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

Clips & Pix: Something in the Air

Boy, do I love this catchy tune, and now it’s stuck in my head! I heard it for the first time by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on their 1993 Greatest Hits compilation. Because it sounds so much like he could have written it, for a long time, I thought Something in the Air was a Tom Petty song! The original version was first released in May 1969 by Thunderclap Newman, a British band with an intriguing history that involves Pete Townshend who founded and produced them – something I might explore in a separate post. Townshend also played bass on the recording under the alias Bijou Drains. The tune was written by John David Percy “Speedy” Keen, Townshend’s former chauffeur who also penned Armenia in the City, a song The Who included on their 1967 album The Who Sell Out. Something In The Air topped the UK Singles Chart in July 1969 and was the sole no. 1 hit for Thunderclap Newman who only recorded one study album before they disbanded in April 1971.

Since I really dig the Tom Petty cover, here it is, taken from The Live Anthology, released in November 2009. This fantastic box set nicely illustrates that in addition to great original songs, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were a top-notch cover band – a potential fun topic for yet another post!

And, coz’ three make a charm, let’s throw in yet another version of the song that until today I had no idea existed: The Dukes of September. Formed in 2010, this American “supergroup” included Donald Fagen, Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs. Essentially, it was a revival of The New York Rock and Soul Revue, a music project produced by Fagen’s then-future wife Libby Titus. Led by Fagen, the project involved a series of concerts between 1989 and 1992, which also featured McDonald, Scaggs and various other prominent music artists who performed a mix of their own songs and covers.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

My Playlist: Toto

Even though their sound is pretty commercial pop, which to many music aficionados are bad words, I’ve always liked Toto for their great sound and outstanding musicianship. Here’s the thing: Yes, there are plenty of examples of terrible commercial pop music – just look at what’s currently dominating the charts. But just because something is selling well doesn’t mean it’s bad. Like it or not, a widely beloved and my all-time favorite band The Beatles made commercial pop music, at least during their earlier years. Or take Michael Jackson’s Thriller album: It probably doesn’t get more commercial than that, yet it’s one of the best records ever released, at least in my humble opinion. And there are countless other examples.

Toto was founded in Los Angeles in 1976 by David Paich (keyboards, vocals) and Jeff Porcaro (drums, percussion), who had known each other from high school and done studio session work together. They recruited four additional members: Jeff’s brother Steve Porcaro (keyboards), Steve Lukather (guitar, lead and backing vocals), David Hungate (bass) and Bobby Kimball (lead and backing vocals). Like Paich and Jeff Porcaro, each of the additional members had worked with other artists. In fact, according to the official Toto website, the band’s members have performed on a total of 5,000 records that together sold half a billion copies. Obviously, this includes both projects that predated Toto and side engagements after the band’s formation – still, these are astonishing numbers!

Toto
Toto in 1978

Paich co-wrote half of the songs for Boz Scaggs’ seventh studio album Silk Degrees from March 1976. Steve Porcaro, Hungate and Lukather also worked with Scaggs. Following the formation of Toto, Lukather became one of the most sought after session guitarists. Perhaps his most famous engagement in this context is his guitar work on Michael Jackson’s Beat It from the Thriller album. Jeff Porcaro, who at the time was a 20-year-old drummer, played on all except one Steely Dan tunes on their fourth studio record Katy Lied from March 1975 – anyone who could live up to the perfectionism of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker must have been top notch! Last but not least, Kimball before joining Toto had been a vocalist in various New Orleans bands and S.S. Fools, an unsuccessful short-lived venture with three former members of Three Dog Night.

After signing with Columbia Records, Toto began work on their eponymous debut album. Paich wrote all except two tracks for the record that appeared in October 1978. Though music critics weren’t impressed with Toto initially, the band soon got a significant following. The record reached the top 10 on the albums charts in various countries, including Australia (no. 2), Sweden (no. 5), Germany (no. 8), Canada and the U.S. ( both no. 9) – not shabby for a debut! Toto have since released 12 additional studio albums, six live records and numerous compilations. Between June 2008 and February 2010, the band was on hiatus. Last June, they announced their latest greatest hits collection 40 Trips Around The Sun and a 2018 tour to celebrate their 40th anniversary. Let’s get to some music!

The first time I recall hearing the name Toto was in connection with the song Hold The Line. Written by Paich, it was the lead single and most successful tune from their first album and remains one of my favorite Toto songs. In particular, I dig the keyboard part and the guitar riff.

Next up: The title track of Toto’s excellent sophomore album Hydra. Credited to all members of the band, it’s a pretty complex tune with all kinds of breaks and changes in tempo that nicely showcase top notch musicianship. You simply don’t play this stuff without plenty of experience!

