Little Beaver on "Party Down": "Drugs, Beautiful Women, and Life Was Carefree"

Willie "Little Beaver" Hale and Henry Stone, 2013.
Willie "Little Beaver" Hale and Henry Stone, 2013.
Photo by Jacob Katel

Jay Z once cut Little Beaver a $60,000 check to sample "Party Life" for the movie American Gangster.

The artist also known as Willie Hale is a Miami guitarist so legendary that Jaco Pastorius, called the greatest electric bass player of all time, used to hang out at the TK Records studio in Hialeah, just to watch him play.

Beaver's got a new album out on Henry Stone Music this month, called Henry Stone's Best Of Little Beaver, so we caught up with the man himself to find out what inspired one of his most classic tunes, the 1974 hit, "Party Down."

Here's what he had to say about gettin' high, shakin' hips, and the rhythm of Brazil.

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How'd "Party Down" come about?

"Party Down" was just a part of my life when I was young and wild and reckless and partying involved drugs and beautiful women and life was carefree and I though we had it goin' on. And we did. I had a friend of mine. I used to go to his house and we used to sit around and get high and listen to records.

He played something for me, a white group that had these chord changes that was wild. I picked up my guitar and copied those chord changes and said "Man, that is so beautiful." I can't even remember if it had lyrics. I said, "This would be great if I just add some lyrics and spice it up." I worked on it for a month at home by myself.

Then one day, I heard a guitar on one of those Caribbean commercials, and it was like bam bom bum boom, and it seemed like it went right along with those chord changes. So I put the two together and played the drums with my feet on the floor.

I could hear percussions in it, and I kept thinking islands, that kind of atmosphere with a Brazilian flavor, which I had never done before.

Little Beaver, Jorge Zaldivar, Joe Stone, George McCrae, and friend - 2013
Little Beaver, Jorge Zaldivar, Joe Stone, George McCrae, and friend - 2013
Jacob Katel

I was inspired by Marvin Gaye and "What's Goin' On," which was different for R&B at the time with its rhythms and percussions. So I came out with a new type of sound. And nobody was doin' a rhythm like that.

I just had to come up with the lyrics, and we was partyin' down. And it happened just like that.

That was exactly what it was. That's what we did. That was the thing. "Party Down" was a carefree time, when you could smoke all the weed you want and not worry about gettin' arrested, or gettin stopped on the highway with the police searching you.

I used to play at James Club in the 60s. I didn't have a car. I lived on 22st and NW 3rd Ave in Overtown. The James Club was NW 2nd Ave and 36th street, and I used to take my guitar and start out walkin' to the gig.

Well, the nice policemens knew me and they used to stop and give me a ride. They'd say, "Hey Beaver, where you goin' man? C'mon, man, lemme give you a ride."

That's how cool it was back in the 60s and 70s. You didn't worry. Nobody was gettin' robbed and shot.

There was no AKs. You'd go get high and sit at someone's house. It wasn't no gangster stuff. Everybody enjoyed themself. Sure there was trouble somewhere, but you had to go looking for it to find it.

What was goin' on in Miami music at that time?

My era in Miami, I came in behind Litttle Willie John, he was the man. And the second man was Dizzy Jones. I came after, but I used to be in those same clubs. One night Dizzy was battlin' on stage with Lil Willie John and bust his vocal chord. They had it goin' on.

Freddie Scott was the drummer back there in that time. And I dont know how far Latimore go back, but I didn't meet him till the 60s. But he been around.

When I got to Miami, there was always discussion about who is the best guitarist in Miami. And my name and Stan the Man always came up. Stan The Man stayed up in Liberty City, and he was a top dog when I got here. I became like a rival of Stan The Man. His brother played bass. But they were really into hot cars, and racing cars. So they wasn't full fledged into the music

There was also Treetop. He was a big time guy. He was a solo artist. And he was good too, reminded me of Chuck Berry. And he always traveled alone. He didn't have no band. He would just sit in with different bands.

There was a lot of people back then. There was an all girl group called The Marvelettes or something, with this girl called Slim, and she could tear it up. She used to do this Baby Washington song, "Lovers Quarrel," beautiful song, and Slim used to just tear the house down with that.

The only thing is, when I came in, a lot of stuff was going out. I came in on the tail end of everything. Cause when the MLK thing got goin', and then we had the riots in Overtown, and then the riots in Liberty City, those neighborhoods were on the way out as far as entertainment goes.

Little Beaver, Timmy Thomas, Willie Clarke, Henry Stone - 2013
Little Beaver, Timmy Thomas, Willie Clarke, Henry Stone - 2013
Jacob Katel

But me and Henry Stone came to be really good friends. He was like a father figure, looked out for my best interests, and we had a real good relationship. He was a fan of Little Beaver and that's what motivated me. He was a real fan. And so was Willie Clarke and Steve Alaimo. They kept me goin'. Cause when somebody is investing money in you, it gives you an incentive to do your best.

It wasn't my goal to become some type of great guitar player, I was just doin' my thing. And that was about all I could do. I quit school in the tenth grade. I didn't have no other trade, and I didn't go to school for music. So I was fortunate to have creativity and talent to where people said, "Oh, that's great!"

Latimore played on "Party Down." He played the keys and held it together for me. I had to play the leads and those little chords too. Yeah, Lat was the man. And I had Chocolate Perry just kickin' it so hard on the bass.

Chocolate Perry played on every track for the Party Down album, with the exception of one, which was Jaco Pastorius.

The bass player is just as important as the drummer when it comes to backin the guitar and keyboard. The bass and drummer coordinate together, they gotta just be one sound like boom, bu do do do, badoom badoom. It takaes a good bass player to do that. And they have to make the chord changes, and sometimes they gotta get there even before the guitar. Sometimes the bass need to take the lead. And Chocolate Perry did that. He'd take the lead, and when the chord changes, he's already there, waitin on you.

Like in salsa music, that Latino style, where the bass kinda like booms early, that d'dum daboom that makes a woman's hips want to move. And the percussion....and she's like dancing with the bass...that just kills me. I love it.

So when it came to "Party Down," that's what I was thinking. The Latin flavor.

That was something I picked up on in Miami, I guess just listening to the Latin music. It has that African in it, so it was already in me. But when I hear it, it inspires me.


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