For the past four decades, Bill Payne has spent more time on the road, in studios, and working with rock n’ roll hall of famers than most of that rare group of musicians who can pay the bills with their talent and endurance. He’s one of rock’s most talented keyboardists, a legitimate legend among peers. A founding member of Little Feat, he’s appeared on hundreds of studio albums and toured with the likes of Jimmy Buffet, James Taylor, and the Doobie Brothers. Most people in the music industry or familiar with rock’s meaningful past know this amazing musician’s songs and recognize his chops instantly. Countless musicians have shared time with him in the studio or onstage. More would like to, because he makes most musicians better.
Born in Waco, Texas, on March 12, 1949, he was raised in Ventura, California, where he began his journey as a musician from the comfort of his Mom’s lap in front of an old upright piano down in the basement. By the time he was five, he was taking classical lessons with music teacher Ruth Newman. He continued for 10 years, fueled by a growing desire to interpret, play and create music.
In Bill’s early sessions with Lowell, this genesis of Little Feat churned out deep and diverse songs: “Truck-Stop Girl,” “Strawberry Flats,” “Brides of Jesus,” “Gunboat Willy.” One day, Lowell shared a song called “Willin” with Bill, a tune that, legend has it, made Zappa suggest Lowell form his own band. Eventually, Bill, Lowell, former Mothers of Invention bassist Roy Estrada and Fraternity of Man drummer Richie Hayward – who also had history with Lowell – formed Little Feat.
But the locomotive that was Little Feat was derailed when Lowell died from a heart attack in 1979. The band went into hiatus. As Bill then told People magazine, “Without Lowell George, there is no Little Feat.” The band disbanded, and Bill was working everywhere and with everyone. In the studio. On the road. With Linda Ronstadt. Jackson Browne. Stevie Nicks. Nicolette Larson. Diana Ross. Even Barbie Benton. In the process, he expanded his artistry on the keyboard, worked in varied genres, and became one of rock’s most sought-after keyboardists.
Bill Payne is not a musician of habit, nor one who needs his ego stroked regularly to inspire his creativity. Bill’s presence in rock has been defined by his talent, resourcefulness, longevity and penchant for straying. His laid-back demeanor provides a perfect camouflage for the intensely passionate artist he shelters within. He lives and breathes to create, not to smell the roses. He doesn’t spend his time looking back at what he and Little Feat have accomplished. Rather, he’s always looking ahead to start anew, to be inventive, to be original. Bill doesn’t produce product, he creates, plays and produces music. He is an artist. It’s what he’s always been about.