“Steely Don” Turns 70 And Is Feeling Great

Donald Fagen has no intention to retire anytime soon


I’m a huge Steely Dan fan. If anything, last year brought them closer to me than ever before and not just because of the untimely death of Walter Becker. I also attended a couple of shows of an excellent Steely Dan tribute band called Royal Scam. On Wednesday, Donald Fagen turned 70, so doing a post on the man felt right. Since I previously covered Steely Dan including their history here, I’d like to primarily focus on Fagen’s solo music.

But first a bit of history. Donald Jay Fagen was born in Passaic, N.J. on January 10, 1948. He grew up in South Brunswick, N.J. According to Wikipedia, he didn’t like the suburban setting, feeling it was trapping him like a prison. These sentiments and Fagen’s love of late-night radio were inspirations for his first solo album The Nightfly.

It’s fair to say Fagen’s life changed forever when he met Becker in 1967 when they were both students at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. Fagen was impressed with Becker’s guitar skills. They soon discovered they liked similar music and decided to write songs together. They also started playing together in various local bands.

Donald Fagan & Walter Becker

The seeds for Steely Dan were sown in the summer of 1970, when Fagen and Becker responded to a Village Voice ad by guitarist Denny Dias, looking for a bassist and keyboard player with jazz chops. Becker was playing the bass at the time and would switch to the electric guitar later.

Steely Dan’s first lineup was assembled in December 1971, after Becker, Fagen and Dias had moved to Los Angeles. The additional members included Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (guitar), Jim Hodder (drums) and David Palmer (vocals). Earlier, Gary Katz, a staff producer at ABC Records, had hired Becker and Fagen as staff song writers. It was also Katz who signed the band to the label.

Between 1972 and 1980, Steely Dan released seven studio albums: Can’t Buy A Thrill (1972), Countdown To Ecstasy (1973), Pretzel Logic (1974), Katy Lied (1975), The Royal Scam (1976), Aja (1977) and Gaucho (1980). While I dig all of these records, to me the gem is Aja, which I previously covered here.

Following Steely Dan’s breakup in June 1981, Fagen started to work on his solo debut The Nightfly. Released in October 1982, this record remains the highlight of his solo catalog to date, in my opinion. It included various production staff and musicians who had been involved in Steely Dan records, for example producer Katz, bassist Anthony Jackson and lead guitarist Larry Carlton, something Fagen would continue on his future solo efforts. The opener I.G.Y., which according to Wikipedia stands for International Geophysical Year, “an international scientific project promoting collaboration among the world’s scientists.”

While it took Fagen 12 years to release his second solo album Kamakiriad in May 1993, he kept busy on other fronts, contributing to soundtracks and writing a column for Premiere magazine. He also worked together with Becker and Katz on Zazu, the 1986 debut album by American model and singer-songwriter Rosie Vela. In the early ’90s, he toured with The New York Rock and Soul Revue, a musical project directed by Fagen’s future wife Libby Titus. In addition to Becker, it included other prominent musicians, such as Michael McDonald, Boz Scaggs and blues singer Charles Brown.

Kamakiriad was produced by Becker. Revolving around the concept of a journey in a high-tech car, the album illustrates Fagen’s attraction to futuristic themes, similar to I.G.Y. Though oftentimes, one cannot be sure whether he means things seriously or is being ironic. Following the release, he reunited with Becker for a tour to support the album. While the record received a Grammy nomination and peaked at no. 10 on the U.S. Billboard 200 and at no. 3 on the UK Albums Chart, its commercial performance was poor. That’s a pity, since it’s actually a pretty good album. Here’s the opener Trans-Island Skyway – just love the groove of this tune!

Following his reunification with Becker, Fagen co-produced Becker’s 1994 solo debut 11 Tracks Of Whack. He also played keyboards on the album. In 2000, Fagen and Becker released Two Against Nature, their first studio album as Steely Dan in two decades. The follow-up Everything Must Go appeared in June 2003. It was Steely Dan’s last studio album.

