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Special Interview with Billy Payne

Bill Payne is a phenomenally gifted keyboard practitioner. He founded Little Feat with Lowell George and has played with an incredible array of musicians. From Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Nicks and Emmylou Harris to the JJ Cale, Bob Seger and Pink Floyd. And these days he joins Elwood and Brother Z on stage whenever the Blues Brothers can convince him to.

ELWOOD
Welcome, Billy Payne to the Bluesmobile, it’s great to have you on the show.

PAYNE
Elwood thanks, great to be with you again.

ELWOOD
Now we saw each other not so long ago…

PAYNE
You were singing at Ravinia. I was hiding back there on the keyboards hanging on for dear life, it was fun.

ELWOOD
Any day you have Bill Payne playing keyboard in your band is a good day. In fact, you were originally going to be in the first Blues Brothers movie…

PAYNE
Well in fact that’s right Elwood, I got a call from Murphy Dunne and he said hey there’s this film we’re doing with Dan and John and it’s in Chicago, its gonna be a few months, it’s a lot of fun, there’s Duck Dunn and Steve Cropper. And I’m like, oh boy, when is this gonna take place? He says Saturday. I go Saturday? It’s Wednesday, man. I couldn’t do it. So I was working with James Taylor. But I did play on your second album. And I thank you guys for the invite to the wrap party, which was at Universal Studios. And I remember Jake asking me: do you have a request? And I said yes, Walking The Dog. So we played that that evening.

ELWOOD
I remember it well. Let’s talk about the latest Little Feat CD, ROOSTER RAG. On this, you co-wrote some songs with the Dead’s Robert Hunter. He is a legendary and gifted wordsmith. You hadn’t worked with him before, right?

PAYNE
No I hadn’t, yeah that’s very true. Our manager, Cameron Sears, who along with John Cherry used to manage the Grateful Dead, approached me about Robert writing with me and he sent some lyrics off and we got started. And I was just working on a song today, Elwood, which would be our 11th tune. So we’ve, we’re gonna have 11 songs by the end of today.

ELWOOD
Now when you’re writing a song as a collaboration, how is that process different than when you do all the writing yourself?

PAYNE
Well I don’t have to come up with the lyrics. That’s good, that’s good. What I’m doing basically is I’m scoring my music and my melody to Robert’s lyrics and if I have a problem singing something I simply email him and he says, try this, its usually not only better, but a lot better. And our approach, at least between the two of us, seems very cinematic.

There’s a song on this record called Ragtop Down. And I think the fundamental thing that Robert and I have going for each other is we’re both aware of and not concerned, but we wanna know: does the other person know the terrain. And I say, hey with Ragtop Down which is about a car, about cruising. No, I don’t know about Highway 9 or Blood Alley, which is up in the Bay Area. But I do know about Santa Maria, San Luis Obispo, all the car guys that I was in bands with when I was a surfer back in the day. And so I sent him the tune and he wrote back: that’s a damn fine ride.

ELWOOD
So you don’t need to know the specific story that the lyrics reference. But as long as you have familiarity with where the song is going, you can use that to score?

PAYNE
Yeah absolutely. I don’t analyze Hunter’s lyrics and he doesn’t appreciate people doing that. And I don’t really need to. If I’m looking at Rooster Rag let’s say and he has a line, “Tubal Cain was the God of fire, he got doused, one good rain.” I’m sitting there and that’s in the second verse, I’m going hmm, up to this point, I don’t have any real ragtime chords in this song, why don’t I put em in right here?

And on the very end of the third verse where he’s saying, “make this old world a better place, paper chase, what a waste.” And I thought… I worked with, like I said, James Taylor for five years. I know a lot about bringing things down to a level where people subconsciously kind of lean in to hear what you’re saying and what you’re singing. I think it’s a good thing. So I took that device and brought everything down just a little bit for people to lean in consciously or otherwise and I had a lot of fun and still do writing with this guy.

His lyrics, like I say, they’re as cinematic as my music is. And I think that was the only concern I had before I wrote with him: would I be able to accomplish that? And the answer is an overwhelming yes.

ELWOOD
Now with any of the songs on the album, or perhaps some of the other ones that you guys have written that didn’t make it on the album, did you ever get stuck at any point where you just couldn’t find the feeling to go with the lyrics or anything like that?

PAYNE
Well, I got confused on one of Robert’s songs. It was not on this record, hopefully it will be eventually but its called Jugal. And I was confused as to what the chorus was. That was the only song where he went no, no you gotta do this. Okay, so I just clarified it because up to that point we’d been hitting home runs left and right. That one was problematic for me. Everything else has gone straight down the pike.

I mean I hadn’t written anything, Elwood, in about seven, God at least seven years. I did a lot of work on my photography. I’m a pretty good photographer. And I would kind of direct people to billpaynecreative.com to take a look at what I do there, what I do as a writer, cause I’m a good writer as well in fact.

So I’m writing an article on the piano I used on Rooster Rag, on the record, which was Richard Manuel’s piano from The Band. There’s a wonderful story with that and it goes everything from crazed hashish dealers, to college girls to a place called Vince Satori’s in Poughkeepsie, New York. To follow the saga of this piano which is an L Series Steinway, so its just under six foot.

