Little Feat: Ready, Willin’ and Able

Larson Sutton on June 20, 2024
Little Feat: Ready, Willin’ and Able

photo: Fletcher Moore


In the back of Little Feat’s tour bus, there is the lounge. It’s prized mobile real estate, owning a kind and kindred atmosphere ideal for a post-gig hang, listening to some tunes, sharing stories or just cooling down as the band rolls along the proud highway, on to the next town. More often than not, Feat’s longtime percussionist, Sam Clayton, curates the lounge’s playlist, and, in pursuit of higher fidelity, flexes his upgraded speaker system, best for dispensing his doses of jazz, soul and, of course, the blues.

Clayton, Little Feat’s resident bluesman, is distinguished as such on the venerable ensemble’s latest album. It’s not only the group’s 17th studio record, but also their first in over a decade. It’s also the first all-blues affair in the band’s illustrious 55-year history, and the first with Clayton singing lead on its entirety, suitably titled, Sam’s Place.

Little Feat’s relationship with the blues stretches all the way back to its roots as a quartet of mostly harmless Los Angeles subversives. Founded in the year of Manson and the moon landing, Feat’s leader was Lowell George, a fantastic and irreverent musician and Howlin’ Wolf devotee, recently dismissed from Frank Zappa’s The Mothers of Invention. Depending on who tells the story, George got the boot either for smoking pot or for writing a country-flecked, trucker homage, “Willin’.”

He recruited Bill Payne—a longhaired surfer from Ventura, Calif., by way of Waco, Texas, who played piano with an immaculate barrelhouse swing—and Richie Hayward, a polyrhythmic wildcard on drums. Another ex-Mother, Roy Estrada, followed on bass. Together, the four initiated a uniquely eclectic and malleable mélange of genres, styles and localities that would survive, adapt and often redefine itself over five decades.

Feat’s self-titled 1971 debut was an unclassifiable delight, contorting from moment to moment into a variety of post-psychedelic, countrified garage-rock shapes. Imbued with an endearing stoner quirk, courtesy of Payne and George’s left-of-center songwriting, the record also spotlighted George’s genuine reverence for the blues, especially during Little Feat’s take on his hero Howlin’ Wolf’s “Forty-Four Blues/How Many More Years.” It was as close to pure, post-war electric blues as Little Feat could get.

The quartet would explore more experimental territory on 1972’s follow-up, Sailin’ Shoes, yet songs like “A Apolitical Blues” still nodded to the group’s origins. In 1973, the band expanded, adding a second guitarist, Paul Barrere, and replacing a departing Estrada with bassist Kenny Gradney, fresh out of the ashes of Delaney & Bonnie.

For a gig in Hawaii, Gradney encouraged Clayton, his Delaney & Bonnie bandmate, to give Feat a chance.

“We played in the crater, for 40,000 people. And Lowell let loose,” Gradney remembers. “Sam said, ‘Yeah, I think I’ll stay in this band.’”

Clayton was born in Louisiana. As a toddler, he shadowed his elders in the cotton fields, filling a pillow case with his pickings. “It hurt me so badly, I said, ‘No way I’m going to be doing this,’” Clayton says.

His mother, who sang in church, loved the blues, and his sister Merry proved to be a talented singer early on—she would later shape rock-and-roll history, going toe to toe with Mick Jagger on The Rolling Stones’ classic “Gimme Shelter” and supplying background vocals on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.”

Clayton also first sang in church, then in makeshift doo-wop groups during his stint in the service. He moved to Los Angeles and worked as a draftsman for McDonnell Douglas, spending his nights jamming on congas with local groups. He did a short run with Little Richard, then left the day job behind for good, joining Delaney and Bonnie as a percussionist.

The infusion of Clayton, Gradney and Barrere into Little Feat coincided with George’s growing affection for the music of New Orleans. 1973’s Dixie Chicken cemented the band’s classic lineup and led newer listeners to assume Feat was a Southern-fried sextet. Clayton, always good for a backing vocal, was, at George’s behest, most valuable as a keeper of the groove.

“Lowell got me there to hold the pocket,” Clayton laughs. “I was there to hold Richie back.”