In March 2006, Fagen released his third solo record Morph The Cat, in which Becker had no involvement. The record was generally well received and won a Grammy Award For Best Surround Sound Album. Here’s a clip of H Gang. The guitar work and the tenor sax solo by Steely Dan’s Jon Herrington and Walt Weiskopf, respectively absolutely shine.

Following the appearance of Morph The Cat, Steely Dan resumed regular touring. In June 2008, Becker’s second studio album Circus Money came out. Sunken Condos, Fagen’s fourth and most recent studio record, was released in October 2012. Another well-received album, Sunken Condos peaked at no. 12 on the Billboard 200. Here’s what’s probably my favorite tune from that album, Weather In My Head. Love the blues groove of that tune!

During an in-depth interview with Rolling Stone’s podcast Music Now last month, Fagen confirmed he wants to continue touring as long as possible. He added, “It keeps you young, for sure, touring. I noticed when I’m off, I don’t feel as good as when I’m on. I got to be either recording or touring. I especially enjoy live performing more than I used to. We have a fantastic band. I got a couple of fantastic bands. It’s just so much fun to be with these guys and to play.”

One of these bands is called The Nightflyers, four young musicians Fagen has worked with over the past few years. They are Connor Kennedy (guitar, vocals), Lee Falco (drums, vocals), Brandon Morrison (bass, vocals) and Will Bryant (keyboards, vocals). Here’s a clip of them performing the title track of The Nightfly album, captured during a concert in Cincinnati last year.

Last Saturday, Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers announced a co-headlining 37-gig North American 2018 summer tour. It’s scheduled to kick off in Charlotte, N.C. on May 10 and conclude on July 14 in Bethel, N.Y. One of the shows (July 6) is right in my backyard at PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen Steely Dan and imaging them without Becker is still hard. The Doobies, which I also really dig, have had many changes in their lineup since their heyday in the ’70s. Still, I’m very tempted!

Sources: Wikipedia, Rolling Stone, Steely Dan website, YouTube

Bringing to Life the Magic of Steely Dan

An evening with The Royal Scam at Trumpets Jazz Club in Montclair, N.J.

To people who know me and readers of the blog, it won’t come as a big surprise that Steely Dan is one of my all-time favorite bands. The amazing writing and craftsmanship of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker created timeless music that is simply in a league of its own. While unfortunately I never got a chance to catch one of their shows, I probably came as close to it as possible last night at the Trumpets Jazz Club in Montclair, N.J. with The Royal Scam. It was actually the second time I saw this outstanding Steely Dan tribute band.

Named after Steely Dan’s fifth studio album from 1976, The Royal Scam have been faithfully playing the music of Fagen and Becker for 25 years. Lead vocalist Michael Caputo, who does a beautiful job of capturing Fagen’s smooth voice, told the audience they spent the first year with rehearsals before going on the road. This careful prep and the band’s long-time live experience clearly showed. Their attention to the details of the music was incredible, a true labor of love. Another Steely Dan fan who was sitting close to me and has actually seen them put it this way: “They are spot on.” I couldn’t have said it better!

The Royal Scam

The intimate setting of the Trumpets Jazz Club was a perfect venue to enjoy the music of Steely Dan up close, and there was plenty of it. Between two sets, each lasting more than 90 minutes, The Royal Scam played a great mix of Steely Dan classics like Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, Reelin’ In the Years, Hey Nineteen and Deacon Blues, as well as some deeper cuts I wasn’t as familiar with.

Since smartphone videos oftentimes have mediocre sound quality, I didn’t try to take any footage last night. Fortunately, there are some nice clips of the band on YouTube. Following is a selection.

First Up: Hey Nineteen, from 1978’s Gaucho album. It appears this clip was captured during a gig a few months ago in Linden, N.J., where I saw The Royal Scam for the first time.

Here’s another tune from the same concert: Rikki Don’t Lose That Number from Pretzel Logic (1974), which became Steely Dan’s biggest hit climbing all the way to no. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the summer of 1974.

