Richie Hayward, the drummer and one of the co-founders of little feat, passed away from complications of pneumonia on August 12, 2010. He was 64. He was influential, underrated and too young to go.
During my early teen years I was exposed to this remarkable band, first on the floor of the family summer house on Great Cranberry Island, Maine; some older cousins had left both “Time Loves a Hero” and Robert Palmer’s “Sneaking Sally Through the Alley” in the pile next to the KLH turntable, “TLAH” with its Neon Park cover, some foreign landscape magical and warm, the music so clear (some might say slick) and yet so funky.
In high school “Waiting For Columbus” spent YEARS on the record player, the songs and energy taken to such a high level through the performance. I spent a week in my parent’s barn with my drum kit, trying to get the feel, the syncopation and the mechanical coordination together just to play Richie’s intro to “Time Love A Hero”. It seems to drop in already in progress, backwards and off beat, the transition to the head natural in its inversion. Hard thing for a young musician to feel, let alone diagnose. The earlier albums were heard in the back of a bosses Honda Accord, loaded on vodka and pot, his high end listening of feat and Steely Dan highlights of an education of quality rather than the median FM fare that polluted my peers 8-tracks.
As much as I wanted to be able to play like Richie it didn’t seem to matter as no one around me could play like the rest of the band in my age group (Steve Ide could but I was just a young pup…) By the time I was at Berklee, I had even a harder time finding those who wanted to play feat-style music, the confusion of fusion and the half hearted wave of “New Wave” conspired to push me in different directions. As I was not the type to wack the hard pads of a Simmons kit, I sided with John Bonham and Stewart Copeland, who also hit hard, turned it around and was accessible to me and those I was playing with.
Strangely, there were always those with a musical vocabulary like mine who would listen to feat for pleasure but never attempt to walk in that direction in a band setting. I ended up accessing the Delta and older Blues through them, not the Stones or the others who dragged young Americans back into the history of their own countries musical history. Paul and Lowell’s slides seemed better connected than the English knock offs or the poppier acts from the USA. They made traveling back not a history lesson but a quest for an essence that might not even connect with a middle class white kid (when there was a middle class). Their explorations into jazz seemed natural; it was still feat music.
Well, Lowell left early and it seemed like there was nothing else to learn. Abandoned and left with great albums, it sadly felt like another snapshot of a time that I’d never have a connection to except through my ears.
I stopped playing music regularly in the mid-80’s when my addictions became more time and spirit consuming. I began helping others with their gear while living in Boston, my connection to live music now supportive rather than direct. I moved to Southern California in 1985 and fell into touring work by mid-1986. Somehow I survived until late 1989 when I began to clean up my act. I spent the next few years spanning the globe with Paul Simon, wrapping up in early 1992. There’s a funny thing about having a good long-term job; you get out of the loop. People forget about you; it’s hard to find work sometimes after one of those. When I got the call in June of 1992 for a job with little feat, I jumped not because of the fear of never working again (a common roadie phobia) but because, in whatever form they were currently in, it was the FEAT!
Working for your heroes can be a dicey thing sometimes, your expectations and the reality can cause serious problems. I was invited to the Power Plant rehearsal studios to meet the guys and figure out their gear. Unfortunately the previous guitar tech refused to show me the ropes; Much of it I had to figure out for myself. There was a bit of pressure on but little of it was from the band. I had the job of caring for 4 people on the tour: Paul, Fred, Kenny and Craig Fuller. Things were casual when I arrived, most of the band settled in and getting ready for another turn through the states.
I did my best to pay attention to the guys I was responsible for but there was Richie, right there, surrounded by cymbals. I think the puns began at once with us, from the intro on. The thing about people who try to be funny (I am one), we can spot others who really are. I don’t think there were many times when a turn of phrase, a pun or a double meaning or arcane reference didn’t enter our interaction. I think it gave us both pleasure when we realized that we were the only two who understood what was being said.
My first gig was not so great as I packed up a needed acoustic guitar before the encore was completed… after a short delay, the crowd got “Willin’” and we were off to the next town, my job still there. The first weeks of hearing the band only feet away were amazing; the level of communication and experience are pretty much untouched by any other band I’ve ever worked for. There are opportunities to see remarkable performers but to see a band that really operates together as a single organism, stronger for it’s many parts not weaker, that is becoming more rare. This is/was not a perfect band; some of their flaws actually became part of their style. I’ve had a theory for years which some have agreed with; I’ve witnessed it so I feel confident that it has some merit.
Richie had a habit of rushing his tempos a bit; early in the band’s history Lowell was rather harsh about tempo and some of the live recordings from the mid-70’s are slow, funky, laid waaaaay back. When Richie rushed, one of the people who would get annoyed was Sam Clayton, the percussionist in the band. He would intestinally drag/”lay back” to pull him back in, which, wasn’t always successful. Kenny Gradney, the bass player would sit right there in the middle, a strange flamming triplet of groove that often felt like a single great big note, fat and funky. To me it was one of the secrets to feat’s sound, a rhythmic chorusing effect that made them nearly impossible to imitate.
There was one show that year in Portland, OR at the Washington Park Rose Garden Amphitheatre when John Hammond Jr. opened for them, acoustic solo. We did the set change and put the band on stage. The opening number that night was “Hate To Lose” which opens with a guitar figure and then the band comes in. When that moment came, Richie did his flourish, struck his snare drum like a cannon shot and all the power in the venue went off. Turns out the electrician had tied all the food tents with their espresso machines and woks into the same circuit as the sound power; once the peak of Richie’s drums pushed the PA’s speakers to regular operating volume, it tripped all the breakers. Sad part is during the wait for the repair to the circuit we couldn’t even go get a coffee as they were dead in the water too!
The music of feat between ’88 and now has been slighted by some, due to ghosts, alleged intrusions into the “boy’s club”, the general malaise and toppling of the recorded music business and the fact that corporations only seem to know how to sell new things or things that never change. A lot of songs and performances through the Fuller and Murphy years are great, they stand alone without Shakespearian trips to the battlement walls. Paul and Billy still write songs that will open your head, your eyes and your heart. Richie propelled so many of them to the next level, just by being there.
We shared laughs, hot nights, cold mornings, strengths, weaknesses… The last 10 years we were not very close but like good friends and friendly family, time can pass and everything is the same, for better or worse. I was never Richie’s drum tech; I started as a guitar tech, took on being production manager for a time, drove the truck… when you are welcomed into a family you take the job that’s open and do your best to help the band in and out of each show. Not being his tech make our friendship safe as sometimes in any working relationship the job and the friendship can clash a bit. I would have loved to do the job, but I never did.
Plenty of other people can and will write better obits but I’m doing this because I was lucky enough to work with him and his band on and off for 10 years. Unlike some of the people who I’ve worked for, there was plenty of personal interaction and time spent off of the stage with feat; in the later years band and crew traveled on the same bus, which meant we were in close quarters.
Richie was a remarkable drummer, his high harmonies were a secret weapon for the band and as a man, he was so nice, too nice in some cases. You wanted to defend him but he took his own path. I have been so blessed to find these things out, I hope he felt the love and appreciation for him in the end; he was a fan of good drummers and they were all fans of him. I extend my love to the band, their families, the family of feat fans and all those who feel this loss. We are so lucky that he left so much amazing music in the world for us to share, then, now and forever.