Steely Dan: An Appreciation (or, from Hugh McCracken to Steely Dan to Curious George and Back)


Today on Facebook a musician friend of mine posted a notice that a guitarist named Hugh McCracken had passed away today. I didn’t recognize the name, but his friend and fellow guitarist Steve Khan posted a tribute in which he noted that McCracken had played on hundreds of tracks–and that “I often feel that his essence could be summed-up by his playing on Hey Nineteen by Steely Dan.” So of course, after reading that, I had to listen to Hey Nineteen with new ears. Because I’m guilty of not always knowing what musician played what part on what song.

I first heard Steely Dan in the 1970s, on the radio. In those days, radio wasn’t so strictly stuck on all that “format” bullshit. Which was great, because you couldn’t categorize Steely Dan. Here in New York, I heard them on black stations like WBLS, on jazz station WRVR (thanks to deejays like the great Les Davis), and on white rock stations like WNEW-FM. That was an era when artist creativity defied categorization. In fact, up until the late 1980s, to my nephew Kevin, myself, and all our friends, you were a candy-ass punk if every tune on your album sounded alike! We considered that we got our money’s worth when no two tracks on an album sounded like we expected them to. This is one reason I still enjoy music from that time: because there was so much ORIGINALITY. I’m spoiled and proud of it!

So yes, I loved Steely Dan, and yes, I’m listening to them as I write this post, singing at the top of my voice—after plugging in the grownup speakers because the music is so full and rich that you gotta hear every juicy drop! Do It Again, Ricky Don’t Lose That Number, Peg, My Old School, Bodhisattva, Hey Nineteen, Bad Sneakers, Deacon Blues, Aja–all full of clever lyrics blended with expert music.


My Steely collection. As you can see, I was able to snag some at bargain prices! (click to enlarge)

At the time, I just enjoyed the songs, oblivious to any details. Later, after buying the albums, I would realize that Steely Dan was not a static band: it was master musicians Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, surrounded by an expert roster of rotating musicians from the jazz and rock world. I remember listening to East St. Louis Toodle-Oo and assuming it was just another of their quirky ideas… only to discover (years later, from simply taking a closer look at the credits) that the tune was a 1920’s classic composed by Duke Ellington.

Like many bands of the era, there came a time when Steely Dan broke up. Or better said, when they stopped recording under that name. (In 1982 Fagen released a solo album, The Nightfly, which I enjoyed.) Which made it especially exciting to me when in 1990 I saw an ad that “The New York Rock & Soul Revue Featuring Donald Fagen” would be performing at the Beacon Theater in New York! So I got myself a press ticket and went to the show. As I later wrote in a Billboard review, on that gig Fagen surrounded himself with quality musicians, just like in the Steely Dan days, and it was a delight to witness.

DP revue review

My 1990 Billboard review of The New York Rock & Soul Revue Featuring Donald Fagen (click to enlarge/read)

At that concert I was highly impressed by the backing band, Curious George, particularly the way in which they were able to deliver all the Steely classics. The keyboardist/bandleader, introduced as Jeff Young, had an unforgettably powerful voice. A short while later I got to meet him at his NYC home studio, where he gave me a demo cassette filled with his band’s great music. On it, my favorite was a tune called Working My Way Downtown, which I played to death.

Fast forward to one recent day. The thought popped into my head: wonder where Jeff Young is now? A quick Internet search led me to–you guessed it–Facebook! I sent him a private message starting with “You probably won’t remember me, but…” and mentioning (and including a photo of) that cassette to refresh his memory. To which he replied “Of course I do!” and informed me that would be sending me some more recent CDs to update me.

Two CDs arrived. One was Pure Herringbone, recorded just a few years ago. To my amazement, one of the tunes on it was… Working My Way Downtown!

Jeff’s website features a video of himself playing–with Steely Dan!–in a 2006 concert. Too bad I missed that one! But like I said, they surround themselves with the best.

