Posts Tagged ‘Roy Estrada’


The third album from Little Feat saw a subtle move towards a more groove-laden funk style. While Lowell George was still band leader, he was starting to share more in the way of songwriting duties, and the addition of new band members, Paul Barrere and Sam Clayton, saw Little Feat approach Dixie Chicken with a renewed sense of purpose, resulting in perhaps their definitive studio offering. For Little Feat, 1972 brought commercial defeat, then creative rebirth. Formed three years earlier by guitarist Lowell George and keyboard player Bill Payne, the Los Angeles quartet was a Mothers of Invention splinter group featuring alumni George and bassist Roy Estrada, sanctioned by Frank Zappa, who either invited George’s departure or demanded it, depending on conflicting reports. One version holds that the founding Mother objected to a new George song, “Willin’” celebrating “weed, whites and wine,” a sentiment that the famously anti-drug Zappa was anything but willing to have associated with the band.

In addition to new bassist Kenny Gradney, a Baton Rouge native, the band enlisted another Louisiana expat, percussionist Sam Clayton (brother to crack L.A. session vocalist Merry Clayton), along with second guitarist Paul Barrere, who Lowell George had known since both were students at Hollywood High. With that realignment, Little Feat established a more potent and flexible rhythm section that built upon an already powerful four-square foundation laid by Hayward: With Clayton adding conga, djembe and other percussion instruments, Gradney locking into Crescent City syncopations and Barrere answering George’s simmering slide leads with complementary riffs and spare rhythm guitar, Little Feat now cruised on a supple cushion of polyrhythms.

In the studio, Lowell George stepped up as producer, a leadership role strengthened by his emergence on Sailin’ Shoes as the band’s most prolific and distinctive writer. Drawing on his versatile command of blues, country, folk and now R&B, he refined the surrealistic imagery and eccentric (and often cheerfully shady) characters that were proving his stylistic hallmarks. For the third full-length, “Dixie Chicken”, released January 25th, 1973, he would dominate the set list even more than on the prior albums.

Boasting Little Feat classics like the title track, “Roll Um Easy” and “Fat Man in the Bathtub”, “Dixie Chicken” found the band’s reputation take a massive leap forward, while still keeping them on the very fringes of the mainstream. It also pointed to a future were George’s influence over the band would lessen, while Barrere and keyboard player Bill Payne would have a greater impact on the band’s creative direction. While so much Southern rock at the time focused on massed guitars and heavy jams, Little Feat are typically loose-limbed, but never so much that they lose focus, and while they do indulge their tendency to jam, but this never gets so out of hand that they travel so far down a certain groove that they lose sight of the song itself.

“Dixie Chicken” signaled the band’s polyrhythmic swagger with laid-back confidence, bass and conga bumping into a hip-swaying groove punctuated with Payne’s spare, jaunty piano filigree. Lowell George’s hearty drawl established its southern milieu as he set a romantic shaggy dog story against “the bright lights of Memphis and the Commodore Hotel.” The starry-eyed protagonist’s ill-fated courtship of a dubious “southern belle” cast its own spell over the song and the album, mapping a mythic Dixieland in a screwball narrative. On the chorus, Bonnie Bramlett added a lusty, soulful voice to George’s as he serenaded his “dixie chicken,” vowing to be her “Tennessee lamb,” only to find himself seduced and abandoned. The song’s closing verse offered the singer’s encounter with a knowing bartender back at the Commodore Hotel bar that transformed the final chorus into a killer punchline.

“Dixie Chicken” is an album which can prove to be an oddly relaxing experience, almost to the point where if you’re not careful, you can end up zoning out. It’s a comforting listen, one that encourages your thoughts away from whatever day to day rigours you may have in life. It also means that it’s an album that can prove a little elusive from time to time, as sometimes you get to the end of the album and realise that you’ve been so relaxed that you’ve paid precious little attention to anything that’s gone on for its duration, and it’s even weirder if you’re listening to the original vinyl, because at some point you must have turned it over. That said, it’s also an album which sounds much better on vinyl, as the majority of CD editions have sounded oddly thin and even flimsy over the years, which is something that can seriously hamper your enjoyment of Little Feat.

While some would encourage the newcomer to approach Little Feat in a purely chronological manner, however, if you’re not to fussed about hearing their musical evolution, then Dixie Chicken is for many their definitive studio statement. Live, they frequently took things to another level entirely, but if you want to hear them at their best in the studio, then this is probably the best place to start.

