My Playlist: Steely Dan

Together with a handful of other bands and artists I’ve dug for many years, I couldn’t think of a better group to dedicate the first playlist of 2021 than to the amazing Steely Dan. While I’ve covered them on previous occasions, this is the first time I’ve put together a career-spanning playlist.

Before getting to some music, as usual, I’d like to provide a bit of background, for which I’m going to borrow from previous posts. The original masterminds behind Steely Dan, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, first met in 1967 as 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.

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 bass at the time and would switch to the electric guitar later. When they met Dias, Becker and Fagen had already written a good amount of original music.

Donald Fagan & Walter Becker
Walter Becker (left) and Donald Fagen

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 each of the band’s following seven studio albums: Countdown To Ecstasy (1973), Pretzel Logic (1974), Katy Lied (1975), The Royal Scam (1976), Aja (1977) and Gaucho (1980).

Steely Dan: The Very Best Of | Music | Entertainment | Express.co.uk
Steely Dan in 1972 (from left): Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter, Walter Becker, David Palmer, Denny Dias, Donald Fagen and Jim Hodder

In June 1981, Fagen and Becker disbanded 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.

In 1993, Fagen and Becker reunited for an American tour in support of Fagen’s second studio album Kamakiriad, which had appeared in May that year and had been produced by Becker. While Fagen and Becker continued Steely Dan tours, it took until February 2000 before their next new album Two Against Nature appeared. One more album followed: Everything Must Go from June 2003.

UPDATED] Walter Becker Estate Issues Statement Regarding Donald Fagen  Lawsuit
Walter Becker (left) and Donald Fagen

After the release of Fagen’s third solo album Morph the Cat in March 2006, Steely Dan resumed regular touring. At the same time, Becker and Fagan occasionally released solo albums without involvement of the other partner. On September 3, 2017, Becker passed away from esophageal cancer at the age of 67.

At the time of Becker’s death, Donald Fagen said on his Facebook page, “I intend to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band.” And that’s exactly what he has been doing until COVID-19 hit. I was fortunate to see him twice in 2018 and wrote about it here and here. I’m currently scheduled to see him again open air in early July together with Steve Winwood – keeping fingers crossed. Time for some music!

I’d to kick things off with the aforementioned Dallas, Steely Dan’s first single. Like all tracks in this post, the song was co-written by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. Sung by drummer Jim Hodder, the county-flavored tune was not included on Steely Dan’s debut album but appeared in 1978 on a compilation titled Steely Dan.

Perhaps my favorite early Dan tune is the rocker Reelin’ In the Years, which first appeared on the band’s debut album Can’t Buy a Thrill from November 1972. It also became the album’s second single in March 1973. The song’s kickass guitar solo was played by session musician Elliott Randall, which none other than Jimmy Page called his favorite guitar solo of all time.

Countdown to Ecstasy, Steely Dan’s sophomore release from July 1973, was the band’s first album without vocalist David Palmer that saw Donald Fagen sing lead on every tune. Here’s the album’s second single My Old School. While the record didn’t have a hit and couldn’t match the debut’s chart success, it was well received by critics at the time, and My Old School became a fan favorite.

Pretzel Logic, Dan’s third studio album released in February 1974, was the last to feature the full core lineup of Fagen, Becker, Dias, Baxter and Hodder. It also included contributions from many prominent LA musicians, such as future Toto members David Paich (piano, keyboards) and Jeff Porcaro (drums), then-Poco bassist and vocalist Timothy B. Schmit (backing vocals) who would later join the Eagles, and session bassist Chuck Rainey. Here’s opener Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, which also became the lead single in April 1974.

By the time Steely Dan’s next album Katy Lied came out in March 1975, most of their original members had left. The band essentially became Becker and Fagen who continued to hire top-notch musicians to support their recording sessions. In addition to Paich and Porcaro, the latter included Rick Derringer and Michael McDonald. Katy Lied also became the first Dan album to feature amazing session guitarist Larry Carlton. Here’s Doctor Wu. The alto saxophone solo was played by jazz saxophonist Phil Woods.

Next up: Kid Charlemagne, the lead single from The Royal Scam, Steely Dan’s fifth studio album. Both appeared in May 1976. The funky tune features the above noted Larry Carlton whose guitar solo was ranked #80 in Rolling Stone’s list of The 100 Greatest Guitar Songs in May 2008. I also dig Chuck Rainey’s bass work on that tune.

