Little Feat’s new album a blues tribute years in the making

The album finds the group paying fond respect to the history of the blues, featuring covers of songs by Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Walter Jacobs, Bobby Charles and Preston Foster.

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Little Feat now features Bill Payne (from left), Kenny Gradney, Fred Tackett, Sam Clayton, Scott Sharrard and Tony Leone. | Fletcher Moore

Little Feat now includes Bill Payne (from left), Kenny Gradney, Fred Tackett, Sam Clayton, Scott Sharrard and Tony Leone.

Fletcher Moore

Little Feat’s latest album, “Sam’s Place,” is the group’s first in a dozen years. It’s also their first entirely blues album and first to fully feature conga player Sam Clayton on lead vocals.

Founding member and keyboardist Bill Payne has always been impressed by Clayton’s talents not only as a musician but as a singer. Payne recalls Clayton initially being reluctant to join the group in 1972 but quickly finding confidence and becoming an integral part of the band’s sound. Clayton and bass player Kenny Gradney made their debut on the group’s 1973 album “Dixie Chicken.” Clayton injected New Orleans music influences such as jazz into the band’s rock sound.

“He locks down the rhythm with the way he plays congas,” says Payne during a recent interview. “He’s got a great voice, not like a voice you do harmonies with, but he’s just a presence when he says something. He is got that low growl, and he listens to a lot of music styles. He’s really well schooled in music and has a great musical vocabulary.”

LITTLE FEAT
With: Los Lobos

When: 7 p.m. June 22

Where: Ravinia Festival, 201 Ravinia Park Road, Highland Park

Tickets: $49 - $125

Info: ravinia.org

Over the years, the band has occasionally called on Clayton to sing lead on their material. Payne has long hoped the group could do a blues album for Clayton and feature his talents more prominently.

After the band reformed in 2019 following bass player Paul Barrere’s death, the idea started gaining serious traction. The group started performing, with new additions Scott Sharrard on guitar and drummer Tony Leone and found instant chemistry.

While rewatching the band’s 2021 performance at New York-based venue The Egg, Payne was such in awe of Clayton’s talent that he knew it was time to take on a blues album.

“It’s a pleasure to have something in the band like that that was essentially dormant as a treasure waiting to be discovered,” he says.

The album finds the group paying fond respect to the history of the blues, featuring covers of songs by Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Walter Jacobs, Bobby Charles and Preston Foster. It also features original song “Milkman,” which was written by Clayton (and his wife Joni), guitarist Fred Tackett and Sharrard, about Clayton’s nephew.

Payne is quite familiar with the blues, having recorded and performed with the likes of Dixon, B.B. King, Buddy Guy and John Lee Hooker.

“The blues is all over the place. It’s endemic, it’s in our music, it’s in rock and roll. You can’t play rock and roll without some blues influence poking through,” he says. [Recording the album] was a wonderful infusion of energy, of fun and respect for what we’ve all grown up listening to and love.”

While the song selection was mostly done internally, Bonnie Ratt ± a longtime supporter of the group — suggested covering “You’ll Be Mine” (a song written by Dixon and first performed by Howlin’ Wolf).

“When Bonnie speaks, we listen,” says Payne. “So, we recorded that, and she was kind enough to join us on ‘Long Distance Call,’ which was written by Muddy Waters.”

Payne says it was very much a group effort, from recording to producing. Thanks to Clayton’s recommendation, the band convened in August 2023 to record at Memphis’ Sam Phillips Recording Studio. Payne especially enjoyed getting to play Jerry Lee Lewis’s piano, which “practically played itself.”

“We’ve been doing recordings at our soundcheck, which sounded really good, but by going to Memphis to record, we turned it into an event,” Payne says.

Despite the group undergoing many changes since forming in 1969 and Payne being the sole original member, he feels comfortable still calling it Little Feat.

When original singer Lowell George and Payne formed Little Feat, one of the things they talked about was the “elasticity of the group.” The idea of Little Feat was “great musicianship connected to great songs,” says Payne. Sharrard and Leone’s unique talent and experience add to the group’s already uber-talented pedigree and “real energy.”

“When you listen to this album, it sounds like Little Feat because of the way the rhythm interweaves, the keyboards are there upfront,” says Payne. “They’re not a subservient role. What I like about the new band is I think we can play just about anything.”

“If you’re going to make changes, you better have something in place that is not there to replace them, but to wow yourself first and then wow others afterwards,” he continues. “We’ve got that definitely in our vocabulary to move people and we’re moved by it. And if we’re moved by it, you’re going to be moved by it.”

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