The Aja album clearly is The Royal Scam’s favorite Steely Dan record, and who can blame them! They usually perform all or most of the tracks from this 1977 gem during their shows. Here is a very cool clip of the band playing side 1 of the album in its entirety: Black Cow, Aja and Deacon Blues!

Next up: Dirty Work from Steely Dan’s 1972 debut Can’t Buy A Thrill – a stellar rendition of one of my favorite early tunes from Becker and Fagen.

And what could be a nicer last clip then more songs from Aja. In fact, how about all of side 2? Here it is, also taken from the band’s website: Peg, Home At Last, I Got The News and Josie.

In addition to Caputo, the band’s current line-up consists of Gino Amato (keyboards and synth programming), Don Regan (guitar), Keith Droz (drums), Larry Chavana (bass), Joe Montini (saxophone) and vocalists Carla Culkin and Wendi Gordy. The Royal Scam will be back at Trumpets on March 10, 2018. Their schedule of upcoming shows is here on the band’s website, along with news and other info.

After they had played their final song of the night, Do It Again from Can’t Buy A Thrill, Caputo thanked folks for coming out and supporting live music. He rightly pointed out that nowadays there are fewer and fewer places like Trumpets where people can enjoy great music up close. While I’ve been to many music events, typically, they haven’t been in an intimate setting. Last night was a great reminder that the music club experience is something that should be cherished.

Sources: Wikipedia, The Royal Scam website, YouTube

Note: This post was updated on November 19, 2017 with some new YouTube videos of the band to replace previous clips that are no longer available.

In Memoriam of Walter Becker

Steely Dan co-founder dead at age 67

I’m still a bit in disbelief about the sad news of the untimely death of Walter Becker at age 67.  According to Rolling Stone, the passing of the Steely Dan co-founder was announced earlier today on his official website without providing any details. Uncut reported that Becker had a recent operation that prevented him from performing with the band at the Classic East and Classic West festivals in July in Los Angeles and New York, respectively – possibly an indication of a lingering health issue.

In early August, Becker’s Steely Dan compatriot Donald Fagen told Billboard that “Walter’s recovering from a procedure and hopefully he’ll be fine very soon.” He did not further elaborate. I imagine more details about the circumstances of Becker’s death are going to emerge over the next few days.

Becker was born in Queens, New York on February 20, 1950 and grew up in the city’s suburbs. He started getting into music by learning the saxophone before switching to the guitar. Becker ended up taking blues guitar lessons from his neighbor at the time, Randy Craig Wolfe, also known as Randy California. He was in good hands. Wolfe was an original member of rock band Spirit that was founded in 1967. The previous summer, he had played with Jimi Hendrix in his short-lived rock band Jimmy James and the Blue Flames.

Walter Becker & Donald Fagen

In 1967, Becker and Fagen met at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., where they both studied at the time. They began to form Steely Dan in the summer of 1970. According to Wikipedia, the impetus was an ad in the Village Voice placed by guitarist Danny Dias, who was looking for a “bass player and keyboard player with jazz chops.” At that time, Becker and Fagen had already written a good amount of original music.

Steely Dan’s first lineup was assembled in December 1971, after Becker, Fagen and Dias had moved to Los Angeles. The additional members included Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (guitar), Jim Hodder (drums) and David Palmer (vocals). Earlier, Gary Katz, a staff producer at ABC Records, had hired Becker and Fagen as staff song writers. It was also Katz who signed the band to the label.

In 1972, Steely Dan’s first single Dallas was released but sold poorly. The debut studio album Can’t Buy a Thrill followed in November that year. The producer was Katz, who also served in that role for all of the band’s other ’70s albums. Unlike the initial single, the record became very successful. It reached Gold certification in August 1973. Eventually, in September 1993, Can’t Buy a Thrill was certified Platinum, after sales had reached one million copies. Here is a clip of the record’s great opener Do It Again, one of my favorite Steely Dan tunes.

