Time loves a hero. Forty years of Little Feat recordings and a constant stream of intriguing guest appearances have made Richie Hayward a big favorite among the drummer cognoscenti.

Under The Radar, the title of Little Feat’s 1998 album, is a phrase that could be used to describe Richie Hayward. His is an understated presence. His drumming is always there with little or no fanfare, which could explain why his greatness and unmatched consistency have long been taken for granted. Incredibly, this workman-like badge is one Hayward has worn proudly for the legendary Little Feat since the band’s inception in 1969.

When it all started, Richie was a corn-belt kid from Clear Lake, Iowa, who was influenced by rock ’n’ roll pioneer Earl Palmer but also by big-band jazz drummer Sonny Payne. Somewhere in between these two greats, Hayward created his own template. “I started early with Ray Charles,” the drummer says. “He had a definite New Orleans influence. That, on top of folks like Bo Dollis, the Wild Magnolias, and the Meters, was a combination that became a very strong influence on my playing. But I don’t cop it note for note.”

Armed with a dream and very little else, Hayward headed out to Los Angeles in 1966. “All I had was my drums, the clothes on my back, eighty-five dollars, and a friend who lived on Fink Street in Hollywood,” he says. The drummer’s first band of note, the Fraternity Of Man, had its 1968 song “Don’t Bogart Me” featured in the movie Easy Rider, which led to Hayward’s meeting singer/songwriter/guitarist Lowell George. A former member of Frank Zappa’s Mothers Of Invention, George was beginning to explore various musical avenues of his own. “Lowell was extremely influenced by Frank,” Hayward says. “But in my case it was Captain Beefheart. He was the guy, and what he was doing was just surreal.”

The addition of keyboardist Bill Payne resulted in the formation of the Factory, which eventually morphed into Little Feat. The Feat’s 1971 self-titled debut and 1972 sophomore effort, Sailin’ Shoes, were critical successes among the musically hip and were especially adored by drummers, who couldn’t get enough of Hayward’s indelible grooves and the way he used his kit not only as an anchor but also as another melodic voice in the music.

By the time Dixie Chicken hit in 1973, Little Feat was expanding its reach, combining New Orleans–influenced funk with the richness of other American forms such as jazz, blues, folk, and Southern-tinged rock. Like musical compatriots the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band, Little Feat’s musical discoveries were fueled by the freeform interactions occurring on stage. “Jamming is definitely a part of who and what we are,” Hayward says. “Varying from the structure of the song allows us to do the same songs and still keep them fresh. It’s also in my nature to take chances, and musically I tend to do that.”

For a while, it was one timeless record after another. Feats Don’t Fail Me Now (’74) and Time Loves A Hero (’77) were followed by what many view as the band’s high point, the live album Waiting For Columbus (’78), which, along with the Band’s Last Waltz, is regarded as one of the finest concert documents of that era. Unfortunately, some roadblocks got in the way. George’s erratic behavior led to his receding into the background a bit as Payne and guitarist Paul Barrere began to handle the bulk of the band’s songwriting. George broke up the group in 1979 and died that year of a heart attack at age thirty-four, while on tour in support of his only solo album, Thanks I’ll Eat It Here.

During this time Hayward’s talents were in constant demand, especially in the studio. It seemed that if you were an artist of note, the drummer was (and still is) the guy you wanted to have on your record or live date. “The work I did with Robert Plant is a favorite of mine and was fun to do,” Richie says. “Warren Zevon was very rewarding, and Joan Armatrading was fun—she’s a really good musician and highly underrated.” Hayward’s lengthy résumé also includes projects with John Cale, Robert Palmer, Kim Carnes, Ry Cooder, Buddy Guy, Taj Mahal, Carly Simon, Stephen Stills, Tom Waits, Bob Seger, John Hiatt, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan…the list goes on.

In 1988 a reunited and rejuvenated Little Feat came out of the chute smoking with the now-classic Let It Roll, which, boosted by its hard-driving title track, went gold. Hayward’s funk-laden second-line gumbo grooves mingle with country, blues, south-of-the-border flavors, and even world beat sounds to ignite the record. Richie and the band headed back out on the concert trail, reconnecting with loyal Feat fanatics and earning new converts. From there, numerous albums and videos followed, including the most recent, 2008’s Join The Band LP, on which the Feat redoes some of its classics with a slew of famous guest singers, including Dave Matthews (“Fat Man In The Bathtub”), Emmylou Harris (“Sailin’ Shoes”), and Chris Robinson (“Oh Atlanta”).

Little Feat, which celebrated its fortieth anniversary last year, remains one of the most revered bands in classic rock. Hayward, along with stalwarts Kenny Gradney, Fred Tackett, Paul Barrere, Sam Clayton, and Bill Payne, continues to tear up the rock ’n’ roll highway, in a group that diehard fans equate to a genre unto itself. Without question, the spirit of Lowell George still hovers over the proceedings. “The enormity of his influence on all of us is undeniable,” Hayward says. “After he died we lost some Lowell fans that were not necessarily Little Feat fans. In fact,” Richie adds with a laugh, “they tended to look like him: overweight, with a beard! But it never inhibited our desire to play music. We knew we still had that magic within ourselves.”

When asked about the most important lesson he’s learned from his extraordinary career, Hayward pauses, then responds: “If you have a burning desire, you’ve got to feed the beast. Stay true to yourself, and don’t quit.” Those words say a truckload about Little Feat, and about the drummer’s legacy as well. In parallel terms, Hayward’s drumming is the thread sewn throughout, setting a standard that only he can exceed and clearly earning him a well-deserved place among the all-time greats.

Sadly, at press time Richie Hayward has been diagnosed with liver cancer and has no health insurance to underwrite the cost of treatments. Drummers from all over the world are currently stepping up to organize benefits so Hayward can obtain the financial help he needs to fight the disease. For more information on how you can contribute to his cause, go to littlefeat.net.

To read more about some of Richie’s greatest recordings, and to see what his peers have to say about him, go to moderndrummer.com.


SELECT RECORDINGS

Little Feat Little Feat, Sailin’ Shoes, Dixie Chicken, Feats Don’t Fail Me Now, Time Loves A Hero, Waiting For Columbus, Let It Roll, Join The Band /// John Cale Paris 1919 /// Robert Palmer Pressure Drop, Some People Can Do What They Like /// Carly Simon Another Passenger /// Robert Plant Shaken ’N’ Stirred /// Warren Zevon Transverse City /// Taj Mahal Dancing The Blues /// Buddy Guy Heavy Love /// Jimmy Herring, T Lavitz, Richie Hayward, Kenny Gradney Endangered Species /// Coco Montoya Dirty Deal