Toto IV from April 1982 became the band’s most successful album, topping the charts in Australia, Canada and the Netherlands, and reaching the top 10 in many other countries, including the U.S. and U.K. (both no. 4) and Japan (no. 3). It also generated what became the band’s only no. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100: Africa. Toto IV turned out to be Kimball’s last record with the band at the time. He was told to leave two years later after drug use had taken a toll on his voice. However, he would be back for Mindfields, the band’s 10th studio album from 1999, and stay on for the two albums thereafter. Toto IV’s lead single Rosanna, written by Paich, is yet another example of musical complexity the band seems to pull off effortlessly.

Since I suppose no Toto playlist would be complete without it, here’s Africa, which was co-written by Paich and Jeff Porcaro. Paich is sharing lead vocals with Kimball. Former Poco and Eagles bassist Timothy B. Schmit is among the guest musicians on the track, providing backing vocals and acoustic rhythm guitar.

In 1986, Toto released their sixth studio album Fahrenheit, the first with Joseph Williams as lead vocalist. It was also the last to feature three Porcaros: Jeff, Steve and their brother Mike Porcaro, who had replaced Hungate on bass shortly after Toto IV had come out. After Fahrenheit’s release, Steve left to focus on songwriting and music composing. While he continued to work with the band in a supporting capacity, it wouldn’t be until Toto XIV that he would be listed again as a core member. Here’s I’ll Be Over You, co-written by Lukather and American songwriter Randy Goodrum. Sung by Lukather, it’s perhaps Toto’s nicest ballad. The tune also features Michael McDonald on backing vocals. It became Toto’s highest charting single in the U.S. since Kimball’s departure, climbing to no. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Toto’s seventh study record, ingeniously titled The Seventh One, came out in March 1988. It’s one of my favorite Toto albums and the last to feature Williams until their most recent studio record Toto XIV from 2015. Similar to Kimball, Williams was let go after his voice had been impacted by drug use. One almost wonders whether Toto makes their lead vocalists take drugs, fire them thereafter, and eventually ask them to come back! Here’s a nice rocker, Stay Away, featuring Linda Ronstadt on backing vocals and David Lindley on lap steel guitar.

By September 1992 when Kingdom Of Desire appeared, Toto had become a four-piece band, with Lukather performing all lead vocals. Their eighth studio album was also the last with Jeff Porcaro who passed away shortly after its release. Here’s the opener Gypsy Train, which like the majority of the record’s tracks is credited to the entire band. I hear a bit of an Aerosmith vibe in this one.

Tambu, released in May 1995 in Europe and in the U.S. the following month, is Toto’s ninth studio album and the first without Jeff Porcaro, who had been replaced by English drummer Simon Phillips. Similar to the band’s other members, Phillips had done plenty of session work. He also had been the drummer of The Who during their 1989 reunion tour in the U.S. Here’s The Turning Point, a groovy tune that’s credited to all members of the band plus Stan Lynch, the original drummer for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

Toto’s 10th studio record Mindfields appeared in Europe and the U.S. in March and November of 1999, respectively. Kimball’s return as a vocalist made Toto a five-piece band again. Here’s the title track, which is credited to all members of the band and features Kimball on lead vocals.

Since I’d like to keep playlists to no more than 10 songs while ideally spanning an artist’s recording career, I’m jumping to Toto’s most recent studio album, the previously noted Toto XIV. Released in March 2015, as mentioned above, the record once again featured Williams on lead vocals and Steve Porcaro as a core member. It also marked the return of original bassist Hungate; Mike Porcaro had been inactive since 2007 due to Lou Gehrig’s Disease and sadly succumbed to complications just days before the album came out. Keith Carlock had replaced Phillips on drums, who had decided to leave Toto in January 2014 and focus on his solo career. Here’s the haunting Burn, a Paich/Williams co-write that also became the album’s third single.

Toto’s current official core members include Williams, Paich, Porcaro and Lukather. Three weeks ago, the band announced that Paich won’t be part of the North American leg of their 40th anniversary tour and instead will focus on his health that took a hit during his recent appearances with Toto in Europe. In the statement Paich said: “To say this was a difficult decision would be a complete understatement. I hope you will all be understanding of my need to be home. I look forward to joining the boys again on stage ASAP.” In the meantime, Dominique Xavier Talpin, who among others played with Prince, will sit in on keyboards.

The band’s North American tour kicked off in Vancouver on July 30. Tonight the band is playing in Costa Mesa, Calif. before it’s on to Henderson, NV on Friday. The current schedule lists 32 additional North American dates all the way until mid-November at what mostly look like small and mid-size venues. One, State Theatre of New Jersey in New Brunswick, is right in my neck of the woods. I got two tickets today – if only more top notch bands would be as reasonable when it comes to ticket prices!

Sources: Wikipedia, Toto official website, YouTube

“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

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