Seven months after their debut, Steely Dan released Countdown to Ecstasy in July 1973. While Bodhisattva and My Old School became concert favorites among fans, the record didn’t generate a major hit single. That changed with Pretzel Logic, the band’s third studio album, which appeared in February 1974 and featured Rikki Don’t Lose That Number. Also released separately in April 1974, the tune became Steely Dan’s most successful single, reaching no. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the summer of 1974.

In March 1975, Steely Dan’s fourth album Katy Lied appeared. By that time, most of the band’s original members had left, and Steely Dan essentially became Becker and Fagen who hired additional musicians as needed. Katy Lied reached Gold certification. Lead single Black Friday charted at no. 37. Notable guest musicians on the record included future Toto members David Paich (keyboards) and Jeff Porcaro (drums), as well as Michael McDonald on background vocals. Royal Scam followed in May 1976, another gold record for Steely Dan. Lead single Kid Charlemagne charted at no. 82 on the Billboard Hot 100.

In September 1977, Steely Dan released their sixth studio album Aja, the band’s best-selling record and my Steely Dan favorite. It peaked at no. 3 and no. 5 on the U.S. and U.K. charts, respectively, and became Steely Dan’s first platinum record. Ultimately, the album sold more than five million copies. It generated three singles, Peg, Deacon Blues and Josie. Here is a clip of my favorite one, Deacon Blues.

Gaucho, which came out in November 1980, was Steely Dan’s last studio release before they disbanded in June 1981 and went on a 20-year recording hiatus. Becker and his family moved to Maui where he became sober from drug use and eventually started working as a record producer. Fagen went on to launch a solo career. While the recording of Gaucho was impacted by various personal and professional challenges, the album was mostly well received, peaking at no. 9 on the U.S. album chart and reaching Platinum certification. The record includes the classic Hey Nineteen, which became the lead single climbing to no. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Between 1981 and 1993, Becker produced records for various artists, including Rickie Lee Jones, Michael Franks and Fra Lippo Lippi. He also became involved with the band China Crisis. Becker is listed a member of the band on their third studio album Flaunt the Imperfection. While Fagen and Becker had a couple of one-off collaborations in-between, they resumed their official partnership in 1993 when they toured as Steely Dan for the first time in 13 years.

Becker also produced Fagan’s second solo album Kamakiriad, which appeared in May 1993. In turn, Fagan became the co-producer of Becker’s 1994 solo debut 11 Tracks of Whack. Here is a clip of one of the record’s tunes, Lucky Henry, which features some great guitar work.

While Becker and Fagan continued Steely Dan tours, it took them until 2000 before they released a new album, Two Against Nature. It was a successful recording comeback, peaking at no. 6 on the Billboard 200, and scoring four Grammy awards and Platinum certification in the U.S. One of the Grammy awards was the record’s lead single Cousin Dupree, which won Best Performance by a Pop Duo or Group with Vocal.

The final Steely Dan studio album Everything Must Go appeared in June 2003. While the record received mixed reviews, it reached no. 9 on the Billboard 200. Here is a clip of the title track.

Following the album’s release, Steely Dan continued to tour frequently. At the same time, Becker and Fagan occasionally released solo albums without involvement of the other partner. Becker’s second and final such record Circus Money appeared in June 2008. Here’s a clip of Bob Is Not Your Uncle Anymore, a tune with a nice reggae groove.

Following are excerpts from a statement Fagen posted on his Facebook page about his long-time music partner: “Walter Becker was my friend, my writing partner and my bandmate since we met as students at Bard College in 1967…We liked a lot of the same things: jazz (from the twenties through the mid-sixties), W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, science fiction, Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Berger, and Robert Altman films come to mind. Also soul music and Chicago blues…[Becker] was smart as a whip, an excellent guitarist and a great songwriter. He was cynical about human nature, including his own, and hysterically funny…I intend to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band.”


Sources: Rolling Stone, Uncut, Billboard, Wikipedia, Donald Fagen Facebook page, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Steely Dan/ Aja

Aja is the highlight of Steely Dan’s awesome music catalog

Oftentimes, rock music is best when it’s simple – typically, three chords, a good groove and at least average vocals is all you need. But like with most things, there are exceptions to the rule. When it comes to rock music, to me Steely Dan undoubtedly is one of them.

