NEXT TIME you listen to a slide guitar over funky southern rock, try to avoid comparing it to the work of the late Lowell George. It's a hard feat.
As the leader of Little Feat throughout the '70s, George not only created a standard for slide guitar players, but was also arguably the first slide guitarist to apply an otherwise country or blues technique to a New Orleans rhythm & blues based rock format. You can hear his lingering legacy, directly or indirectly, in the contemporary music of the Radiators, Roy Rogers, Ben Harper, Bonnie Raitt, the Subdudes and many others, including the reborn Little Feat.
Plenty of blues and country musicians historically used the slide guitar to spice up the music, but New Orleans and Louisiana music was virtually devoide of this instrument.
"I don't think there were any New Orleans slide guitarists, nor any black slide guitar players in New Orleans," says Meters' bassist George Porter, Jr. "If there were, they sure were hiding good."
Besides working with the Meters on Robert Palmer's records, George also played slide guitar on "Just Kiss My Baby" from the Meters' "Rejuvination" album, though the liner notes fail to list this.
Along with Duane Allman, George brought slide guitar into the homes of young guitarists around the country who learned a trick or two from his open A and G tunings. Guitarist Sonny Landreth claims George was one of his heroes and influenced his melodic approach with the use of slow vibrato. "Lowell had impeccable taste, timing and phrasing," Landreth says.
"Lowell was a god to me," adds Landreth's keyboard player Steve Conn, who has also performed with Bonnie Raitt, herself a contemporary of George's.
George's forte was not lightning speed nor the percussive nature of the Delta blues. "With the sustain it was like a singing voice. He could almost do horn lines," sasy Tommy Malone, singer and guitarist from the Subdudes. "He was certainly an original, a master. He was amazing."
Little Feat's other guitarist Paul Barrere, who handles slide parts these days, also prefers the approach used by George. "I like people who can say a hundred things with one note as oppose to people who can say nothing with a million notes," he says.
"It's amazing almost everything coming out of Nashville these days from Travis Tritt to Mary Chapin Carpenter is suspiciously influenced," says George's songwriting partner Martin Kibbee, who co-wrote the classic "Dixie Chicken." "I think every one of those bands has a slide guitar player and into syncopation. What he was a pioneer of has now become mainstream."
Chicago-based producer Bill Presskill agrees. "He gave it that country grease thing while all the urban rhythms were happening underneath. Now in country music, they're all doing that."
Presskill should know. He is in the midst of putting together a television special and tribute record devoted to George. Scheduled for release early next year, the disc will likely have artists such as Jackson Browne, the Subdudes, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Sara Hickman, Robert Palmer and Linda Rondstadt performing songs written by the man who Kibbee calls the "pre-eminent of the mellow mafia slide life."
Presskill claims others have expressed interest , too, including Keith Richards, Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes and Charlie Sexton.
Though George died in '79, his legacy lives on not only through other artists but through the continuing artistry of Little Feat, which reunited in '88. Guitarist Paul Barrere now handles the slide parts but doesn't make a conscious effort to mimic the legato lines once squeezed out from the guitar of Lowell George. "The fact that we are playing his songs is the big tribute," Barrere says.
Ticket stubs courtesy Randy Okins