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

Steelys
Standard

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.

Steelys

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.

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

  1. Scurvybro

    I am a huge Steely Dan fan and know way more trivia about them than any healthy person should. Still, I did not realize until hearing about Mr. McCracken’s death that he was the guitarist on “Hey Nineteen.” The tone of the guitar solo on that tune has got to be the sweetest I’ve ever heard in a rock song.

  2. Mark Cassidy

    Outside of jazz (and to some extent inside it!) SD were / have been one of my favorite bands. To hear that one of the inventors of their sound so to speak has gone is very sad. Loved your article!

  3. Diane, As always a beautifully written piece and tribute for Hugh. It’s *always* a treat to hear your perspective. I’m so glad that my post on Facebook and Steve’s great heart felt tribute prompted you to write something. As always so eloquently put and a beautiful story told. As musicians it really is joy to hear such an appreciation. Thank you for writing. Keep it up, looking forward to more on your blog… More power to ya! Booyakasha! – A 🙂

  4. Janell Walden Agyeman

    I LOVE your expression and sensitivity, discernment, knowledge. I never knew all this about Steely Dan! Until you wrote this, I had no idea who SD was… heck, I thought this was the leader’s name!! I’m not the level of music lover you are, clearly, but we would have had a great time comparing notes, back when I really DID check everything out!!! And I totally agree with you about the 70s. I often give thanks that I am a child of that era, when originality mattered and was encouraged, even, and when heart and soul figured so enormously… and when radio had room for ALL of it.

    • janell you don’t even want to know how long i myself thought “Steely Dan” was the leader’s name too! but i think it’s part of a listener’s evolution, and it takes as long as it takes. there’s still music i’ve been hearing for decades and i don’t know the artist’s name. hey, maybe that could be a blog post… haha

  5. Very cool story. I give credit to one of my mentors via the radio waves, Frankie “Hollywood” Crocker of WBLS for introducing me to the Steely Dans and David Bowies, letting me realize that while music has a color, there’s no color in music. Bless up DP!!!

  6. Dear Diane: Thanks so much for also saying something poignant and sweet about Hugh McCracken. It’s wonderful to know that something I had written early yesterday had inspired some people to think a bit about Hugh’s legacy, and his contributions to music that we all know and love.

    Wishing you and yours a wonderful weekend….

    Steve

    • thank you steve! your tribute made me realize how important it is to “illustrate” with the music itself when talking about those behind the scenes who actually made the music memorable. i appreciate that lesson and will use it going forward!

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