Little Feat would eventually add elements of funk and fusion to its rock-and-roll gumbo, with Clayton making his debut as a lead vocalist on the reggae-tinged “Feel the Groove” during George’s finale with the group, 1979’s Down on the Farm. However, the guitarist died before the album’s completion, and the group disbanded.

Nearly a decade later, Little Feat reformed with singer/guitarist Craig Fuller and guitarist Fred Tackett for a 1988 comeback hit, Let It Roll. And, in the 35 years since, Clayton’s role as an occasional lead singer has expanded, gradually and conspicuously, in the live set. He took on a revived “Forty-Four Blues” and the slinky funk of “Spanish Moon.” His growl-and-moan blues exorcisms have become an anticipated staple of any Feat show; he shines particularly bright on “A Apolitical Blues” and covers of legends like Muddy Waters or Little Walter.

Little Feat lost Hayward in 2010 and Barrere nine years later, both dying from liver cancer. In recent years, the group has emerged with new blood-guitarist/singer Scott Sharrard and drummer Tony Leone— and a new management team, Vector, plus a slate of milestones to mark. Across two years of near-constant touring, Feat blew out the candles for the 45th birthday of the ‘77 tour that produced their seminal live album, Waiting for Columbus, as well as for the 50th anniversaries of both Sailin’ Shoes and Dixie Chicken.

During one show at The Egg in Albany, N.Y., Payne stepped offstage momentarily and stood in the wings with Vector’s Brian Penix, marveling at Clayton’s performance. “Brian says, ‘He sounds so good, doesn’t he?’ And I say, ‘Yes, he does. And I’ve got this idea for a blues album for him. What do you think?’” Payne recalls. “And, he says, ‘God, that sounds cool.’”


For several decades, Payne had been nurturing the thought of a Little Feat blues album. He’d done sessions or shared stages with some giants of the genre, such as B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush and John Lee Hooker. “Sam Clayton is one of those artists,” Payne says. “But nobody knows it.”

Now, with the addition of Sharrard and Leone—two superbly talented students of the blues eager to make their own marks on the Little Feat legacy—the time was finally right. Vector found a partnering record label, who suggested the band take advantage of soundchecks on the road. With mics in place, and Feat’s in-house sound engineer, Charles Martinez, at the board, the band could track the album as it toured. The initial results, however, were middling at best.

“We figured out pretty quickly that this was not a very conceptual way to make a record—at 4 p.m., in the middle of playing six one-nighters in a week, changing towns every night,” Sharrard says. “The last thing you want to do is think about getting a finished take on some random stage.”

Sharrard proposed, instead, that the band move to a proper studio, recommending Sam Phillips Recording in Memphis, Tenn.

“When he brought up Memphis, I thought, ‘That sounds good.’ We are making it, rightfully, what it should be, which is an event,” Payne says. “Sam Clayton has never had this opportunity before. So, we ought to present it on a platter that is as inviting and pleasing as we can do.”

As the story goes, Phillips sold Elvis Presley’s contract to RCA Records, left Sun Studios and moved his operation about a half-mile west, investing in a new recording facility. Throughout the next six decades, the studio evolved into a local landmark of sorts, hosting its share of top-shelf artists, including Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and John Prine.

Even the studio’s gear has stories. Clayton used the same vocal mic as Howlin’ Wolf. The recording console came rescued from Stax. The house piano Payne played was once property of The Killer himself, Jerry Lee Lewis. With a smile, Payne says he looked for shoe prints on the keys.

“You were standing in history,” Gradney says. “You have to feel that.”

The band clocked three days of recording at Phillips’ place in mid-August of 2023. Clayton, Payne and Sharrard assembled a nine-song tracklist, filling it with covers the group had already nailed down onstage, as well as some lesser-known nuggets suggested by Sharrard. “Scott was really a fount of cool tunes,” Tackett says.

Tackett and Sharrard also brought in a new, original song, complete with a working title, “Trashman,” boasting an arrangement that leaned into the latter musician’s fondness for the humor, and the funk, of Johnny “Guitar” Watson. Clayton paired up with his wife, Joni, to write the lyrics. Joni, promptly and justifiably, objected to the innuendo-laced image of her husband picking up the neighborhood “garbage.”

