What I’ve Been Listening to: Donald Fagen/The Nightfly

The other day, I found myself listening to Donald Fagen’s excellent solo debut album The Nightfly. More frequent visitors of the blog know I dig Steely Dan big time, so one wonders what took me so long to write about this record released in October 1982. Well, to my defense, I included The Nightfly in a previous post about Fagen’s 70th birthday in January 2018 but haven’t dedicated an entire piece to this gem. Until now.

In many ways, The Nightfly mirrors previous Steely Dan albums. To start with, the producer was Gary Katz, who also had produced all of the Dan’s seven records that had appeared by then. Driven by Fagen’s and Katz’s perfectionism and some technical challenges, The Nightfly took eight months to record, about on par with the Aja album, though shorter than Gaucho, Steely Dan’s final album prior to their 20-year recording hiatus. Like previous Steely Dan records, The Nightfly featured an army of top-notch session musicians. Larry Carlton (guitar), Chuck Rainey (bass), Jeff Porcaro (drums), Rick Derringer (guitar) and many other of these guys had played on Steely Dan albums.

Donald Fagen_The Nightfly Back Cover

But one musician was absent: Fagen’s long-time collaborator Walter Becker. While initially, Fagen thought he could easily handle the song-writing by himself, there came a point when he began to struggle. After the album’s release, he developed a full-blown writer’s block. It would take more than 11 years for his second solo album Kamakiriad to come out. That record was produced by Becker and was the first time he and Fagen collaborated since their breakup in 1981. Another key difference compared to Steely Dan albums were the largely autobiographical lyrics. Many of the songs incorporated topics from Fagen’s childhood in suburban New Jersey. Unlike most Steely Dan albums that were recorded live, for The Nightfly, Fagen opted to overdub each part separately.

Let’s get to some music. I was going to skip the excellent opener I.G.Y., since it was included in my above-mentioned post on Fagen’s 70th birthday. But as one of the album’s standouts, I simply couldn’t resist. I.G.Y, which stands for International Geophysical Year, captures America’s widespread optimistic vision about the country’s future in the late 1950s. The song includes concepts like undersea rail, solar-powered cities and public space travel – and a good dose of sarcasm. I.G.Y. also became the album’s lead single. It peaked at no. 26 on the Billboard Hot 100 and is Donald Fagen’s only solo top 40 single on that chart.

According to Wikipedia, the title of the next song Green Flower Street was inspired by the jazz standard On Green Dolphin Street. During his childhood, Fagen became a huge jazz fan. It’s no coincidence that the album’s cover pictures him as a radio DJ with a turntable and a copy of 1958 jazz album Sonny Rollins and the Contemporary Leaders.

Ruby Baby is the only cover on the album. Co-written by music songwriting machine Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the tune was first recorded by The Drifters in 1956. Fagen’s take is jazzier than the original doo-wop version. It also was released as the record’s third and final single.

Another great tune is New Frontier. The title was taken from a quote by John F. Kennedy, who said during his acceptance speech for the Presidential nomination in 1960: “We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier—the frontier of the 1960s, the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled threats.” The lyrics are about teenage romance, which prompted a Wall Street Journal reporter to speculate the title may be a humorous metaphor to sex and adulthood. Here’s the song’s official video clip, which combines animation and live action, and is considered an early classic played on MTV. The tune also appeared separately as a single.

I’m Lester the Nightfly
Hello Baton Rouge
Won’t you turn your radio down
Respect the seven second delay we use

This is the first verse from the album’s title track, which captures Fagen’s fascination with jazz during his teenage years and his dream to become a late-night radio DJ. It’s the final tune I’d like to call out.

During a British radio segment about The Nightfly, which apparently aired around the time of Fagen’s 70’s birthday and featured archive interview soundbites of him from 1982, he commented: “I guess I’m 34 now, and I started to think back about how I came to be a musician. And in exploring that, I started thinking about the late ’50s and early ’60s when I first started listening to jazz and rhythm and blues and that kind of music. And that’s the kind of music that formed a lot of my attitudes at the time, not only the music but the whole culture connected with jazz and late-night radio and hipster culture and all those things, which I thought of as an alternative to the rather bland life I was leading out in the suburbs near New York City. So that theme runs through most all of the songs in the album.”

The Nightfly was not only a standout musically, but also technologically. It is one of the earliest fully digitally recorded albums. In fact, it brought to a successful conclusion Fagen’s and Katz’s previous experimentation with digital recording on Steely Dan’s Gaucho, which ended up being an analog record. But it wasn’t an easy feat and led to various challenges with the digital recording machines. In a 1983 story by Billboard magazine, Fagen said, “I was ready to transfer to analog and give it up on several occasions, but my engineering staff kept talking me into it.”

