Although they continued to give great concerts, such as Waiting For Columbus, the band was never the same and, finally, George put an end to it in 1979. That gave him time to record a good solo album but, shortly after its release, he died a victim of an overdose in a hotel in Virginia, while he was on tour presenting the record, on 29 June,1979. He had just turned 34 years old.

George was a perfectionist, an obsessive and had a huge talent. He did not manage to ‘win it all’ but if you ask musicians like Frank Zappa, Jimmy Page, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Palmer, Randy Newman, Emmylou Harris, Linda Rondstadt, Ry Cooder or the Meters about him, they will all tell you that George was one of the greats. The general public may have resisted him but his colleagues know that the music of George and Little Feat was far above their sales figures. Lowell George was a self-made musician, who brought together all his influences to make very personal music, something that can also be applied to his guitar playing; his characteristic sound with the slide is totally recognizable and when you listen to one of his solos you knows who is behind it. A characteristic that is common only to the greats.