CHICAGO — Little Feat’s Bill Payne had done just about everything a piano-playing rock ‘n’ roller (with a side order of Erik Satie and Bill Evans) can do over the last 40 years, except perform a concert under his own name — until last year.
At age 63, Payne finally went out solo for the first time, but the show he’s put together is anything but conventional. It pulls together musical pieces from throughout his career and mixes in his poetry and photography.
“I’m slow to dawn on things,” he says with a self-deprecating chuckle. “But once I get it, I’m OK.”
For the consummate team player, a musician who often melted into the background with his songwriting and instrumental virtuosity, his solo show represents a starkly personal turn.
“Why did it take me 63 years to begin this process — actually do it?” he says. “It was writing with (Grateful Dead lyricist) Robert Hunter.”
In the last couple of years, Payne and Hunter have co-written more than a dozen songs, which Payne is filtering into his solo shows. Four of those tunes appeared on last year’s Little Feat studio album, “Rooster Rag.”
“It’s so ingrained in me to be a band player,” the pianist says. “It’s always been, ‘Here’s a song; you sing it.’ Or, ‘Let’s all write together.’ It’s a good way to think. But when you don’t have a band, what’s your next move? Robert kick-started the process by writing lyrics for me, and for the first time I had to sing. In all the years of playing with Little Feat, I had never recorded my voice doing a song. But with Robert, I got into the mindset of, ‘If I’m writing this song, I’m not giving it to someone else.’”
Payne co-founded Little Feat in 1969 with Lowell George. The keyboardist was only 20 years old at the time, but he was already developing a reputation among musicians on the California scene, a pianist as conversant with Little Richard as he was with jazz and classical.
“Piano was a refuge for me,” Payne says. “I was a teen with a ton of angst, and bands helped me get through it. I had played pipe organ in church, but the first time I played rock ‘n’ roll in Ventura, Calif., it was fun, energetic. It’s like when you listen to Little Richard’s ‘Long Tall Sally’ or ‘Slippin’ and Slidin” — it was that connection between momentum, fun and the idea of losing it at any second. You just roll off into the roses, and hopefully there aren’t any thorns in there.”
With Little Feat, Payne played a crucial role, whether with his expressive playing (check out his percussive attack and expansive solo on live versions of “Dixie Chicken”) or his songwriting (“Oh, Atlanta,” “Time Loves a Hero,” “Truck-Stop Girl”). When George died in 1979, Little Feat dissolved for a decade, but Payne continued to work steadily as an in-demand session musician with artists such as Emmylou Harris, Bob Seger, James Taylor, the Doobie Brothers, Stevie Nicks, Carly Simon and dozens of others.
Little Feat reunited in the late ’80s, and has been playing steadily ever since, though the band has suffered setbacks in recent years with the departure of vocalist Shaun Murphy in 2009 and the death of original drummer Richie Hayward in 2010.
“I thought, ‘How could we do it without Lowell George? Or without Richie Hayward?’ But I thought back to a night in California in the 1960s when I went to see the Yardbirds,” Payne says. “Jeff Beck was the guy I wanted to see, but he had quit the band. Instead, I got to see (Beck’s replacement) Jimmy Page. That turned out pretty good too.
“Lowell George and Richie are part of our family. But it’s something that is bigger than all of us at this point. It doesn’t mean Little Feat has to continue forever, but what keeps it honest? What keeps it real? It’s a balancing act to maintain a legacy. A musician, an artist has to have the ability to think beyond people who want to chain him up to a wall and say, ‘Here’s who you are.’
“I take great pride in this. I may be confusing some people. I can play it as rock ‘n’ roll, or I can play it as a four-part fugue. You can’t limit yourself to someone else’s idea of who you should be. Otherwise I never would’ve kept playing the piano as a kid.”