The title cut from Little Feat’s 1973 album heralds the sound fans can instantly recognise the cantilevered songs laced with sardonic surrealism; the slinky Nu’Awlins rhythms; the funk touches; the high sustained wail of George’s slide; the offbeat vocal blend and twin-guitar work; Payne’s unfailingly brilliant piano. Barrere went to Hollywood High with the furrier’s son who grew up rich among Tinseltown royalty, but he was also a guitar ace; his nuanced rhythms and fills and fiery solos added new dynamics and colours. Perfect, since onstage George played only slide.

His sonic setup was now fully in place. He explained, “I use an open A tuning, which is an open G moved up a whole step. Instead of moving the first, fifth, and sixth strings down, I leave them alone and move all the other strings up a whole step. There’s a lot more tension on the strings, and it gets a much cleaner and brighter sound.” Those strings were “fairly heavy-gauge” Fender F-50s, his action was set “very high,” and a Craftsman 11/16th-inch socket was his slide; he used both a pick and his fingers. From now on, those super-taut strings will slice and squall through Little Feat’s stuff, tracing George’s exceptional sonic signature “Roll Um Easy” .

“Roll Um Easy” A contemplative take lays bare the accents working in Little Feat’s regenerated sound. Tenderness often lurks in George’s lyrics, but here it’s unusually foregrounded. Even his slide doesn’t howl; it glides with muted celebration. Contrast the intimate, heartfelt feel here with the version Linda Ronstadt fronted for L.A. hitmaker Peter Asher.

“Fat Man In The Bathtub” One way George’s circle could tell how he was doing was his weight variations. So you can hear this catchy fun as a bit of self-mockery. This “mosaic” demonstrates how to take an essentially simple musical idea and deconstruct it using syncopations. It’s also one of those complex tunes that Payne helped him get his meters straight on; they worked more closely as a team than George often liked to admit. The double-tracked slide guitars are totally distinctive.

“Two Trains” followed, updating a familiar blues metaphor for sexual rivalry while showcasing bubbling cross-rhythms stitched by Barrere’s rhythm guitar, Payne’s electric piano and the triple-threat interplay of Hayward, Clayton and Gradney with Lowell George hovering above the mix with his signature slide. Where other blues and rock stylists would typically lay out melodic lines that slurred their blue notes upward, George’s slide work carved out angular leads that could dart downward, sustain shimmering single notes or sting with short, fat jabs that were uniquely his.

Sleek grooves and sly story lines weren’t George’s or the band’s only strengths. As they had on earlier ballads (notably the previous album’s definitive take on “Willin’” and the wry but tender “Trouble”), Feat knew when to pull back on firepower and dolly in for intimate close-ups. On “Roll Um Easy,” Lowell George’s voice and acoustic guitar are decorated sparingly with restrained slide accents and raw vocal harmonies by Three Dog Night’s Danny Hutton.

“On Your Way Down” was a seamless fit for Feat in terms of both sound and sinister theme—the Golden Rule translated into karmic paybacks, haunted by serpentine synthesizer lines and moody percussion going bump in the night. Beyond the album’s charms, the sextet’s ensemble chemistry and expanded tool kit would elevate them onstage. Another Dixie Chicken standout, “Fat Man in the Bathtub,” provided percolating Afro-Cuban rhythms as George recounted a sexual standoff for Spotcheck Billy, whose plea to “check your oil” is rebuffed by Juanita, the object of his obsessions and the subject of his refrain.

That track, like the album’s title song and “Two Trains,” would become a fixture in Little Feat’s live sets, frequently anchoring medleys linked to Sailin’ Shoes gems, and their fourth album, Feats Don’t Fail Me Now, doubled down on their L.A./NOLA axis to open up a lane at rock radio and in record stores. With 1975’s The Last Record Album, however, George’s role began to recede as Bill Payne and Paul Barrere added jazz fusion elements.

Bill Payne – keyboards Paul Barrére – guitar Kenny Gradney – bass Richie Hayward – drums, Sam Clayton – percussion Lowell George – slide guitar

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In the late ’60s, when rock music was exploding in countless, new creative directions, when musicians were testing all of the limits—in the studio, onstage and in life—the Mothers of Invention proudly declared themselves freaks. And their leader, Frank Zappa, was the freakiest freak of all.

He’d first come to the attention of the public in a small way in 1963, when he appeared, as a young man with a greasy pompadour, on The Steve Allen Show—“playing” a bicycle. (Scroll to the bottom to check out the video.)

For rock fans though, it was the Mothers’ debut LP, appropriately titled Freak Out!, that first opened our eyes and ears. Released on Verve Records in June 1966, it was only rock’s second double album (preceded by Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde), but the fact that it was recorded by a band unknown outside of the Los Angeles club circuit made it an instant curiosity—especially when DJs and fans heard what kind of outrageousness these crazy-looking Mothers were up to.

