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

Hey, Hey, The Blues is Alright

I got this song/I’m gonna sing/I’m gonna sing it just for you/If you dig the blues/I want you to help me sing it, too/I want everybody to hear me when I say/The blues is back, and it’s here to stay.

The above intro from The Blues is Alright, a tune by Little Milton, nicely captures how I’m feeling as I’m writing this post. Of course, the blues has always never really left, though I guess it’s fair to say it had greater visibility when Milton released that song back in 1984 and Stevie Ray Vaughan was all the rage.

Sadly, Vaughan and Milton are no longer with us, not to mention the likes of B.B. King, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, to name a few artists of the “old guard.” But over the past few months, exciting new blues music has been released. And as somebody who digs the blues, that truly makes me happy. Are you ready for some? Ready or not, here we go!

Robert Cray first appeared on my radar screen in 1988 with Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, the title track to his sixth studio album, a tune that grabbed me immediately. Fast-forward some 32 years and 18 records later to February 28 this year when Cray released That’s What I Heard. Produced by longtime collaborator Steve Jordan, who also plays drums and percussion, the great collection includes four original tracks and eight covers. The Robert Cray Band also features Richard Cousins (bass), Dover Weinberg (keyboards) and Terence F. Clark (drums). Here’s the opener Anything You Want, an original. Apart from being a decent guitarist, I think Cray also has a great soulful voice.

Ever heard of British blues-rock guitarist Joanne Shaw Taylor? Damn, that lady sounds smoking hot to me! Even though Taylor is only in her mid-30s, she has an impressive record. She was discovered at the age of 16 by Dave Stewart (of Eurythmics), who in 2002 invited her to tour in Europe with his band D.U.P. In 2009, Taylor’s debut album White Sugar appeared. Her latest release is Reckless Blues, an EP that came out two weeks ago on March 6. Here’s a great cover of Slow Dancing in a Burning Room, a tune John Mayer wrote and first recorded for his third studio album Continuum from September 2006.

Let’s move on to Frank Bey. Admittedly, I had never heard of him until earlier today, even though the man is 74 years old and, well, has been around for some time. According to his website, he began his singing career 70 years ago as a gospel singer – yep, we’re talking as a 4-year-old. At age 17, he joined the Otis Redding Revue. In the mid-70s, Bey became entangled in a legal battle with James Brown over one of his songs Brown had recorded without his permission. While the matter was settled out of court, it left Bey embittered, and he got out of the music business for 17 years. Then he returned and since 1998 has released six albums, the most recent of which is All My Dues Are Paid that appeared on January 17 this year. It’s warm and soulful. Here’s the tasty opener Idle Hands, featuring some cool wah-wah guitar and nice horn work, along with Bey’s great vocals and some hot gospel backing vocals. Check it out!

Ready for two more? Here’s Christone “Kingfish” Ingram with his new single Empty Promises, a live recording that came out on February 14. The 21-year-old from Clarksdale, Miss. released his debut album Kingfish last May and got rave reviews. It’s certainly no coincidence he has played with the likes of Buddy Guy, Keb’ Mo’, Eric Gales and Rick Derringer. I think we will hear many more great things from this super talented young artist. Empty Promises was written by blues and soul singer and guitarist  Michael Burks who passed away in May 2012 from a heart attack. He was only 54 years old.

The final tune I’d like to call out is by Tas Cru, another blues artist I had not heard of before either. While he doesn’t have a Wikipedia page, luckily, there’s a website. According to his bio, Cru is truly a blues eclectic who refuses to let his music be bound to just one blues style…with a repertoire of over 60 original songs from multiple albums and dozens of crowd-pleasing classics…Tas Cru is currently is based out of upstate New York and performs in multiple formats ranging from solo acoustic to a 7 piece-backing band. Cru’s most recent album, which was released on February 1, is titled Drive On. According to a review in Elmore Magazine, it’s his ninth and 11th overall, when including two blues-for-kids records he made. Here’s the funky title song featuring great horn and organ work. Don’t get fooled by the tune’s slow start. Keep listening!

Sources: Wikipedia; Robert Cray website; Joanne Shaw Taylor website; Frank Bey website; Tas Cru website; Elmore Magazine; YouTube

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

Music of Cream Shines at New Jersey’s Count Basie Theatre

Relatives of original members pay tribute to legendary power rock trio

While I’ve seen many tribute bands over the past couple of years, Tuesday night was a first: a tribute act whose members were relatives of the original band’s musicians. Meet Music of Cream: Malcolm Bruce (bass) and Kofi Baker (drums), sons of Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker; and Will Johns (guitar), nephew of Eric Clapton.

