In celebration of Bill Payne: the unsung keyboard master

 Bill Payne
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KEYS WEEK 2023: Have you heard the phrase "if you know, you know"? It's the perfect introduction to Bill Payne. His piano playing has been praised by artists such as Elton John, who stated that he was one of the best rock pianists around. Equally adept at piano, organ, synths and vocals – and with a huge range of artists – Bill Payne is an artist that if you know, you know, and if you don’t, you need to keep reading.

Payne was the co-founder of the cult favourite band Little Feat, and a keyboardist who has been part of the fabric of rock and pop music for over 50 years now. Besides his long tenure with Little Feat, he has played/toured with the Doobie Bros, Jimmy Buffet, James Taylor and Leftover Salmon, and recorded with a who’s who of rock and pop artists and on huge hits including Bryan Adams' (Everything I Do) I Do It For You and Melissa Manchester's Don’t Cry Out Loud.

A Gumbo Of Influences

Bill is one of the most virtuosic piano players in rock, with stunning technique and a free-flowing style of playing that encompasses many genres and eras of music. One of the strongest influences in his playing is his mastery of New Orleans style music, with its combination of stride, boogie and primal rock ‘n’ roll.

A great example of this comes from his playing on the Little Feat tune Dixie Chicken from their Waiting For Columbus live recording. Jump to 2:09 to hear his solo, which fluidly moves from rock, to Dixieland, to blues and more.

A more recent example comes from this solo playing Bill did to promote a brand of mics. Notice how he plays with the time, constantly shifting his feel and mood.

A clip from a solo live show lets you really hear those roots in all their glory.

One more example of Payne's New Orleans roots drenched in the blues comes from New Coat of Paint, a track he cut with Bob Seger in 1991. Payne’s rock chops shine in this Little Feat classic performed solo from that same aforementioned show.

Bill’s tune Oh, Atlanta is one of Little Feat’s bigger hits. The live version below starts with a wonderful New Orleans-style intro, and then moves into a rocking section.

Showcasing his solo performances allows you to really hear and study Bill's playing, like this example from a home show he did back in 1999.

A Cinematic Sense

Bill can be a very exploratory player, and his nightly feature in a Little Feat concert finds him drawing upon a wide range of colours and moods. He usually blends strings or a pad from his upper keyboard while improvising freely on his lower piano sound. Every night is different: he truly knows how to be in the moment.

This performance starts off aggressively and then moves through many moods…

… as does this one (below) but each is entirely different.

Bill's solo piano performance of Through The Eyes Of A Child, from his wonderful solo album Cielo Norte, is simply beautiful. And this improvisation is part modern jazz, part classical.

Other Keyboard Chops

Back in the day, Bill’s live rig grew to include a Wurlitzer electric piano, a massive Oberheim FVS-1 4 Voice synth, a B-3 organ and a Fender Rhodes. Later he switched to using workstation keyboards and perhaps a clonewheel organ to get those sounds, including his acoustic piano.

Surprising Sessions

Besides his long legacy with Little Feat, Bill has appeared on a wide variety of recording sessions. He has a long history of recording with The Doobie Brothers, even joining the band for touring from 2015 until the end of 2021.

That’s Bill hammering out the intro to China Grove, which the band credits him for the song name.

A few other tunes that he played on include Jesus Is Just Alright (organ), The Doctor, and he contributed synth parts to both of the Michael McDonald- era Doobie hits Minute By Minute and What A Fool Believes.

It's also Payne playing on Bob Seger’s hit Hollywood Nights…

… and Payne playing piano on Bryan Adams (Everything I Do) I Do It For You.

And it's also Bill playing on Melissa Manchester’s mega-pop-hit Don’t Cry Out Loud.

Other sessions Payne played in include Takin’ My Time with Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne’s Here Come Those Tears Again, Think About It for Stevie Nicks, as well as Telling Me Lies for the supergroup trio of Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris.

A True Renaissance Man

Bill shares his musical interests with his love of creative writing and photography. He is an excellent writer, and you should visit his website and read the bio prose he put there. It’s a beautiful and eloquent treatise on a life in the creative arts.

He states, “The uniqueness of how we see the world and how we express that through our art is what gives weight and substance to our voice. Maintaining and developing that voice is an arduous task and involves commitment to the process of discovery along with a disciplined regimen of learning the subject (which involves trial and error), and ultimately, once you have the tools in place, the art of simply letting go.”

More from Bills website here.

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