Freak Out! was unlike any other rock album that had come before. Produced by Tom Wilson—whose other clients included Bob Dylan, the Velvet Underground, Simon and Garfunkel and many notable jazz artists—it threw into a crockpot all manner of oddness: avant-garde experimentalism, blistering psychedelic rock (although Zappa eschewed drugs), doo-wop, blues and more, with songs, often satirical, pointing fingers at authoritarianism, hypocrisy and, in “Trouble Every Day,” the very real horror of race riots plaguing the Watts section of Los Angeles. The album ended with a side-long, 12-minute freeform jam called “The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet (Unfinished Ballet in Two Tableaux)” that established the Mothers of Invention as some of the most gifted and boundary-busting musicians in rock.

On album number two, Absolutely Free, released just days before the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club band, the expanded group, now eight musicians including horn players, fine-tuned its ideas, with barbed commentary on society (“Plastic People,” “Brown Shoes Don’t Make it”), absurdly surreal musings (“The Duke of Prunes,” “Call Any Vegetable”) and more of that brilliant musicianship.

But it wasn’t until their third release (actually Zappa’s fourth, as it followed his solo opus Lumpy Gravy) that the Mothers truly found their footing: We’re Only In It for the Money, released on Verve in March 1968, would become Zappa’s highest-charting album for six years (it reached #30), even while the band remained defiantly and resolutely anti-commercial in its scope. In fact, it was initially conceived as part of a larger Zappa project titled No Commercial Potential, which ultimately encompassed three other diverse albums: the aforementioned Lumpy Gravy, Cruising with Ruben & the Jets and Uncle Meat.

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There is some question regarding who exactly plays on “We’re Only In It for the Money“. The front cover shows seven Mothers, including Zappa. The liner notes list, and picture, eight: guitarist, pianist and vocalist Zappa; drummer Jimmy Carl Black (who famously declares himself to be the “Indian of the group” at the end of the lumbering, foreboding Musique concrete opener, “Are You Hung Up?,” one of two numbers featuring minor spoken parts by Eric Clapton); another drummer, Billy Mundi; bassist Roy Estrada; woodwinds player Bunk Gardner; another woodwinds musician, Ian Underwood, who also played piano; and Euclid James “Motorhead” Sherwood, who plays baritone and soprano saxophones. Don Preston, a multi-instrumentalist who had played on Absolutely Free, and would work with Zappa for several more years, is listed as “retired.”

What confuses the issue is that later re-releases of the album state, in their liner notes, that, “All musical duties on the album were performed by Frank Zappa, Ian Underwood, Roy Estrada and Billy Mundi. Jimmy Carl Black, Don Preston, Bunk Gardner and Euclid James ‘Motorhead’ Sherwood were all featured in some capacity on the record.”

Regardless of who did what, Money, produced by Zappa, is indisputably a ’60s classic and, for many, the apex of Zappa’s early years, if not his entire career. It was a concept album, owing to but simultaneously parodying Sgt. Pepper.

Its inside gatefold photo was a carefully choreographed takeoff on that previous year’s game-changer. Originally intended for the front cover, an idea nixed by the record label due to photo licensing issues (a portrait of the band in drag—Zappa wearing pigtails and a mini-skirt—adorned the outside instead), the Mothers’ Pepper parody was created by Cal Schenkel, with photography by Jerry Schatzberg. It found the band members surrounded by a seemingly random collage of people and objects, ranging from President Lyndon Johnson to the Statue of Liberty, Lee Harvey Oswald to Jimi Hendrix, the latter actually present for the photo shoot. Where the Beatles had had their name spelled out in flowers, the Mothers used vegetables and watermelons.

The humour displayed in the album art carried over to the music, but “We’re Only In It for the Money” also had its share of rather serious, biting moments as well. Its patchwork of musical elements—more of that patented avant-weirdness, doo-wop harmonies and deliberately funny voices, found sounds (including snorts, whispered dialogue from engineer Gary Kellgren and a telephone conversation in which a female caller, ostensibly Pamela Zarubica, a.k.a. Suzy Creamcheese, tells the other party, “He’s gonna bump you off, yeah; he’s got a gun, you know”)—was matched to Zappa’s sharpest lyrics to date; its 18 tracks, many of which segued abruptly into the next, were somewhat connected lyrically, albeit loosely at times.

In a few songs, Zappa bravely lampooned a sizable segment of his own audience, who adhered to the blossoming flower children/hippie ethos: “Flower Punk,” a takeoff on the oft-recorded “Hey Joe”—played at a breakneck pace in convoluted time signatures—asked, “Hey, punk, where you goin’ with that flower in your hand?”; “Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance” instructed listeners to free their minds and bodies and do just that; and, most notably “Who Needs the Peace Corps?” savaged the burgeoning youth migration to San Francisco at the time with lines like, “I’m hippy and I’m trippy, I’m a gypsy on my own, I’ll stay a week and get the crabs and take a bus back home, I’m really just a phony but forgive me ’cause I’m stoned.”

