Lowell George was born in Hollywood, California, the son of Willard H. George, a furrier who raised chinchillas and supplied furs to the movie studios.George's first instrument was the harmonica. At the age of 6 he appeared on Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour performing a duet with his older brother, Hampton. As a student at Hollywood High School (where he befriended Paul Barrere and future wife Elizabeth), he took up the flute in the school marching band and orchestra. He had already started to play Hampton's acoustic guitar at age 11, progressed to the electric guitar by his high school years, and later learned to play the saxophone, shakuhachi and sitar. During this period, George viewed the teen idol-oriented rock and roll of the era in a contemptuous light, instead favoring West Coast jazz and the soul jazz of Les McCann & Mose Allison. Following graduation in 1963, he briefly worked at a gas station (an experience that inspired such later songs as "Willin'" and "Truck Stop Girl") to support himself while studying art and art history at Los Angeles Valley College for two years.
Initially funded by the sale of his grandfather's stock, George's first band (The Factory) formed in 1965 and released at least one single on the Uni label, "Smile, Let Your Life Begin" (co-written by George). Members included future Little Feat drummer Richie Hayward (who replaced Dallas Taylor in September 1966), Martin Kibbee (a.k.a. Fred Martin) who would later co-write several Little Feat songs with George (including "Dixie Chicken" and "Rock & Roll Doctor"), and Warren Klein on guitar. Frank Zappa produced two tracks for the band, but they weren't released until 1993 on the album Lightning-Rod Man
, billed as Lowell George and The Factory. The band made an appearance on the 1960s sitcom F Troop
as "The Bed Bugs". They were also featured in an episode of Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.
, "Lost, the Colonel's Daughter" (season 3 episode 27). Although not visible in the scene inside the A Go-Go club, their music can be heard playing loudly. They received credits at the end of the episode as "'The Factory' Lowell-Warren-Martin-Rich, Courtesy of Universal Records".Following the disbanding of The Factory, George briefly joined The Standells. In November 1968, George joined Zappa's Mothers of Invention as rhythm guitarist and nominal lead vocalist; he can be heard on both Weasels Ripped My Flesh
and the first disc of You Can't Do That on Stage Anymore, Vol. 5
. During this period, he would absorb Zappa's autocratic leadership style and avant garde-influenced conceptual/procedural-oriented compositional methods. He earned his first production credit (in conjunction with Zappa and Russ Titelman) on Permanent Damage
, an album recorded by "groupie group" The GTOs. George later asserted that "he performed no real function in the band" and left the group in May 1969 under nebulous circumstances. GTOs member Pamela Des Barres has claimed that George was fired by the abstemious Zappa for smoking marijuana, while he claimed at a 1975 Little Feat concert that he was fired because he "wrote a song ["Willin'"\] about dope." On the contrary, biographer Mark Brend asserts that Zappa "liked the song" but "thought there was no place for it in the Mothers' set"; George himself alternatively claimed that "it was decided that I should leave and form a band" by mutual agreement. George's electric slide guitar skills are also featured on Bonnie Raitt's 'Takin my Time' (Warner Bros. 1973) album on tracks, "I feel the same" and "Guilty".
After leaving the Mothers of Invention, George invited fellow musicians to form a new band, which they named Little Feat. George usually (but not always) played lead guitar and focused on slide guitar. Ry Cooder played the slide on the debut Little Feat album after George badly injured his hand while working on a powered model airplane, although George re-recorded some of his material. Mark Brend wrote that George's "use of compression defined his sound and gave him the means to play his extended melodic lines."When not working with Little Feat, George lent his talents as a session player. George played guitar on John Cale's 1973 album Paris 1919
, Harry Nilsson's Son of Schmilsson
album (Take 54) and (uncredited but verified by Leo Nocentelli) the Meters' Just Kissed My Baby
in 1974, and on John Sebastian's Tarzana Kid
. In 1976 he played on Jackson Browne's The Pretender
. Also with the Meters, George's slide work features prominently on Robert Palmer's first solo studio album, Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley
recorded in New Orleans in 1974.In the 1970s, Little Feat released a stream of studio albums: Little Feat
, Sailin' Shoes
, Dixie Chicken
, Feats Don't Fail Me Now
, The Last Record Album
, and Time Loves A Hero
. The group's 1978 live album Waiting for Columbus
became their best-selling album.In an interview with Bill Flanagan conducted eleven days before his death, George stated that he was keen to re-form Little Feat without Bill Payne and Paul Barrère in order to reassert his full control over the group. Due to tensions within the group, especially between George and Payne and, to a lesser extent, Barrère, regarding musical direction and leadership, Payne and Barrère left the group in 1979.George was also a producer, and produced the Grateful Dead's 1978 album Shakedown Street
, as well as Little Feat's records, Valerie Carter's 1977 release Just A Stone's Throw Away
, and George's 1979 solo album Thanks, I'll Eat It Here
On June 15, 1979, George began a tour in support of his solo album. On June 29, 1979, the morning after an appearance at Washington, D.C.'s Lisner Auditorium where the bulk of Waiting for Columbus
had been recorded, George collapsed and died in his Arlington, Virginia hotel room.A postmortem report later stated that heart failure was the cause of death. George's body was cremated in Washington, D.C. on August 2. His ashes were flown back to Los Angeles, where they were scattered from his fishing boat into the Pacific Ocean.
Posthumous tributes and cover songs
- A benefit concert for George's family was held shortly after his death at the Forum in Los Angeles on August 4, 1979, featuring Little Feat, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, Nicolette Larson and others.
- The song "Ride Like the Wind" on the 1979 self-titled album by Christopher Cross was dedicated to Lowell George.
- Jackson Browne memorialized George in his 1980 song "Of Missing Persons", on the Hold Out album released in June 1980. The song was dedicated to George's daughter, Inara George who is in the musical duo The Bird and the Bee. Browne famously described George as "the Orson Welles of rock".
- In 1983, the British poet Sean O'Brien included a poem "For Lowell George" in his collection, The Indoor Park.
- In 1988, American rock band Van Halen covered "A Apolitical Blues" as the closing track for their album OU812.
- In 1997, the CD Rock-n-Roll Doctor - A Tribute To Lowell George was released featuring various artists performing versions of George's songs, including Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther, Bonnie Raitt, Eddie Money, Randy Newman, Keisuke Kuwata, and Inara George.
- French recording artist Yann Schubert included tribute song "Lowell George" (words and music by Jean Philippe Kohn) in his 1980s eponymous album ( AZ/2 320 )
- Chris & Rich Robinson covered Roll um easy on their album "Brothers of A Feather"
- American jam band Phish played all the songs from Little Feat's double LP Waiting for Columbus during their annual and traditional Halloween "Musical Costume" on 10/31/2010 in Atlantic City, New Jersey