My Take On 2017 In Rock Music: Part IV

Some of the great artists who passed away


In the last installment of this year-in-review feature, I’d like to honor some of the great artists we lost in 2017. With most of my rock & roll heroes having gotten into music during the ’60s and ’70s, decades that ween’t exactly known for a healthy lifestyle, perhaps not surprisingly it has been another rough year for artists from the older generation.

Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry’s influence on rock & roll music cannot be overstated. There was simply no known guitarist at the time who could play the electric guitar “like a ringing bell.” In addition to popularizing a signature guitar sound The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Yardbirds and many other artists embraced in the ’60s, Berry was an incredible showman. To me his “duckwalk” was an equivalent to Michael Jackson’s “moonwalk.”

And then there are of course all the iconic tunes Berry wrote. They read like a greatest hits of classic rock & roll. From Roll Over BeethovenToo Much Monkey Business and  Sweet Little Sixteen to Johnny B. GoodeCarol and Little Queenie – and the list goes on! For additional thoughts on Berry, who passed away in March at the age of 90, you can read this. Here is one of my favorite clips showing Berry perform the iconic Johnny B. Goode with Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band.

J. Geils

J. Geils led what Rolling Stone once called the “world’s greatest party band.” The J. Geils Band emerged in 1968 when Snoopy and the Sopwith Camels, an acoustic blues trio Geils had co-founded with bassist Danny Klein and blues harpist Richard “Magic Dick” Salwitz in 1965, added singer Peter Wolf and drummer Stephen Bladd, and later that year keyboarder Seth Justman. Initially, they called the new band The J. Geils Blues Band. Prior to the release of their eponymous 1970 debut album, they dropped “Blues” from their name.

Justman and Wolf wrote most of band’s original material. Geils only has writing credits on their debut album, for which he wrote the instrumental Ice Breaker and co-wrote Hard Drivin’ Man together with Wolf, which I think is the best original tune of the album. Read here for more about J. Geils, who died in April at the age of 71. Below is a clip of Hard Drivin’ Man from the band’s excellent 1972 album Live Full House.

Gregg Allman

Even though I had known Gregg Allman was not in good health, his death in May at age 69 still hit me. From today’s perspective, it’s hard to believe that he and The Allman Brothers Band were late discoveries in my rock & roll journey. I thought a Rolling Stone obituary hit the nail on the head: “Gregg Allman was blessed with one of blues-rock’s great growling voices and, along with his Hammond B-3 organ playing (beholden to Booker T. Jones), had a deep emotional power.”

Allman’s voice and emotional power are also omnipresent on his final studio album Southern Blood, which was released postmortem in September and is among my favorite new records this year. More thoughts on his death and the album are here and here. Following is one of my favorite clips of Allman performing Just Another Rider with his great band from his excellent 2011 album Low Country Blues.

Walter Becker

Walter Becker was best known as Donald Fagen’s longtime partner in Steely Dan, which is hands down one of coolest bands I know. The two met in 1967 at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., where they both studied at the time. Steely Dan’s first lineup was assembled in December 1971, after Becker, Fagen and guitarist Danny Dias had moved to Los Angeles. The additional members included Jeff “Skunk” Baxter  (guitar), Jim Hodder (drums) and David Palmer (vocals). In November 1972, Steely Dan released their excellent debut studio album Can’t Buy a Thrill. And the rest is history.

For more thoughts on Becker’s untimely death in September at the age of 67, which I learned only recently was caused by esophageal cancer, read this. Here is a great clip of what is perhaps my most favorite Steely Dan tune: Deacon Blues, from their sixth studio album Aja, which was released in 1977. Not sure when that life performance was captured.

Tom Petty

The sudden death of Tom Petty on October 2 at just 66 years was a true shocker. Barely a week earlier, he had wrapped up a successful 40th anniversary tour with The Heartbreakers at the legendary Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. Petty founded The Heartbreakers in 1976, together with guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboarder Benmont Tench from his previous band Mudcrutch, as well as Ron Blair (bass) and Stan Lynch (drums).

The Heartbreakers released their eponymous debut album in November 1976. Over the next 38 years, the band put out 12 additional studio records, the last of which was 2014’s Hypnotic Eye. Petty’s impressive studio catalog also encompasses three solo records, two albums with Mudcrutch and two releases with the Traveling Wilburys, the “super group” that in addition to him included Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Ray Orbison. More thoughts on Petty’s death are here. Following is how I prefer to remember him – through his great music. Here’s great clip of Refugee, which has always been one of my favorite Petty tunes.

Other music artists we lost in 2017

Some of the other artists who passed away this year include early rock & roller Fats Domino (89), AC/DC co-founder and rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young (64), country singer and guitarist Glen Campbell (81), Soundgarden co-founder and lead vocalist Chris Cornell (52), Allman Brothers co-founder and drummer Butch Trucks (69), and jazz, R&B and soul singer Al Jarreau (76).

Sources: Rolling Stone, Wikipedia, 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