On the other hand, Zappa certainly had no love for the vapid suburban lifestyle of the hippies’ parents. “Bow Tie Daddy,” appropriately set to a giddy vaudeville-style melody, cautioned, “Don’t try to do no thinkin’, just go on with your drinkin’, just have your fun, you old son of a gun, then drive home in your Lincoln,” while the acerbic “The Idiot Bastard Son” spoke of a father who’s “a Nazi in Congress today” and a mother who’s “a hooker somewhere in L.A.” Zappa’s focus often shifted to the frayed relationships between adults and their nonconformist children—in “Lonely Little Girl,” he wrote, “The things they say just hurt your heart, it’s too late now for them to start to understand.”

Being Zappa there was both frivolity and outright darkness, sometimes in the same song: “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body?,” set to a balladic, sing-along doo-wop melody, proposed nothing beyond that question (“Some say your nose, some say your toes, but I think it’s your mind”). Another, “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black,” was truly otherworldly, with its descriptions of Kenny’s “little creatures on display” and Ronnie saving “his numies on a window in his room,” not to mention “Mama with her apron and her pad, feeding all the boys at Ed’s Café, whizzing and pasting and pooting through the day”).

But several of Money’s songs induced palpable shudders among the young who encountered them upon the album’s release. Zappa’s political statements didn’t hold back, and he spoke openly to the paranoia and fear that was in the air during that game-changing year of assassinations, domestic strife and the escalation of the Vietnam War. In “Concentration Moon,” the ballad near the top of the track list, Zappa described deadly attacks on young people who posed a threat to the powers-that-be in the ’60s: “American way, how did it start?, thousands of creeps, killed in the park, American way, try and explain, scab of a nation driven insane.” The kids, he suggests, may soon have regrets that they ever left home: “Concentration moon, wish I was back in the alley, with all of my friends, still running free, hair growing out every hole in me.” Directly following it was the mournful and equally dismal “Mom & Dad,” which continued the harrowing theme: “Someone said they made some noise, the cops have shot some girls and boys, you’ll sit home and drink all night, they looked too weird… it served them right.”

“Harry, You’re a Beast” was, perhaps, the album’s most chilling of all, a graphic depiction of male dominance and the ritual abuse of women. Set to an awkwardly chirpy melody, Harry informs Madge, presumably his wife, that she’s “phony on top and phony underneath,” after which he rapes her: “Madge, I want your body! Harry, get back! Madge, it’s not merely physical! Harry, you’re a beast!” The album’s printed lyrics follow the depiction of the incident with several instances of the word “censored,” but a later remix of the album by Zappa (which is best avoided—Zappa inexplicably re-recorded bass and drum tracks) reveals those censored words—among several segments of the original recording either altered reluctantly by Zappa or excised by the label—to be “Don’t come in me, in me,” repeated several times. Madge, as the song concludes, is still sobbing as Harry proclaims, “Madge, I couldn’t help it, doggone it.” Needless to say, rock music had never before addressed this sort of despicable behaviour so openly. (A reference to comic Lenny Bruce was cut from the final track.)

Each of these songs, up through the self-deprecating “Mother People,” the final vocal number (with its x-rated stanza,“Better look around before you say you don’t care, shut your fucking mouth about the length of my hair, how would you survive, if you were alive, shitty little person?”), contained a plethora of words to consider, and bulged with innovative musical ideas, yet the vast majority of Money’s songs were extremely short, ranging from under a minute to a little over two, with three tunes falling between three and four minutes. Only the album-closing “The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny,” one of three tracks featuring the Sid Sharp-conducted Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra and Chorus—the liner notes instructed listeners to read Franz Kafka’s In the Penal Colony before proceeding with this one—flirted with serious length, clocking in at six-and-a-half minutes, nearly all of it experimental noodling.

The whole of We’re Only In it for the Money is just under 40 minutes total, encompassing uptempo tracks, ballads and the aforementioned studio explorations. It goes by briskly though, stopping and starting and shifting gears constantly and unexpectedly to what might seem dizzying effect at first but quickly settles into its own groove.

Frank Zappa, both with and without the Mothers of Invention, would never stop seeking new ways to express himself, until the end of his life. He recorded more than 60 albums in all, some exceedingly brilliant, others disappointing to an alarming degree. But it was on this early release, We’re Only In it for the Money, when he helped make it clear that anything was possible in rock music, that Frank Zappa confirmed his true genius.

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