On This Day in Rock & Roll History: July 5

It’s been four and a half months since the last installment of On This Day in Rock & Roll History, a feature that has appeared irregularly since the very early days of the blog. What tends to happen is I remember the feature, do a few installments based on dates I haven’t covered yet, and then it kind of drops off the radar screen again.

Whenever I come back to it, usually, I find it intriguing what turns up by looking at a specific date throughout music history. Typically, my time period of reference for these posts are the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. Without further ado, following are some of the events that happened on July 5.

1954: Elvis Presley recorded his first single That’s All Right at Sun Records in Memphis, Tenn. The song was written by blues singer Arthur Crudup who also first recorded it in 1946. Some of the lyrics were traditional blues verses Crudup took from Blind Lemon Jefferson, recorded in 1926. Presley’s cover of That’s All Right came together spontaneously when during a break in the studio Elvis started to play an uptempo version of Crudup’s song on guitar. Bill Black joined in on string bass and they were soon joined by Scotty Moore on lead guitar. When producer Sam Phillips heard them play, wisely, he asked them to start over, so he could record. That’s All Right appeared on July 19, 1954, with Blue Moon of Kentucky as the B-side. While the tune gained local popularity and reached no. 4 on the Memphis charts, it missed the national charts.

1966: Chas Chandler, who at the time was the bassist for The Animals, saw Jimi Hendrix for the first time at Café Wha? in Greenwich Village, New York City. He was awestruck by the 23-year-old guitarist’s performance. Hendrix was playing with a band and they called themselves Jimmy James and the Blue Flames. One of the songs Hendrix performed that day was Hey Joe. Coincidentally, When Chandler had heard a version of the tune by folk singer Tim Rose a few days earlier and immediately was determined to find an artist to record it after his return to England. Shortly after the Café Wha? gig, Chandler became Hendrix’s manager and producer and took the guitarist to London. Chandler brought Hendrix together with bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell. They became the Jimi Hendrix Experience, recorded Hey Joe and released the tune as their first single in December of the same year. And the rest is history.

1969: The Who released I’m Free, the second single from Tommy, their fourth studio album. Like most of the rock opera album, the tune was written by Pete Townshend. Backed by We’re Not Gonna Take It, the single didn’t chart in the UK. In the U.S., it reached no. 37 on the Billboard Hot 100. It did best in Germany and the Netherlands where it climbed to no. 18 and no. 20, respectively. The relatively moderate performance is remarkable for a tune that is one of the best-known tracks from the album. Townshend has said the song was in part inspired by The Rolling Stones’ Street Fighting Man.

1974: Linda Ronstadt recorded You’re No Good at The Sound Factory in Los Angeles, working with renowned producer Peter Asher. Written by Clint Ballard Jr., You’re No Good was first recorded by Dee Dee Warwick in 1963, produced by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Ronstadt’s rendition became her breakthrough hit and the most successful version, topping the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and reaching no. 7 on the Canadian mainstream chart. Elsewhere it climbed to no. 15, no. 17 and no. 24 in Australia, The Netherlands and New Zealand, respectively. You’re No Good actually also turned out to be, well, pretty good for Heart Like a Wheel, helping Ronstadt’s fifth solo record to become her first no. 1 in the U.S. on the Billboard 200.

1981: A performance of The Cure at the annual Rock Werchter in Belgium was cut short when the English gothic rock and new wave band was told they had to wrap up so Robert Palmer could begin his set. “This is the final song because we’re not allowed to carry on anymore, ’cause everybody wants to see Robert Palmer,” Cure vocalist Robert Smith told the crowd before the band defiantly launched into an extended 9-minute version of A Forest. While they were wrapping up, bassist Simon Gallup grabbed the microphone and yelled, “Fuck Robert Palmer! Fuck Rock and Roll!” Apparently, the festival organizers forgave The Cure who returned several times in subsequent years. By contrast, Robert Palmer’s 1981 performance at Rock Werchter remained his only appearance at the festival.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts Music History Calendar; Ultimate Classic Rock; 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