Little Feat Keeps On Rolling With Their Upcoming Sam’s Place Album

Little Feat Keeps On Rolling With Their Upcoming <em>Sam’s Place</em> Album

Written by Ray Chelstowski

Little Feat has always been a “musicians’ musicians” band. Across a more than 50-year history, they have mixed masterful musicianship with a blend of music that is impossible to define. There you’ll find California rock, funk, folk, jazz, country and rockabilly mixed with New Orleans swamp boogie. With songs like “Dixie Chicken,” “Spanish Moon,” “Fat Man in the Bathtub,” and “Feats Don’t Fail Me Now,” Little Feat established a musical beachhead that is entirely their own.

When they broke up in the late 1970s, the surviving members went on to back some of the biggest names in music, providing studio support to acts like James Taylor and Bob Seger. They re-emerged in the late 1980s with an electrifying record called Let It Roll. It was prophetic in that it launched a new era for the band that is still “rolling.” Although some band members have passed (Lowell George in 1979, Paul Barrere in 2019, and Richie Hayward in 2010) or left, Little Feat has found ways to continue on, recruiting members over the years that add even more depth to the band’s sound.

Their last studio record was released in 2012. Since then, Little Feat have toured relentlessly, promising audiences that new music was on the horizon. That horizon is now here: the band is about to release their first blues album, Sam’s Place, on May 17.



Little Feat, Sam's Place, album cover.


The current lineup has Scott Sharrard on lead guitar/vocals and Tony Leone on drums/vocals, with founding member Bill Payne on keys/vocals, and veterans Fred Tackett on guitars/vocals, Kenny Gradney on bass, and Sam Clayton on percussion/vocals. But the star of Sam’s Place is without question, Sam Clayton, who for the first time, steps forward and tackles lead vocals on every song. It’s all done with ease and his signature sense of musical style.

The nine-track album was waxed at Sam Phillips Recording in Memphis, Tennessee, except for “Got My Mojo Working (Live),” recorded live at the Boulder Theatre in Boulder, Colorado. This is also the first Little Feat album recorded with new members Sharrard and Leone, and it largely features songs made famous by Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters. Pay close attention to Sam’s duet with the band’s longtime friend Bonnie Raitt on “Long Distance Call.” It’s a reminder of how much more this band still has to offer and how little they have lost along the way. 

We caught up with Bill Payne to talk about Little Feat’s legacy, their first foray into the blues, and what is in store next for a band that shows no signs of slowing their “roll.”

Ray Chelstowski: The band has always had one foot in the blues. What prompted you to step fully into the genre with this record?

Bill Payne: The idea came to me many years ago in Cleveland, Ohio. At the time we were all doing solo records, and I thought we ought to do a blues album with Sam. It didn’t happen, obviously. Fast forward to a few years ago and we were watching a show that Little Feat had performed at The Egg in Albany, New York and one of the guys from our management company said, “wow, Sam really sounds great, doesn’t he?” I agreed and told him that I had this crazy idea some time ago and thought that we should do a blues album together. He thought it was a great idea and he got it financed.

We lined up all of the material, taking a lot from Willie Dixon, and Scott had the great idea of recording it in Memphis, Tennessee.  We used one of Sam Phillips’ [Sun Records] studios and the first night, before we even started recording, there was a shoot-out in the street below. Eight folks were injured by gunfire. What a way it was to start things out; with a bang.


RC: Blues records aren’t easy to make. There’s something special about this one.

BP: The authenticity of the record is what impresses me the most. I was playing Jerry Lee Lewis’ piano and the thing just played itself. We’ve all played with different blues artists. I once got the chance to play with Willie Dixon in Madison Square Garden, alongside Paul Barrere and Ritchie Hayward, and George Porter Jr. [of the Meters] was the musical director. It was a tribute to John Lee Hooker and it was one of the highlights of my life. I’ve also played with B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Taj Mahal; the list goes on and on.

RC: The tracks lean on material from Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters. Was that always the intent?

BP: I never gave that much thought. I was more concerned about whether Sam’s vocals would command attention and wasn’t ever worried about whether we could play anything or not. My philosophy about playing music is that as long as it’s in a Western key like C, A, G, B or E, I think I can play it, within reason. Little Feat is at a point in our careers [where] we can just about play anything. We were just down in Nashville recording an album with [producer] Vance Powell, who works with Phish and Chris Stapleton. It’s got all-new material, and in terms of genres, like most Little Feat records its spans everything from A to Z. Sam’s Place was a continuation of that same spirit of cooperation and musical exploration. It was just fun to do.

RC: Sam has always been known for adding character to your tunes. This is a big shift.

BP: When we were recording in Nashville he was moved by the fact this thing had taken place and sounded great. He must have listened to it over a hundred times. I looked at him at one point and said, “hey man, this isn’t a dream. It’s a real thing.” I was just so proud of what he did and what we did.

RC: Was there anything different about the making of this record?

BP: We listened to input from others. When we were on the bus in San Francisco, Bonnie Raitt told us there was a song we should consider, “You’ll Be Mine.” When things do a handshake with one another, just fall in place, it’s a lovely thing to see. They don’t always.

RC: Recording in Memphis was new for the band. Did it require much flexibility?

BP: Absolutely. First of all, when we went in to record they didn’t have any monitors set up. Amazingly, everyone was very relaxed about it all. It reminded me of an album I did with Jimmy Buffett called License to Chill which we did on Key West. It took just four days to make that record and we were like, “wow, what just happened?” That’s kind of how it was in Memphis.

RC: Was there much overdubbing on the record or was it largely cut live?

BP: This was mostly live. I had to do a (Hammond organ) B3 overdub or two. On “You’ll Be Mine” I did suggest [using] double shakers to drive the song. It was already like a freight train, but we lifted it up in the mix [with the shakers] almost like a hi-hat and it ended up being so cool. The whole band produced the record along with Charlie, and that took the onus off any one person and it allowed us all to have more fun, and to make it more challenging too.

RC: Has this record inspired you and the band to make more new music?

BP: Yes, and we had planned on doing another studio record. I’ve been telling audiences for some time now that we’re not a cover band covering Little Feat. We’re going to be doing new music. Regardless of where the music ends up, things like this take on their own volition and point to something that has a great story attached to it. I know that we have something that really works when people are feeding me lines that I’d like to feed [back] to them.

RC: Back in 1987 when you released Let It Roll, did you have any idea that you’d be touring and recording together as a band this long?

BP: No. I don’t think so; because so many things in life happen. You have a great record like that and you follow it up with [something completely different like] Representing the Mambo. I still think that’s a great record but we led with our left instead of our right. We actually renamed the album later with the idea being that while we had these artsy songs which were cool, I often wish we would have led with the more rock and roll stuff and let people discover the other things. Also, the AOR format was already spindling at that point and that cut off a lot of people’s ability to sell more records. So I wasn’t sure what was going to happen.

RC: You open for the Tedeschi Trucks Band for a bunch of dates on this tour. Does that influence how you build your setlist?

BP: I think there’s a little bit of that going on. We only have an hour to play, so while we can do a lot of damage in an hour, we do want to play songs that people are familiar with. That said, we don’t have to play “Dixie Chicken” every night. If we do we can change up the solos or do something different. We do, however, want to look at where we are and make it an enjoyable night for the audience. It’s always been about songs and musicianship and it still is.


Header image of Little Feat: center, Sam Clayton; back row (left to right), Bill Payne, Kenny Gradney, Fred Tackett, Scott Sharrard, Tony Leone. Courtesy of Fletcher Moore.

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