The album was positively received by music critics. It was also nominated for seven Grammy Awards in 1983. While performing worse commercially than Dan’s Gaucho, The Nightfly still was certified platinum in the U.S. and the UK. It climbed to no. 11 on the Billboard 200, making it Fagen’s second-best chart performing solo album after Kamakiriad, which peaked at no. 10 on that chart.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; Billboard Magazine; YouTube

Celebrating James Jamerson

Uncredited on countless Motown songs, Jamerson was one of the most influential bass guitar players in modern music history

If you had asked me as recently as a few weeks ago to name influential bass players in pop and rock, I might have mentioned Paul McCartney, John EntwistleJack Bruce and John Paul Jones. Then I read that McCartney, one of my all-time favorite artists, noted  James Jamerson and Brian Wilson as key influences for his bass playing. Admittedly, that was the first time I had heard about Jamerson.

While given my history as a hobby bassist I’m a bit embarrassed about my ignorance regarding Jamerson, I can point to one key difference between him and the other aforementioned bassists. Unlike them, Jamerson was kind of invisible for a long time – literally. While he played on countless Motown recordings in the ’60s and early ’70s, usually, he wasn’t credited, at least at the time. That’s even more unbelievable once you realize how revered this man was among other professional bass players.

According to Bass Player magazine, which named Jamerson no. 1 on its 2017 list of The 100 Greatest Bass Players of All Time, “The most important and influential bass guitarist in the 66-year history of the Fender Precision he played, South Carolina-born, Detroit-raised James Jamerson wrote the bible on bass line construction and development, feel, syncopation, tone, touch, and phrasing, while raising the artistry of improvised bass playing in popular music to zenith levels.” In addition to McCartney, many other prominent bassists have pointed to Jamerson as a primary influence, including Jones, Enwistle, Wilson, Randy Meisner, Bill Wyman, Chuck RaineyGeddy Lee and Pino Palladino, to name some.

Jamerson was born on January 29, 1936 on Edisto Island near Charleston, S.C. In 1954, he moved to Detroit with his mother. Soon, while still being in high school, he began playing in local blues and jazz clubs. After graduation, Jamerson started getting session engagements in local recording studios. In 1959, he found a steady job as a studio bassist at Motown where became part of The Funk Brothers, essentially the equivalent of Stax  houseband Booker T. & the M.G.s, except it was a much larger and more fluid group of musicians.

James Jamerson 2

During his earliest Motown sessions, Jamerson used a double bass. In the early ’60s, he switched to an electric Fender Precision Bass most of the time. Like him, most of The Funk Brothers originally were jazz musicians who had been hired by Motown founder Berry Gordy to back the label’s recording artists in the studio. For many years, the members of The Funk Brothers would do session work at the Motown studio during the day and play in local jazz clubs at night. Occasionally, they also backed Motown’s stars during tours.

Not only did the musicians make substantially less money than the label’s main artists, but they also did not receive any recording credits for most of their careers. It wasn’t until 1971 that Jamerson was acknowledged on a major Motown release: Somewhat ironically, that album was Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. Eventually, Motown put Jamerson on a weekly retainer of $1,000 (about $7,200 in 2018 dollars), which enabled him and his family to live comfortably. In 1973, Jamerson ended his relationship with Motown, which had since been relocated to Los Angeles. For the remainder of the ’70s, he worked with artists like Eddie Kendricks, Robert Palmer, Dennis Wilson, Smokey Robinson and Ben E. King.

But Jamerson did not embrace certain trends in bass playing that emerged during the ’70s, such as simpler and more repetitive bass lines and techniques like slapping. As a result, he fell out of favor with many producers, and by the 1980s, sadly, he essentially could not get any serious session work. Eventually, Jamerson’s long history with alcoholism caught up with him, and he died of complications from cirrhosis of the liver, heart failure and pneumonia on August 2, 1983. He was only 47 years old. Time for some music featuring this amazing musician!

I’d like to kick things off with an early recording that did not appear on Motown: Boom Boom by John Lee Hooker. Written by him, it became one of his signature tunes. According to Wikipedia, apparently it was Detroit pianist Joe Hunter, who brought in Jamerson and some other members from The Funk Brothers to the recording session.

Here’s one of the many Motown tunes on which Jamerson performed: For Once In My Life, the title track of Stevie Wonder’s album from December 1968. The song was co-written by Ron Miller and Orlando Murden.