They changed the title, and its promiscuous protagonist, to “Milkman,” keeping in the winking double entendre, but retaining the Claytons’ own marital bliss. They dedicated the track to Clayton’s nephew. “But it was because he was an actual milkman,” Clayton attests. “Not because he was going out and getting women.”

Martinez and the band served as co-producers, and the group worked quickly, tracking live, side-by-side, in the cozy confines. Clayton was committed to his own efficiency, insisting on the fewest number of takes. “I’m just raw, man,” Clayton says. “I know it’s not always possible to do it in one, but that’s what I go in looking for.”

They spent only a brief time referencing other artists’ versions of songs. Roughly half were already well broken-in, having cycled through the live set. They’d listen to the newer choices in the lounge on the bus. Clayton cites Junior Wells’ rendition of “Why Are People Like That?”—featuring guest appearances by Derek Trucks and Sonny Landreth— as a particular go-to for inspiration, but on most of the eight covers, he went off of memory and instinct.

The scrapped strategy of recording soundchecks turned, instead, into valuable rehearsal time. “The songs had all been marinating in Little Feat’s style of arranging and playing. We went out of our way to develop our own interpretations,” Sharrard says. “The soundchecks served as the best pre-production plan possible.”

The Muddy Waters classic “I Can’t Be Satisfied” was already a familiar live vehicle, but for the album, Payne wanted to shift the rhythm. Leone had an idea. “I thought, ‘How can we do this in a way that really showcases that slide melody in the beginning and really opens up some windows for Bill to do his magic with that honkytonk piano he’s so great at?’” he says.

Leon Russell’s rendition of Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”—its widened groove conceived by renowned timekeeper Jim Keltner— flashed into Leone’s mind. “It wasn’t any big, eureka moment. At that time, that feel just felt right,” the drummer says.

Old friend Bonnie Raitt suggested Howlin’ Wolf’s “You’ll Be Mine,” the record’s eventual debut single. In turn, Feat invited the multiple Grammy-winning musician to sing on the album. Raitt agreed and chose the lone acoustic song on the album; a last-minute addition that almost never was.

“Long Distance Call” is a Muddy Waters heartbreaker Feat often attached, in concert, to a medley with “A Apolitical Blues.” Before the final day of tracking in Memphis, Clayton was in the hotel lobby, awaiting their ride to the studio. While he sat, he listened on his phone to Waters wailing on a stripped-down version of the track. Sharrard overheard and suggested they could work up an acoustic interpretation of their own.

At the session’s proverbial 11th hour, an impromptu quintet of Sharrard on steel guitar, Tackett on acoustic, band tech and frequent live guest, Mike “Bull” LoBue, on harmonica, Leone and Clayton gathered in a circle around a couple of room mics, knocking out a scintillatingly intimate offering in a few takes. Raitt picked it as the one she wanted and recorded her half of a spirited, virtual duet from her home studio. “I just love the way it came out, and she did too,” Tackett says.

Little Feat has never made such an album. For Clayton, this record is the ultimate nod of respect. “It’s got Sam smiling like he’s never smiled,” Gradney says.

Of course, Clayton pays his own respects. He cites George’s lasting influence and also dedicates “Last Night” to his dear friend, the late 60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley. The two met during Clayton’s years of touring with Jimmy Buffett. The album is for Buffett, too, Clayton says, and, of course, for his blues-loving mother.

In mid-May, Little Feat released Sam’s Place. Earlier this month, Rhino/Warner Bros. Records will issue the next in their terrific series of Little Feat anniversary sets, meticulously put together by Rhino’s Jason Jones—this one celebrating 1974’s Feats Don’t Fail Me Now. There’s also talk of an album of new material coming in 2025.

Throughout the summer, Little Feat’s bus lounge will once again be open for business, as the band brings the Can’t Be Satisfied tour across America. And, as always, Sam Clayton will be singing the blues. “It’s all part of the continuing journey of Little Feat,” Clayton says. “Whatever we can do, as much as we can do, before we leave this earth.”