Steely Dan’s music, which oftentimes blends rock with other genres, particularly jazz, tends to be pretty complex: rich instrumentation, many chords, complicated breaks, you name it – frankly, music like this is a recipe for disaster, unless it’s perfectly executed. But perfect execution is exactly where Steely Dan excels!

Donald Fagen and Walter Becker

Originally, Steely Dan was a five-piece band. But since 1975’s Katy Lied, their fourth studio album, Steely Dan first and foremost has been the ingenious songwriting partnership of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. While both are also great keyboard and guitar/bass players, respectively, they have always hired top-notch session musicians for any studio work and concert tours.

Released in September 1977, Aja is Steely Dan’s sixth studio album. In my opinion, this record is the crown jewel of Fagen’s and Becker’s amazing music catalog. I was reminded about this just the other evening when I saw an excellent Steely Dan tribute band called The Royal Scam – named after Steely Dan’s 1976 studio album, the predecessor to Aja.

Aja kicks off with Black Cow. Like all songs on the album, the tune was written by Fagen and Becker. Black Cow was also released as the B-side to Josie, the record’s third single. Notably, Becker did not play on the recording. The guitar and bass parts, which he oftentimes takes over in the studio, were played by session musicians Larry Carlton and Chuck Rainey, respectively

Next up is the album’s title song, which is pronounced “Asia” and has an association with the continent. In fact, according to Songfacts, “Steely Dan have several songs with a Far East influence, since Donald Fagan believes it is a symbol of sensuality” – oh, well! At just under eight minutes, Aja is also the record’s longest track. The song is perhaps the best example of how complex Steely Dan’s music can get with a million chords, frequent changes in tempo, breaks, etc. Yet it all works out and the result is outstanding!

The next tune, Deacon Blues, is one of my favorites on the album and from Steely Dan overall. It was also released as the record’s second single. Like with many songs written by Fagen and Becker, people have wondered about the meaning of the lyrics. When asked during a Rolling Stone interview in 2006 about the line, “They call Alabama the Crimson Tide/Call me Deacon Blues,” Fagan explained: “Walter and I had been working on that song at a house in Malibu. I played him that line, and he said. “You mean it’s like, ‘They call these cracker assholes this grandiose name like the Crimson Tide, and I’m this loser, so they call me this other grandiose name, Deacon Blues?”‘ And I said, “Yeah!” He said, “Cool! Let’s finish it!” Well, I suppose whether or not that’s how the lyrics came about matters less than the outcome, which is a brilliant tune!

While I could easily call out each of Aja’s seven tracks, I’d like to highlight two additional ones: Peg and Josie. Peg was the album’s lead single. It peaked at no. 11 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, making it the highest charting of the three singles released from the record. The tune features Michael McDonald, then the lead vocalist of The Doobie Brothers, on background vocals and Jay Graydon on lead guitar. I just love the groove of this tune – no need to over-analyze it!

Last but not least, there is Josie, the record’s closer and another highlight. As previously noted, it was also released separately as Aja’s third and last single. There are three features I like about this song in particular: the funky rhythm guitar, the very cool bass line and Becker’s guitar solo, one of only three solos he played on the album.

Aja became Steely Dan’s most commercially successful record, selling more than five million copies. It climbed all the way up to no. 3 on the U.S. Billboard 200 and to no. 5 in the U.K. I’m also glad Aja otherwise gained well-deserved recognition. It won a Grammy for Best Engineered Recording, Non-Classical, at the 20th Annual Grammy Awards in February 1978. Moreover, it was ranked at no. 145 in Rolling Stone’s 2012 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In fact, if anything, I wonder why it didn’t come in higher, though the ranking probably matters less than being included in the list. Plus, there is of course a high degree of subjectivity in the first place when it comes to lists and rankings.

Sources: Wikipedia, Songfacts, Rolling Stone, YouTube