Richie Hayward: Little Feat's Funky Heartbeat
My style has grown with the band. It started out heavily influenced by blues, rock ‘n’ roll, and jazz. Then it got more specific as I got into other kinds of American folk music and other roots music. I discovered New Orleans along the way and that made a big difference - it loosened me up. - Richie Hayward in Modern Drummer, 1995.
I was so sad to hear the news last week about the passing of beat-master Richie Hayward, drummer and co-founder of Little Feat, which has been an incredible roots rock band since before there was a term to describe it. Although I’m a guitarist, I seem to have always locked into the drummer first when assessing music live or on record; and Richie Hayward got my attention from the get-go back in 1973, when I first heard the Feat doing “Dixie Chicken”*, from their album of the same name. Back then my groove fixation was evident (loved soul/funk music, African and Latin music, and intense drummers like Billy Cobham) but unfocused - more of an instinctive gut (butt?) reaction somewhere deep in my DNA than something I could articulate (still trying!). It would be several years yet until I heard Meters’ records (LPs first). Later, in 1978-79, I had a consciousness-expanding, life-changing experience in a club (Jeds) in New Orleans one night, listening to the Neville Brothers for the first time, when instinct became idea and I suddenly realized that I was in the Home of the Groove (I didn’t quite have that name yet, though), an incredibly rich wellspring of poly-rhythmic music that I had to explore. I'm still at it.....
Anyway back to Richie and his band. So, I quite naturally got into Little Feat’s grooves, impressive playing*, and albums of the 1970s, all of ‘em. Richie had such a fluid, natural way of breaking up the beats. Whether he was being subtle or slammin’, he had that tight-is-loose, zen-like drumming zone down. There were definite New Orleans influences in their writing and playing, which blossomed at the time of Dixie Chicken; but that really only became apparent to me gradually over time as I began to seriously assimilate the funkier side of what the city had to offer. But right then, it was enough to dig ‘em for what they were - groove monsters. I was fortunate to hear the Feat play Memphis,with their leader, the incredible Lowell George, in 1976 on a split bill with Bonnie Raitt (who was/is a Feat devotee herself). The band was incendiary that night and pretty much blew Bonnie’s fine ensemble away, doing not only their standard tunes but lots of inventive jamming with incredibly dense and complex rhythms that could not have happened without Mr Hayward’s immense skills.
Years later, in 1988, when Little Feat re-grouped with Craig Lee Fuller singing lead, I was in the audience for their first performance, which, acknowledging their musical debt to the city, took place on the Riverboat President in New Orleans, again with Bonnie Raitt on the bill, a Jazzfest nighttime concert. That was a joyous night for everybody. It was so cathartic to hear those tunes live again by most of the guys who made ‘em happen and were having such a blast. Sure, the irreplaceable slide guitar and voice of Lowell George were sorely missed; but, to his credit, I thought Fuller (who was pretty nervous that night) did a commendable job then and during his stint with the band. Particularly notable to me was seeing Richie Hayward doing his thing in New Orleans. He sounded so at home locked-in to the rhythms of the city - an amazing feat in and of itself for someone who did not come up in or near the culture. He was so open to it and adept at expressing it that he actually became a New Orleans drummer, able to channel the spirit, though he grew up in Iowa and spent his career thousands of miles away on the Left Coast (and on the road, of course).
So, I wanted to pick a song that at least gives a glimpse of what he was about when doing his thing, and could have chosen so many. But I decided on “Down Below The Borderline”, because, to me, it’s got so much in it of a particular New Orleans funk band with rock leanings that rubbed off so much on that Southern California rock band with funk leanings.
“Down Below the Borderline” (Lowell George)
Little Feat, The Last Record Album, 1975
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio
The Little Feat and Meters/New Orleans connection has long been evident**. I’m not breaking any new ground here, nor am I an expert on Little Feat history; but I would suspect that Lowell George and Hayward probably first got into the Meters when that group and Allen Toussaint became labelmates of the Feat on Warner Bros. In 1972, the company released Toussaint’s influential Life, Love & Faith album backed by the Meters, whose Cabbage Alley LP produced by Toussaint also came out on the Reprise subsidiary that year. WB also had a new deal with Toussaint to administer his songwriting catalog. So his music and the Meters’, too, was getting a major push to artists on the label and the music business in general at the time.
That same year, the original Little Feat reconfigured and began their true funkification. In those more musically adventurous days, it was still a pretty radical direction for a rock band to go. George recruited second guitarist/vocalist/writer Paul Barrere, plus bassist Kenny Gradney and percussionist Sam Clayton (Merry’s brother), both from the New Orleans area, who had been playing with Delaney & Bonnie. The Dixie Chicken album was the greased-up, humidified result. They had quickly found their groove and pretty much did not look back, though they certainly would put their own spin on the New Orleans feel. As I have noted before, their moving, perfectly paced take on Toussaint’s “On Your Way Down” on that LP remains the best version ever of the song.
Taken from their ominously titled, The Last Record Album, which may have signaled some growing internal strife, “Down Below The Borderline” is probably a good window into the state of the band at the time. While the songs had some serious funk going on, there was an element of jazzoid fusion to some of them, as evidenced by keyboardist Bill Payne’s somewhat dissonant solo here. That tendency to jam-out and experiment would prove to at times work counter to George’s soulful, Southern rock-oriented emphasis on more structured songs; and the differences would strain the unity of the group up until his death in 1979.
There is no doubt about where George copped this tune’s feel. It’s real strong on the mid-1970s Meters. Hayward played the drums with a deft touch - syncopated for sure but not heavy-handed or busy, allowing the rest of the band (I don’t hear Clayton’s congas on this track) to layer in their respective counter-rhythms, mixing up a fascinating, if slightly abstract, interpretation of the Crescent City’s pulse.
Richie Hayward’s loss is a blow to the band, which continues to this day, his many fans and admirers, and family, of course. But his musical legacy has been well-documented and remains available for discovery and appreciation. Obviously, Richie truly revered New Orleans music, but went beyond merely copying what he heard. He brought it into his creative process, making it his own, while keeping the heritage identifiable. A rare gift indeed. Early on, I learned a lot about New Orleans funk before I even realized it, listening to him with the Feat. I just had to offer up props for that. Thanks Richie. It’s been...unforgettable. Long may your beats be heard.
You know that you’re over the hill, when your mind makes a promise that your body can’t fill. - “Old Folks Boogie”, Little Feat
*Check out even more live Feat on YouTube.
**It's also no secret that Little Feat were one of the inspirations, outside the obvious ones at home, for New Orleans' own funky roots rock aggregation, the Radiators.
NOTE: Those wishing to contribute to a fund for Richie’s family, may read more and do so at Sweet Relief.