And I recorded it at Johnny Lee Shell’s studio and Johnny Lee is not only a wonderful engineer, he has a very comfortable studio. But he’s recorded Delbert McClinton out there, he’s got his own band. Little Feat was there for a few weeks and he played guitar with Bonnie Raitt. So this guy’s been around the block too.

ELWOOD
Of course. Well that brings up an interesting point that I’m curious about. For you as a keyboard player, how often do you really get to connect with a physical instrument. I mean you often play electronic keyboards, but its not the same thing as, for instance, an old piano that has a story behind it or someone’s guitar that Jimi Hendrix played or something like that. It seems a keyboard is meant to be more versatile. What’s your perspective on that?

PAYNE
Well, that’s a darn good question. I’m sitting here in a room right now and in back of me is a seven foot Yamaha that I picked out for Emmylou Harris for her first album, called Boulder to Birmingham. And years later when Emmy and Brian Hearne got a divorce I was living in Los Angeles. I was asked if I could store the piano at my house, which I did for a couple years. And then I wound up buying it.

On other instruments, in fact, I make mention of this in this article, the piano I used on this iconic record that Little Feat did called Waiting for Columbus, I insisted on a real piano. I talked to Garth Hudson about it. About the L Series Steinway that they used. They chose a smaller, what they call grand piano, so they wouldn’t put the crew off too much and have them haul this thing around the United States and the world. He says, yep that’s true.

So nowadays what we do is we get up there and we play all manner of synthesizers that sound like pianos and what not and I kind of revert to the old adage that it’s a poor workman who blames his tools. So I just set it down in whatever fashion you have to and the good thing about electric or the synthesized pianos is they can really cut through a lot of stuff.

When you have a real piano on stage, like Bruce Hornsby does or Dr. John, they’re gonna sound good but they’re a little more problematic to set up on a day by day basis. Particularly if you’re moving in and out of clubs or theaters or larger places.

So I think those guys probably have a more consistent venue or venues they play than Little Feat does.

ELWOOD
That would certainly make sense. Now in terms of your influences… You incorporate so many different styles of keyboard playing into what you do. But when you were first starting out, what was the first piano player that really sorta hit you?

PAYNE
Well the first player that probably grabbed me was Little Richard. And also the guy that was playing on Elvis’ records. That’s on that side of it.

I mean the first piece when I was five years old that I played for my piano teacher was the Theme From Davy Crockett. I’m 63 years of age Elwood. I’ve finally this year gone out and started doing solo shows and part of what I do out there is I project certain images up on stage while I’m talking. Obviously, I show my photography, I’ve got poetry, I do the whole nine yards. Its sort of a show and tell the people not only the career I’ve had and continue to have, but just to give people a little different slice of what it is to be a musician. What it is to have been fortunate enough to be in a great band, to play with great bands like yours. To have toured and played on records with Bob Seger, James Taylor, gosh Jackson Brown, I mean it just goes on and on and on.

And I didn’t really think that much of it when I was doing it, but later they go: oh you played with Pink Floyd? Yeah it was at ten in the morning and Bob Estrin told me exactly what to play. I was playing Zen piano, Zen organ in that case.

ELWOOD
Wow.

PAYNE
Yeah its been a heck of a career. In terms of pianists… Leon Russell, Dr. John, those are people, Allen Toussaint, who really, really got me going. Bill Evans on the jazz side. On blues its Otis Spann, there’s just so many things. And being a part of the generation that grew up listening to radio, radio is very very important. I was sitting there every day watching television too. Cartoon music, Carl Stallings with all the Warner Bros. cartoons.

In Los Angeles they had channel 9: the movie of the week. They played the same movie every day, sometimes twice a day. So you’d be sitting there watching the Maltese Falcon as a little kid. And as a sponge just because you listened to Horowitz doesn’t mean you can play like him. But certainly it informs what your sense of art and the high water mark is. So I was fortunate to be a part of that generation.

ELWOOD
Were all these things sorta swirling around at the same time or did you go through phases like that was my Dr. John period where all I did was listen to Dr. John. Or was it all that stuff you were always listening to it?

PAYNE
I don’t think anybody always listens to anything. I think you do have a sense of little time capsules where you’re focused on something. But it doesn’t mean that they drop out of your vocabulary. Or that they drop out of you altogether. Sometimes they do.

But in the case of a lot of that music, Little Richard for example. When my son was four or five years old I put on … Tutti Frutti, Slippin and Slidin. I wanted to see what this kid would do. And without sugar by the way. And he was like running around the house like a maniac, just like I had done. But I was probably eight or nine years old.

I just laughed cause I said God that music still has that power. That’s what’s fun about playing with you guys by the way, with the Blues Brothers. It’s a great collection of music first and foremost. It gets people up and dancing uh ya know you get a chance to get away from things and yet you’re walking into a warm pool of familiarity and I think it’s a great thing to share with people.

ELWOOD
Well that is our mission from God.

PAYNE
Yeah, it sure is.