Photo courtesy of Little Feat.
By Jeff McCord
Like the band Little Feat where he spent most of his adult life, Paul Barrere was a bit of a chameleon. The son of Hollywood actors, Barrere’s California upbringing did little to explain his affinity for Southern-fried funk. He played and recorded with everyone from pop singer Nicolette Larson to Bob Dylan to jazz composer Chico Hamilton, almost invisibly enhancing their sound. Yet it was in Little Feat where Barrere, who passed away in late October at age 71, found a home.
Like Barerre, Little Feat’s founder, Lowell George, was a Hollywood native. His upbringing couldn’t have been further removed from his gritty, hard blues ethos. George’s parents raised chinchillas and provided furs to movie stars. An early band of his, The Factory, actually performed on F Troop and Gomer Pyle. George would end up in Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, whose wriggly fusion was to many the antithesis of anything soulful.
Yet the band George formed, with keyboardist Bill Payne and fellow Zappa alum Roy Estrada (who beat out Barrere for the bass player slot) found unique alchemy. George’s guttural baritone and earthy slide guitar betrayed his love for the blues, and churning third-line funk. Instead of raw power, though, the band – particularly in 1972 when they expanded to a six-piece including Barrere on second guitar and vocals – were mind-blowing in their chops and dexterity. Little Feat became a band without peer.
It wouldn’t last long. Never prolific, George’s songwriting would drop to almost nothing, while his appetites for binge eating, alcohol and speedballs grew exponentially. He both enabled and resented Payne and Barrere’s rise in the band. The pair made Little Feat sound the kind of the same, but different – songs were longer, jazzier, hinting at fusion that George openly despised. By the time of their 1977 release Time Love A Hero, Barrere was singing the bulk of the material. Two years later, the band split. George released a solo album, went on tour, and in Arlington VA, died of a cocaine overdose. He was just 34 years old.
In 1987, the surviving members of Little Feat reformed, and some version of the band has been performing ever since.
Barrere used to claim he was “right behind George” in terms of his excesses. His health decline backed this up. He contracted Hepatitis C in 1994, was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2015. Last year, when he dropped out of Little Feat’s 50th anniversary tour, his bandmates feared the worst.
Many of the band’s loyalists paid scant attention to Little Feat in the post-George era, but they continued to make new fans, and throughout, Barrere’s mixture of funky and slick remained an inseparable part of their sound. “Skin It Back”, “Old Folk’s Boogie”, “Time Loves A Hero” – all his songs, and the way he connected with George on guitar gave the band much of their unrelenting drive. Captured just past their prime in 1978, Waiting For Columbus –one of rock’s finest live albums- stands as evidence of how good this band could be, Attempting to describe their weird, unclassifiable soup to an interviewer back in the day, Barrere eventually gave up. “It’s been described as a musician’s band,” he said. He seemed to be just fine with that.