Next up: The aforementioned What’s Going On, which I think is one of the most soulful Marvin Gaye songs. The title track of his 11th studio album released in May 1971 was co-written by Gaye, Motown songwriter Al Cleveland and Renaldo Benson, a founding member of The Four Tops.

I also like to touch on a couple of songs after Jamerson had parted with Motown. Here is Boogie Down by Eddie Kendricks, another title track. The fourth studio album by the former vocalist of The Temptations appeared in February 1973. The groovy tune was co-written by Anita Poree, Frank Wilson and Leonard Caston.

For the last track let’s jump to November 1975 when Robert Palmer released his second studio album Pressure Drop. Here’s the great opener Give Me An Inch, which was also written by Palmer.

James Jamerson received numerous accolades after his death. In 2000, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, one of the first inductees to be honored in the “sideman” category. In 2004, he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award as part of The Funk Brothers. Along with the other members of the group, Jamerson was also inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tenn. in 2007.

I’d like to close with Paul McCartney, who during a 1994 interview with bass book author Tony Bacon said: “Mainly as time went on it was Motown, James Jamerson—who became just my hero, really. I didn’t actually know his name until quite recently. James was very melodic, and that got me more interested.”

Sources: Wikipedia, Bass Player magazine, Reverb.com, YouTube

“The Making of Aja” Is A Must See For Fans Of True Music Craftsmanship

Documentary provides commentary from Donald Fagen, Walter Becker and studio musicians who were involved in the recording of Steely Dan’s masterpiece

With my Steely Dan show (okay, make that Donald Fagen and the Steely Dan band) coming up tonight, not surprisingly, Fagen and his former partner in crime Walter Becker have been on my mind. As I usually do prior to concerts, I was browsing YouTube last night to get a peek from the band’s recent performances. Since I’m admittedly a bit of a music geek, of course, I’ve also checked setlist.fm and have a good idea of what to expect. Suddenly, I stumbled across The Making Of Aja, a fascinating film that documents the recording of what I feel is Steely Dan’s absolute masterpiece and certainly one of my favorite records of all time.

Surprisingly, there is very little public information about the film. According to IMDb, it appeared in 1999 and was produced by British television director Alan Lewens. The documentary’s official title is Classic Albums: Steely Dan: Aja. It breaks down each of the magnificent tracks on the record, featuring interviews with Becker, Fagen, Aja producer Gary Katz, guitarists Larry Carlton and Dean Parks, bassist Chuck Rainey, drummer Rick Marotta and other musicians involved in the cumbersome process of recording the album.

Even if you don’t love Steely Dan’s music, I think you’ll still enjoy this documentary, as long as you like music craftsmanship and have at least some degree of interest in how great music is created. Enough of the upfront talking, or I should better say writing, and time to get to some clips!

Here’s the section of the film that discusses the songs Black Cow and Home At Last. It starts with Fagen doing a hilarious rap singing uptown, baby, uptown, baby, alluding to the track Deja Vu by Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz (frankly, no idea about these guys!), who sampled a snippet of Black Cow. Among others, he and Fagen also discuss the meaning of the title; other than that it was a soft drink with ice cream that was popular when they were kids, the two music geniuses don’t appear to be absolutely sure what was in the beverage!

The next film excerpt is about Deacon Blues, my favorite Dan tune. Among others, Becker and Fagen isolate different tracks of the song on the mixing board, which I find particularly fascinating. Also very telling is the following commentary by session guitarist Parks: “One interesting thing about Donald and Walter is that perfection is not what they are after. They are after something you wanna listen to over and over again. So we would work past the perfection point until it became natural – until it sounded almost improvised.” That’s an interesting observation. You’d think that doing the same parts over and over again would be the equivalent of over-rehearsing, which to me sounds like the opposite of improvisation!

The last section I’d like to highlight is about the album’s closer Josie. It starts off with bassist Rainey discussing the song’s bass line – something I’m particularly drawn to as a former bass player. Fagen and Becker also discuss their reliance on session musicians. “Around the time we made Aja we had figured out what it was we sort of wanted to do, you know, musically” explains Fagen. “We realized that we needed session musicians who had a larger pallet of things they could do and who were also good readers because they were coming in cold.”

Have I whet your appetite? Well, in case you’d like to watch the remainder of the documentary and don’t mind Japanese subtitles, here’s a clip of what appears to be the entire film or most of it.

Sources: Wikipedia, IMDb, YouTube