Willie George Hale, one of Arkansas’s great behind-the-scenes musicians, was born 75 years ago in Forrest City. Hale became an important and widely respected R&B guitarist, both in studio sessions and as a solo artist, and his tunes later became sampling fodder for the likes of Jay-Z and Erykah Badu.
Hale’s 1970s-era albums — released under his childhood nickname “Little Beaver” — are steeped in mellow funk, groove-filled R&B, and bluesy disco. And this year, Hale’s classic “Party Down” album was reissued on vinyl LP — the first time it’s been available in the U.S. on its original format since its initial release nearly a half-century ago.
Since their original releases, the songs from Little Beaver’s delicate riff- and beat-heavy albums have proven ripe for sampling and covering. Early on in his solo career in the early 1970s, Hale’s “I’m Losin’ the Feelin’ ” was covered by singer Gwen McCrae; last year, it was sampled by Smoke DZA. Most prominently, Jay-Z’s 2007 song “Party Life” samples Hale’s classic “Get into the Party Life.” R&B duo Lion Babe covered the song in 2018. Erykah Badu, Slum Village, Amanda Diva and Knxwledge are among the artists who have sampled Hale’s work across the decades.
Hale got the “Beaver” nickname because of his youthful prominent front teeth, and he embraced it. He embraced the guitar from a young age as well after his stepfather Clarence brought a cheap acoustic one home. In a rare interview, Hale told Long Play Miami in 2014 that he first learned to play guitar from “this guy in town named Anderson that everyone in town called Sarge because he walked like a soldier.”
Hale quit school in the 10th grade, but kept playing guitar. There were plenty of places to play — the Central East Arkansas region of the mid-century was rife with clubs of varying legality. He formed a band with a keyboard player from Pine Bluff; they played gigs at a hole-in-the-wall nightspot in Stuttgart.
As Hale honed his craft in the Arkansas Delta, his standing there grew. But, however numerous they might have been, the clubs didn’t offer much of a living — especially for someone with Hale’s level of guitar skill. In the 1960s, Hale left East Arkansas for south Florida, where he would make his creative stand. The move was on the advice of his friend Wilbert, who’d been working in Miami and was back visiting for holidays. “And on his way back to Florida, he stopped through Forrest City to say hello to me,” Hale said in the same interview. “I’m laying there getting fat. Not working.” Wilbert told him about Miami’s bustling music and club scene, and said finding a guitar gig would be a snap for a musician like Hale. “That’s where all the big bands come through. He just went on and on.” Hale was convinced. The pair drove back to south Florida together: “I just got in the car with Wilbert and we hit the road,” he said.
And sure enough, Hale’s slinky, tasteful guitar sound soon put him in demand in Miami’s vibrant recording scene there, and he hooked up with TK Records. He began cutting guitar tracks and arranging songs for TK and its subsidiaries, especially Cat, all based out of Hialeah, Fla., just northwest of Miami. Hale was guitarist and arranger on popular numbers like Betty Wright’s 1971 hit “Clean Up Woman,” and for rocking weirdos like Blowfly and Swamp Dogg, as well as the record label’s notable early disco output.
Based on his session work alone, Hale’s reputation as groundbreaking guitarist would be solid. But Hale’s solo work, mostly as Little Beaver, has made the Arkansawyer exponentially more influential.
In 1972, Hale — as Little Beaver — released his first TK solo single and album, both called “Joey.” Little Beaver’s landmark album, “Party Down,” — with its hit song, “Party Down, Part 1” — came in 1974. Other Little Beaver albums of the era include “When Was the Last Time,” “Black Rhapsody,” and the inevitable “Beaver Fever” — the latter credited to Willie “Beaver” Hale, as opposed to merely Little Beaver. Sought after by crate-diggers today, the TK record label’s releases in the burgeoning genre of disco became especially notable, including those of KC & the Sunshine Band, but it ran into financial trouble in the 1980s. Its final single release was “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Another One Rides the Bus.”
Some Little Beaver acolytes have gone a step beyond merely doing Hale’s songs into directly paying him tribute. In 2002, hip-hop duo People Under the Stairs not only sampled Hale’s songs, but named the subsequent tracks “Suite for Beaver, Part 1” and “Suite for Beaver, Part 2.” In 1986, renowned fingerpicking guitarist Leo Kottke recorded an instrumental song in Hale’s guitar style and called it “Little Beaver.”
Hale played guitar on English R&B singer Joss Stone’s 2003 and 2004 albums, which went multiplatinum and helped reinvigorate interest in R&B music, especially in Europe. After years of silence, Hale came out with an album of new material in 2008, released by his longtime champion and friend, former TK Records co-owner Henry Stone. Little Beaver’s original albums have since been reissued around the globe. But despite his success as a solo artist, Hale has seemed content behind the scenes, avoiding the spotlight. Attempts by this writer to contact Hale have proven fruitless; a lone Facebook page is fan-run; the Miami journalists who interviewed Hale in 2014 told me they haven’t been able to follow up with him: The phone number was disconnected. But to listeners of last century’s R&B and early disco — and this century’s rap, R&B, and hip-hop, St. Francis County native Willie “Little Beaver” Hale, 75, has been hiding in plain sight.
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