So rest in peace, Hugh McCracken. Your music lives on–and brings back memories that keep on giving.

Interpreting Your Life Story As a Song: From Swiss Chris to Lee Oskar and Back

Lee Oskar

Last summer, on a lovely Sunday evening, I attended a most unusual book launch party. As a contributing editor for Publishers Weekly, which is the international trade magazine of the book publishing industry, I’ve attended dozens of book launch parties. Typically they’re brief affairs, held at some interesting venue (restaurant, penthouse, rooftop, or location related to the book), and feature cocktails, appetizers, and other publishing industry people.

But this party was for a music instruction book, written by master drummer and musical director Swiss Chris (real name Christoph Flueck). The book is Modern Drum Set Stickings, which to me sounded kind of pornographic. But that’s just because I’m not a drummer. In reality, I know that this is some kind of serious drumming term. Anyway, it’s a 75-page book of instruction, for professional drummers.

The event was held at Shapeshifter Labs, a new arts and music space in Brooklyn founded by musicians and artists. It was no mere performance; it was a drum clinic. Therefore, the room was filled with musicians, most of whom performed as part of the demonstrations that Swiss Chris presented.

For almost three hours, Swiss played, demonstrating techniques from the book, accompanied by different permutations of the various musicians.

There was  lots of history made: they played Weather Report’s classic, Mysterious Traveler. The master drummer from FELA! played his… well, master drums. One of Chris’s students from Berklee performed. Drummer and Swiss Chris mentor Kenwood Dennard was there. And so was Garrett Shider, son of the late Garry Shider from Parliament/Funkadelic. How’s that for amazing?!

Between the performances, Chris talked about the book, about drumming, about his love and appreciation for the musicians in the room, and about his passion. He also mentioned that he was writing a musical biography of his journey from Switzerland to the US.

Swiss Chris party

Swiss Chris (back row, third from left) and a few of his friends after his book launch party

That’s when I immediately thought of harmonica master Lee Oskar, another musician who came to the U.S. from Denmark and got involved with some black musicians–Lonnie Jordan, Papa Dee Allen, Charles Mller, Harold Brown, B.B. Dickerson, and Howard Scott. That’s right: I’m talkin’ about WAR, the band! The reason Lee Oskar came to mind is that he too wrote and recorded a musical biography. It was Lee Oskar, his first solo album, released in 1976. Each tune described an important event in his musical life, from his days in his birthplace of Denmark to his meeting the guys in Los Angeles. I’m a sucker for a story, especially if you can tell it musically; so my heart instantly melted when I heard the suite of three tunes that made up the first side (named “That Side”).

Listen to the first song–I Remember Home: A Peasant’s Journey–and experience how evocative it is! 


The album’s front cover

Lee Oskar back

On the back cover, the artist explains his songs (click to enlarge)

I had the extreme pleasure of meeting Lee Oskar and WAR in New York City, back in the ’80’s. It was funny how it happened. I’d seen an ad in the Village Voice announcing the band’s upcoming NYC appearance at the Ritz (which is now Webster Hall). Since I was already in talks with their manager as part of my research for a book I was considering writing about the music of the ’70s, I called him to see if I could meet the band when they arrived.

“What?” he said. “They’re not booked in New York! That must be a bunch of impostors.” He asked me to read him the information from the ad, and the next thing I knew, the real band was booked! So I ended up hanging out with the band in the green room above the stage. True happiness, as WAR had been–and still is–one of my all-time favorite bands. Lee Oskar gifted me one of his harmonicas, and keyboardist Lonnie Jordan asked to borrow the white sunglasses I was wearing and played the whole gig wearing them. Great memories!

Lee Oskar harmonica

The harmonica that Lee Oskar gifted me. Although it’s never been played, it’s definitely been cherished!

So I can’t wait to hear Swiss Chris’s musical biography, in song. Is that pressure? Oops, my bad. No pressure, Chris… just get to writing!

Whose musical life story got YOU excited?