This brings me to Aja, which to me is Steely Dan’s Mount Rushmore. Released in September 1977, this album is pure perfection. While I could have selected any track, I simply couldn’t ignore my all-time favorite Dan tune: Deacon Blues. Even after having listened to it countless times, I still get excited about this song. I think it represents a perfect blend of jazz, pop and rock, and I love the smooth sound. BTW, Becker played bass on this one. But the real standout are the horns.

Steely Dan’s next album Gaucho from November 1980 proved to be a huge challenge to make, which ultimately resulted in the above breakup in June 1981. Driven by Fagen’s and Becker’s perfectionism, the recording sessions used at least 42 musicians and took more than a year. In January 1980, Becker’s girlfriend Karen Roberta Stanley died of a drug overdose at his home. Her family subsequently brought a $17.5 million lawsuit, charging he had introduced her to drugs. The case was settled out of court. Shortly after Stanley’s death, Becker was hit by a taxi shattering his right leg. During his six-month recovery, he and Fagen collaborated via phone. Here’s the album’s lead track Babylon Sisters.

February 2000 saw the release of Two Against Nature, Fagen’s and Becker’s first new Steely Dan studio album in 20 years since Gaucho. It became one of their most successful albums. In addition to earning a Platinum certification in the U.S., Two Against Nature won four Grammy Awards in 2001, including Album of the Year. Here’s the groovy Cousin Dupree, which won Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.

The last tune I’d like to call out is the title track of Steely Dan’s ninth studio album Everything Must Go, the final with Walter Becker, released in June 2003. I think Apple Music correctly notes the lyrics sound like the song is a permanent sign-off: Guess it’s time for us to book it/Talk about the famous road not taken/In the end we never took it/And if somewhere on the way/We good a few good licks in/No one’s ever gonna know/Cause we’re goin’ out of business/Everything must go.

If Everything Must Go indeed signaled Steely Dan’s final studio album, it wasn’t a total sign-off. Fagen and Becker continued to tour as Steely Dan almost every year thereafter until 2017. Becker’s final performance was on May 27 that year at the Greenwich Town Party in Greenwich, Conn.

Steely Dan have sold more than 40 million albums worldwide. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March 2001. In December 2015, Rolling Stone ranked Steely Dan at No. 15 on its list of 20 Greatest Duos of All Time.

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; YouTube

Clips & Pix: The Doobie Brothers/Rockin’ Down the Highway

The news this morning that The Doobie Brothers are among the 2020 inductees into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame made me happy. This band represents two worlds I generally dig: Great ’70s rock and precious multi-part vocal harmonies. While I didn’t have time to write a longer post, at least I wanted to celebrate the occasion with a nice clip of one of my favorite Doobie tunes: Rockin’ Down the Highway.

This great footage was captured in July 2004 at Wolf Trap National Park in Virginia. The Doobies also recorded an album from that gig in October of the same year, titled Live at Wolf Trap. Written by Tom Johnston, the great rocker first appeared on the band’s sophomore album Toulouse Street released in July 1972.

Inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as part of The Doobie Brothers are Patrick Simmons (guitar, vocals), the only member who has been in all of the band’s line-ups from the beginning; additional founding members Tom Johnston (guitar, vocals) and John Hartman (drums); as well as members who joined later, including John McFee (guitar, vocals), Michael Hossack (drums, percussion), Tiran Porter (bass, vocals), Keith Knudsen (drums, backing vocals), Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter (guitar) and Michael McDonald (keyboards, vocals).

2020 promises to be an eventful year for The Dobbie Brothers. In addition to the induction, the band will release an EP with five new songs in the spring, as Simmons told Rolling Stone today. The Doobies will also tour North America to celebrate their 50th anniversary, for which current core members Simmons, Johnston and McFee reunite with McDonald. The 50-plus-date tour is set to kick off in West Plam Beach, Fla. on June 9. Some of the other dates include Nashville, Tenn. (June 17); Mansfield, Mass. (July 3); Toronto, Canada (July 19); Indianapolis (July 30); St. Louis (Aug 14); Denver (Aug 30); Los Angeles (Sep 18); and Houston (Oct 10). The final currently announced gig is Memphis, Tenn. (Oct 17). The full schedule is here.

Sources: Wikipedia; Rock & Roll Hall of Fame website; Rolling Stone; Doobie Brothers website; YouTube

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 backing vocals. The 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