Smile, Let Your Life Begin
Being on somewhat of a Lowell George kick the last month or so—digging Little Feat’s debut in particular—I thought I’d talk a little about a man who made a pretty good-sized mark on California music in a pretty short time. Lowell George started playing instruments in high school, “which led to him appearing as an oboist and baritone saxophonist on several Frank Sinatra recording sessions.” Shifting towards rock, blues, and country, George got into some unique slide guitar playing techniques and, it's said, developed a talent second only to Ry Cooder's in the L.A. scene. By ’65 he’d started a folk rock group called The Factory with his friend and drummer Richard Hayward (Future CSNer Dallas Taylor was in it first, but got sick). They cut a few sides for Frank Zappa who George had met at a talent show years before. Contrary to Richie Unterberger’s oft suspect allmusic notes (Hell, he once wrote that Dino Valente “didn't have much of a voice.” Jeez, Dino’s all voice!), The Factory released at least two 45s for Uni in 1966 and '67, including one where they’re jamming with microtonal magician Emil Richards. (You can find these four sides plus 11 other demos and never-released recordings on a CD called Lightning-Rod Man).
Writes Unterberger, “The group pursu[ed] a slightly eccentric folk-rock vision that neither bears much similarity to George's more famous work nor matches the best work done in this genre by their L.A. peers. At times they echo Kaleidoscope in their vaguely spacey, good-natured folkish rock; just as often, they take cues from Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa in their skewed blues-rock and obtuse songwriting (in fact one song, “Lightning Rod Man,” has even turned up on bootlegs as a lost Beefheart gem).” As far as The Factory’s sound, Unterberger’s pretty spot on, but let it be said that The Factory’s at their best, particularly the Eastern-vibed “No Place I’d Rather Be” and “Smile, Let Your Life Begin,” kick ass on most of that square jangly stuff so championed by reissuer types and trad-leaning critics.
A saying scrawled above the wall
heater at the Factory's Hollywood Hills house circa
1967 : "When shit becomes valuable the poor will have no assholes".
Though their records didn’t do so hot, George and the boys still found themselves on teevee, performing two of their songs, “Lost” and “Candy Cane Mountain” in a nightclub scene on an episode of Gomer Pyle. They also popped up in early ’67 on F-Troop performing instrumentals as The Bed Bugs—even getting to speak a couple lines. Soon thereafter The Factory fell apart, or in reality sort of metamorphosed into The Fraternity of Man, a very odd band who were best known for their jokey "Don't Bogart Me" on the Easy Rider soundtrack. The group featured Elliott Ingber (later “Winged Eel Fingerling” of Captain Beefheart-fame). Recalled George in a 1975 interview, “[The Fraternity of Man] was trying to play ‘Rumble’ and on about take 54 they still couldn't get through the first verse and the guitar player started talking to his amplifier. And then his amplifier started answering, it really did answer him. He spoke something to the amp and the amp spoke back, and it's on tape. Yeah, it was very strange.” The Fraternity of Man cut two albums, although George’s involvement was sporadic.
Also around this time, George can be heard tooting his flute on Michele’s Saturn Rings LP which featured contributions from lots of Saggitarius/Millenium types like Curt Boettcher, Bobby Jameson, and Gordon Alexander. For a time it looked as if George had found a home as a replacement for Dick Dodd in the Standells (having just released his Tower LP, The First Evolution of Dick Dodd). The gig didn’t last long, however, and George was soon replaced in The Standells by none other than Dewey Martin from The Buffalo Springfield!
At this point, George joined the Mothers of Invention, an arrangement that didn’t last too long either. The anti-dope Zappa soon “convinced” George to form his own band (or as some say, kicked him out of The Mothers) after hearing his "weed, whites, and wine"-mentioning composition, "Willin'.” Taking bassist Roy Estrada along with him, George formed Little Feat in 1969 with ex-Factory drummer Hayward and Fraternity keyboardist Billy Payne. Estrada quit in ‘72 to become a computer programmer, but Little Feat would go on to big success with the reefer-blowing set.
Haven’t read it yet, but British author Mark Brend wrote a book a couple years back about Lowell George called Rock and Roll Doctor. In it he apparently has George doing stints not only with The Mothers and The Standells, but also The Seeds. According to reviews, “the book also includes a detailed and descriptive list of all of George¹s recorded appearances and production credits making this as complete a reference available for this often overlooked genius.” Until you go out and find that, read this very amusing interview of George from Zig Zag magazine in 1975. Sadly, George passed away a couple years later