The closest case I can think of is Jason Bonham, son of the late Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, who pays tribute to the English rockers with Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience. But I’ve never seen a tribute act where the entire lineup is blood-related to the members of the original band.

Apart from being true masters of their craft, Malcolm Bruce, Kofi Baker and Will Johns also have impressive other accomplishments, as their bios on the Music of Cream website show. Malcolm is a composer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and engineer. In addition to having recorded and performed with his father, he can be heard on recordings of other artists like Little Richard, Eric Clapton or Elton John. Last year, Malcolm also released his debut solo album Salvation.

Kofi first performed live with his father on the BBC TV show The Old Grey Whistle Test when he was just six years old. In addition to Jack Bruce, he has also played and toured with other rock musicians, such as Uli Jon Roth (former lead guitarist of Scorpions), UFO guitarist Vinnie Moore and Rick Derringer. He also released a solo record, Lost City, and recorded an album with Jonas Hellborg and Shawn Lane called Abstract Logic.

Kofi, Malcolm and Will
Music of Cream (from left): Kofi Baker, Malcolm Bruce and Will Johns

In addition to Jack Bruce, Will has performed with Ronnie Wood, Mick Taylor and Bill Wyman. Will’s strong connection to members of The Rolling Stones is likely due to his father Andy Johns, recording engineer and producer, who apart from the Stones has worked with Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. Will is also the nephew of Glyn Johns who has produced for The Who, Eric Clapton and Eagles. To date, he has released three solo albums: Count On Me, Hooks & Lines and Something Old, Something New.

Yes, it’s safe to assume that all their connections haven’t hurt Malcolm, Kofi and Will, but this doesn’t take away from the fact that they are highly talented musicians and accomplished artists. Music of Cream’s shows are billed as a 50th anniversary tour, which was launched in Australia and New Zealand last year. Cream’s debut album Fresh Cream appeared in December 1966.

Tuesday night’s show was divided in two sets separated by a 20-minute intermission. Based on what I’ve seen on Setlist.fm, this appears to be the typical format. In addition to great music, I also thought the projection of psychedelic color patterns mixed with historical footage of Cream on the stage background was pretty cool. While the band was taking a break, documentary film footage was shown. During both sets, Kofi, Macolm and Will also shared anecdotes about Ginger, Jack and Eric.

Time for some clips! Here are two from the first set. Politician appeared on Wheels Of Fire, Cream’s third album released in August 1968. It was written by Jack Bruce and lyricist and singer Pete Brown who frequently collaborated with Bruce.

Next up: Strange Brew, the opener of Cream’s sophomore album Disraeli Gears from November 1967. The tune is credited to Eric Clapton, the record’s producer Felix Pappalardi and his wife Gail Collins.

Some of the other tunes from the first set included N.S.U., Badge and Sleepy Time Time.

The second set kicked off with I’m So Glad, followed by Crossroads. Following is a clip of the latter, a Robert Johnson tune arranged by Eric Clapton.

White Room was another tune Music of Cream performed during the second half of show. Co-written by Bruce and Brown, the song was the opener of the Wheels Of Fire album.

Some other tunes from the second sets included Born Under A Bad Sign, Sitting On Top Of The World, Toad and Sunshine Of Your Love. Here’s a clip of the latter, another track from Disraeli Gears, co-written by Bruce, Clapton and Brown. The band stretched it into an 11-minute-plus jam.

Music of Cream also threw in Spoonful as an encore. Including the intermission, the show lasted a solid three hours. Not only did Malcolm Bruce, Kofi Baker and Will Johns do a great job to capture the music of Cream, but they were also clearly enjoying themselves.

Upcoming tour dates include Baltimore, Md. (Oct 25), Greensburg, Pa. (Oct 26), Bristol, Tenn. (Oct 28) and Richmond, Va. (Oct 30). The full schedule is available here.

Sources: Wikipedia, Music of Cream website, Setlist.fm, 

 

Clips & Pix: Johnny Winter/Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo

A killer blues rock, Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo was written by Rick Derringer and first recorded by Johnny Winter for his fourth studio album And from September 1970. At the time, And was also the name of Winter’s band, which included Derringer.

In 1973, Derringer recorded a solo version of Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo. It was the lead track for his studio debut All American Boy, which appeared in October that year. This version became Derringer’s biggest hit, peaking at no. 23 on the Billboard Hot 100.

The above clip was captured from a Winter show at Palace Theatre in Waterbury, Conn. on April 20, 1973. He was backed by Richard Hughes (drums) and Randy Jo Hobbs (bass).

Sources: Wikipedia, Setlist.fm, YouTube