For Willin’ The Story of Little Feat, the stated intention of author Ben Fong-Torres was to chronicle the life of the legendary, and sometimes decadent, Southern California rock band, but do so balancing the contributions of its founder, the late Lowell George, with those of his bandmates. It seems a noble and welcomed mission, as George’s tenure in the 45-year existence of the group ultimately was limited to its first decade with his death in 1979. As with any good intention, it is the outcome that really matters, and Fong-Torres does not quite escape the shadow cast by the enigmatic leader.
The 250-page effort certainly hits the high points. Biographical markers accurately and neatly describe the various paths that led to Lowell and Little Feat, first in 1969, then again in 1972 when the quartet replaced its bassist and added a percussionist and second guitar. Each album, each song, their chart positions and sales, are recalled, so too the context within which they were written and recorded. Centered on George- his role, his input, and the band’s, producers’, and peers’ reactions to him- the principals are portrayed often as though planets around George’s sun. While his role as such is in some ways a fitting metaphor, it seemingly contradicts rather than enhances the premise. No more clearly is this demonstrated than by the text devoted to vocalists Craig Fuller and Shaun Murphy, who collectively spent 20 years fronting the reformed Little Feat following George’s demise. Their stories, and subsequent two decades of band history, are told in 31 pages, while George dominates over 185. For a book that set out to illuminate the creative impact of Little Feat as a unit, it appears resoundingly from Fong-Torres’ perspective that George’s star was the hottest and brightest.
To its slight detriment, there are redundancies that crop up and distract, from the listing of bands on the 1970s’ Warner Brothers roster to a quote describing George’s early life that, when used twice within two consecutive chapters, invokes an unfortunate sense of deja-vu. The same holds true when quoting Linda Ronstadt’s assessment of Lowell George’s mental capacity, again in redundant fashion with two nearly identical quotes used in two separate chapters illustrating the same point (while Fong-Torres refers to the singer in seeming condescension as, ‘Dr. Ronstadt.’).
For a band that has rolled into its fifth decade of music, Little Feat deserves to have its story told, and Fong-Torres should be commended for his effort. However, Willin’ too often feels parental and protective, especially with regard to Lowell George. There are mentions of the band’s notorious indulgent side with several anecdotes from the road, but those are handled with a veil of selective hindsight. Rock and roll tales don’t have to be sordid or salacious to be interesting, but these are veterans, survivors of the music industry’s most permissive days. So while Fong-Torres moves his account from past to present with enough flair and fact to remain engaging, the story of Little Feat could’ve been slightly more layered and revelatory.