Today marks the birthday of one of America’s overlooked great songwriters and musicians, Lowell George.
If you think you’ve never heard of him or his music, I would bet that you’re wrong. His music industry influence in the mid- to late-1970s was far-reaching, and at least a few of the songs that most any radio station will play on any given day are certain to be Lowell George compositions.
A founding member of the band Little Feat in 1969 (along with keyboardist and existing member Bill Payne), George took the band through eight albums until his death in 1979, when “Down On The Farm”–the recording George and the group had been working on–was released. This marked the last studio album with the existing lineup: the 1981 compilation “Hoy-hoy!” consisted mostly of unreleased and live tracks.
George had reportedly become disenchanted with the direction the band seemed to taking, as evidenced by his departure from the stage during the live performances of “Day At The Dog Races,” a jazz fusion piece reminiscent of the band Weather Report. As a result, he had been working on a solo album (the brilliant “Thanks I’ll Eat It Here!”) and rehearsing for the subsequent tour when he passed away on June 29 from an apparent heart attack.
According to a story that appeared in The New Musical Express on July 7, 1979, there were some unanswered questions as to the events of the morning after George’s death:
IT WAS cruelly ironic that Lowell George, former leader of Little Feat, should die, aged 34, in the Twin Bridges Hotel, Marriott, Arlington, Virginia, across the river from the only town in America that embraced his talent.
The night before he died, George performed before a standing room only crowd at the Lissner Auditorium in Washington. It was the first time he’d been back there since Little Feat split up two months ago.
Observers said the performance was a great success, better in many respects than the recent Little Feat shows.
George had grown extremely fat, partially as a result of the debilitating hepatitis that laid him low for much of last year, he probably weighed close to 300 lbs. The nights of the Lissner show he wore his ubiquitous white overalls and one fan said that he seemed to have a dangerous amount of energy for a man of his size and health record, performing for ninety minutes and an unusually long encore.
George was officially pronounced dead on arrival at Arlington Park Hospital at 1.10 p.m. Friday afternoon. The circumstances behind his demise are coloured by inconsistencies. Marion Perkins, Warner Brothers spokesperson, said that he died of a heart attack. A spokesperson for Arlington County Police affirmed this but Arlington County Hospital officials and at least one other police official said the cause of death was not known.
The body was white-lipped and the bluishness around the eyes, observers said, were consistent with post mortem symptoms of a drug overdose.
One police official said that was why an autopsy was being ordered while officer Mark Nell, the policeman who responded to the call, said that the reason an autopsy was called was because of George’s age.
Nell, the officer who filed the report on George’s death, said that the case was strictly routine. He continued. “I did not find any drugs and there was no evidence that the room had been cleared of drugs either.” There was no sign of any blood or foul play he said in his report.
A post mortem report later stated that heart failure was the cause of death.
According to Perkins, George had complained of chest pains after Thursday’s show and again on Friday morning. “Around 10 am,” she said, “George’s wife called road manager Gene Bano to their room after George complained of breathing problems. When the singer/songwriter said that he was feeling better his wife and Bano left the room to get some breakfast.
Hotel officials said Mrs George returned from breakfast with her two children some time after 11 am to find George lying unconscious on the bed. She called the main desk saying that her husband was very sick. A rescue squad of police were despatched and a Hotel Engineer, certified in first aid, was sent to George’s room to offer immediate assistance.
The engineer said that by the time he arrived George had stopped breathing. He tried to administer mouth to mouth rescuscitation but “it was no use he had been dead for a while.”
Arlington County Rescue Squad’s No.75 arrived shortly afterwards. According to one of their officials they tried administering cardiac respiration but it was futile. The Squad officer in charge said George had been dead for at least 45 minutes and maybe two hours. This contradicted Mrs George’s report to the police that said he had been dead for ten minutes before the squad arrived.
Bano was present in the room with Mrs George when the police arrived, Nell said, along with the Rescue Squad and the Hotel Engineer. Nell said that he did not ask many questions because Mrs George and Bano looked “very distressed”.
It is not clear what George did after the show. One hotel official said that some members of the band were partying until seven the next morning but a waiter who brought food up to George’s room said there was nothing peculiar happening there. “They didn’t even order any drinks; Mr George asked me where the game room was and that was it.”
The next morning a maid accidentally walked into George’s room around lOam to clean the room. Her employers said she saw George’s body curled on the bed and was immediately told to leave by George’s wife, who said that her husband was sick.
The most baffling question is the presence of drugs on the morning of George’s death. Rescue Squad officials and police said that they found no evidence of drugs but the engineer who was supposedly the first person other than Mrs George and Bano to enter the room said that he saw a “Large phial of white powder about one half the size of a tennis ball cannister which was practically empty.” He also said that there were about four or five containers of prescription drugs, all of which were out in the open but none of, which were present when police arrived minutes later. The engineer said that he left the room once before police arrived and another hotel employee said that in his absence there was a flurry of activity in George’s room prior to the police’s arrival with “Lots of people walking in and out of his room.
Band members, family and friends checked out of the Twin Bridges Hotel at 6.30 p.m. Friday hopping on a bus that was headed back to LA -the band’s hometown.
Lowell George was cremated in Washington DC on 2nd July 1979. His ashes were flown to Los Angeles and, in accordance with George’s wishes, his mother, wife and children will scatter them into the ocean from a fishing boat.
Lowell George is succeeded by his wife Elizabeth, three sons, Jed, Forrest and Luke, and a daughter, Inara.
From Mark Brand’s biography of Lowell George, Rock and Roll Doctor: Lowell George: Guitarist, Songwriter and Founder of Little Feat:
There are four men who have passed on that I wish I could have spent some (more) time with: Jesus Christ, because of the inner turmoil and emotional chaos he must have faced, and how he was able to come through it; Abraham Lincoln, for the same reasons; my father, because I did not know him very well as I was growing up….
…And Lowell George. He was an amazing talent. Bonnie Raitt–a musician who has been around a while and for whom I have great respect–would be a good judge of that.