Music/Lyrics: Lowell George
Original Artist: Little Feat
Original Album: Little Feat (1971)
Historian: Martin Acaster (Doctor_Smarty)
Every artist has a signature piece, a work that captures their essence perfectly. For Little Feat’s Lowell George, “Willin’” is that signature piece. Depending on which of the legends you believe, this homage to truck driving in the desert southwest is the reason Lowell George parted ways with Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention to form Little Feat. In one version Zappa thought the song was so good that he recommended George go off and form another band and be a star in his own right. Told another way, George was asked to take “Willin’” and get the hell out, due to the drug references coursing through the veins of both the song and its author. Though the truth likely lies somewhere in between, Lowell George was indeed “Willin’” to give it a shot, by leaving the Mothers in 1969 and taking his “weed, whites, and wine” along with him to form Little Feat.
Although it appeared on Little Feat’s eponymous 1971 debut album, Lowell George’s signature piece was first released (as “Willing”) on lesser known country great Johnny Darrell’s 1970 album California Stop Over. Darrell’s version is a crisp honky-tonk and may reflect George’s initial vision for the piece. The original Little Feat recording of “Willin’” features similar up-tempo Lowell George vocals over a sparse but high-spirited Ry Cooder slide guitar. Cooder was filling in on slide due to a hand injury George had sustained on the propeller of a model airplane. Little Feat re-recorded the more well known road-weary version of the song for their 1972 release Sailin’ Shoes. It is this same dusty truck stop serenade to Dallas Alice that appears on Waiting for Columbus, Little Feat’s 1978 live album release, considered by many to be one of the best live albums of all-time, despite the subsequent studio over-dubbing of parts of George's vocals and slide work.
When Phish performed Waiting for Columbus for their Halloween costume in Atlantic City, “Willin’” was the no-brainer Fishman tune. This “featured vocal” tour de force also included Mike’s approximation of Billy Payne’s piano virtuosity, Page laying down Kenny Gradney’s solid groove on bass guitar, Trey (in a rare instance where he does not also play “HYHU”) taking Richie Hayward’s seat behind the drums, and Giovanni Hidalgo filling in for Sam Clayton’s congas. Missing from the mix is the loose twang of the Lowell George and Paul Barrere guitar combo featured in the Sailin’ Shoes and Waiting for Columbus versions. Fishman was also not the first person who looks good in a dress to cover the song. Country sweetheart Linda Rondstadt beat him to the punch when she included a rendition on her 1974 Heart Like a Wheel album.
There is no telling what it will take to get Fish to perform the song again, but somewhere along life’s long lonesome highway, we can only hope he is “Willin’” to give it another shot “For Lowell George.”
Phish, ”Willin’” – 10/31/10, Atlantic City, NJ