California Dreaming With Little Feat and The Byrds
Little Feat—Sky, Heaven and California Up Ahead!
1976 and that freezing cross-country drive from Toronto to Hollywood, and that album that got us there!
It was over Williams, Arizona, at least 6,800 feet, where I watched the distant stars crowd the main highway. We’d been driving through a back-lit coral sunset, which suggested the upright arms of Saguaro cactus were hailing ghosts in a passing caravan.
How many radio miles did we hear “Elton John and Kiki Dee, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart? This was long before the bile-chattering Rush Limbaugh monopolized inner-space radio.
I twisted the dial from AM to FM in pursuit of a caffeine surrogate, a song to make the night drive less burdensome. It was the first harsh wind we’d endured since leaving Albuquerque, and it was a reminder of nearly two thousand scary windswept miles behind us. The tow put us in a conga line with three or four hundred other mishaps.
The snow-capped roads bordering Albuquerque created instant off-ramps into an adjacent ditch. I was driving a delivery Camaro destined for Hollywood. As vigilant as I was, the inevitable slide into a gully became my first line of defence against careening down a mountainside to the great afterlife. The southwest in winter was a far greater attraction than the sleet-spoiled arteries of Toronto.
We’d driven from Buffalo, NY to Williams, ten feet ahead of snow squalls that would make a confident driver shudder - reached the summit, and now, the plunge to Kingman, Arizona, then Needles, California, to a mix of warmth and the unanticipated.
Prudently displayed near the gear shift, a box of cassettes, a cold Pepsi and cigarette. Some David Sanborn crammed in there, maybe some Miles Davis, but on this trip, the main event was Little Feat—especially Dixie Chicken.
“I’ve seen the bright lights of Memphis and the Commodore Hotel, and underneath a street lamp, I met a southern belle. Oh, she took me to the river, where she cast her spell, and in that southern moonlight, she sang this song so well. If you’ll be my Dixie chicken, I’ll be your Tennessee lamb, and we can walk together down in Dixieland. Down in Dixieland.”
There’s nothing like a good sound system on wheels. The Camaro barely passed the grade, but with windows up, it was an adequate amphitheatre.
Every hundred miles or so Kristine would sing along, “I’ve been from Tucson to Tucumcari, Tehachapi to Tonopah,” from Little Feat’s 1972 recording Sailin’ Shoes and the song Willin’, and we’d look at each other with big broad smiles and fire up another reefer; then replay.
Little Feat was by far America’s greatest band, playing a mix of New Orleans, southern blues, swamp, roots and blues rock, with a dash of R&B. Guitarist Lowell George assembled the band, George a former member of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, and keyboardist Bill Payne. The band’s name came from Mothers drummer Jimmy Carl Black when he made a comment about George’s “little feet.”
That song Willin’ supposedly got George fired from Zappa’s band when he was accused of writing a song about dope.
The band debuted with the studio side Little Feat in 1971, followed by Sailin’ Shoes, and then the big change-up as personnel moved on, and a New Orleans funk-style rhythm section emerged.
The new band included Paul Barrere on guitar and vocals, Sam Clayton, congas, Lowell George on vocals and guitar, Kenny Gradney on bass, Richie Hayward on drums and backing vocals, and Bill Payne—on keyboards, synthesizer, and vocals.
“We made all the hot spots, my money flowed like wine, then the low-down southern whisky, yea, fogged my mind. And I don’t remember church bells or the money I put down on the white picket fence and boardwalk on the house at the end of town. Oh, but boy, do I remember the strain of her refrain, and the nights we spent together, and the way she called my name. If you’ll be my Dixie Chicken, I’ll be your Tennessee lamb, and we can walk together down in Dixieland. Down in Dixieland.”
Dixie Chicken is everything great about American music. It begins with bass and congas up front, and a loping sideways drum pattern directly from the streets of New Orleans, as if scripted by Levon Helm, with the most amazing piano trills and fills poking about the perimeter. Lowell arrives with a sublime vocal, then a big fat shout chorus of singers led by Mad Dogs and Englishmen's Bonnie Bramlett on the top end - then another Bill Payne piano break. At about two-plus minutes in, Lowell George’s slide guitar seeps through, and then both George and guitarist Paul Barrere double up and state the outgoing theme. That sound would become a trademark of New Country. There’s never a missing note or lapse in confidence. It’s big, bold Americana roots soul.
“Many years since she ran away, yes, that guitar player sure could play. She always liked to sing along. She always comes in handy with a song, but then one night in the lobby of the Commodore Hotel. I chanced to meet a bartender who said he knew her well. And as he handed me a drink, he began to hum a song, and all the boys there, at the bar, sang along. If you’ll be my Dixie chicken, I’ll be your Tennessee lamb, and we can walk together in Dixieland. Down in Dixieland, Down in Dixieland.”
As we arrived, somewhere beyond San Fernando Valley, it was obvious our nightmare drive was about to blow tropical. In the distance, the tops of palm trees signalled passengers temperatures rising. Traffic, smog, and Chicano delights await. Time to take a deep breath and pack away the travelling music and surrender to radio.
Welcome to California!
I was 18 when the Byrds arrived with Mr. Tambourine Man, and a total music nerd. A voracious music hound, consuming everything in my path.
I still remember that first spin, only months after pops bought a stereo console to play those Wes Montgomery sides. The opening strains—those 12-string Rickenbacker guitars blaring left and right. Those sweet harmonies, soft and breezy, California sunshine, folkish yet modern. Roger McGuinn wearing that rectangle-framed undersized eyepiece, oh, how I thought this band was walking me into the future. That wired sound kicking ass on reeds and brass. The recording so captivated me.
I hopped in my ‘59 Plymouth and drove a town over to guitarist Frank Bugby’s house with my precious find and pounded on the front door. Frank’s mum found him hiding in the basement and pushed him my way. “Dude, there’s stuff on this record you’ve never heard. Guitars are unlike nothing you’ve ever experienced. Do your folks have a stereo?” Frank was all in.
Frank dropped the needle. Listened. Then collapsed on the family carpet and further listened. “What the hell is that instrument?” he asked. “12-string guitar,” I reply. “I’ve never heard of those.” Frank then replayed, replayed, groaned, laughed, yelled, and screamed. “This shit is awesome. Bill, sit here and listen to the left side, then the right. There’s something different in both.” Then the both of us lay across the broadloom, roll track to track, then flip the vinyl over and start again.
A short time later, we are opening for the Beach Boys at the fairgrounds in Louisville and off to the side on a small stage, The Byrds. I could barely hear them over the amusement rides, clattering and pounding of the midway, yet I caught a hint of that 12-string cut through the festivities.
Not long after, the Chateaus were asked to record a follow-up to their Motown cover Shake Sherry, Shake—a Nashville song—I’m the One. We also needed a B-side. Frank and I conspired to make over the sound in the image of The Byrds. Frank bought a Rickenbacker, and we got down to fine tuning. I suggested we cover The Bells of Rhymney B- side, The Byrds album, written by Pete Seeger. We were all in. Soon after, I’m the One became a regional hit. The downside—I got fired along with my brother and horn section. The new version—all in Byrd’s clone.
How many evenings did I replay that album? Chimes of Freedom—We’ll Meet Again. And yes, David Crosby was a big part of the album’s success.
I bought a pair of McGuinns—wore them the night I met Kristine on Long Island. One lens cracked earlier in the day. Honestly, this was one critical look for landing a sweet honey—yet it worked. I think she felt bad for the sixth pretend member of the Byrds on the Hammond organ. Not long later, I saw her record collection – all ten – The Fifth Dimension- the Byrds. I’m in!