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

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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.

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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.

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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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How a Music Book Created a Friendship

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When I got home the other night, there was a voicemail message from my longtime friend Roger St. Pierre, wishing me a belated happy new year and wanting to catch me up on the news. As usual, I wondered what country he was calling from–because Roger is a British freelance journalist, and one of his specialities is travel writing. Dude has the wanderlust of a thousand men! You know–today, St. Croix; tomorrow, Antarctica.

Another of Roger’s journalistic specialties is music–and that’s how we met.

When I started reviewing records and interviewing musicians for JazzTimes and Billboard, not being a musician I knew I damn well better start getting educated about my subject. (I remind you that this was B.I–Before the Internet.) So I began to amass a reference library of books about music. There was no science to it: whenever I saw a book that looked cool and had a great price, I’d buy it.

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Just one of the shelves where my music reference library lives. Like I said: there was no science to it. Behold the eclectic-ness! (click to enlarge)

One such book was The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Black Music, published around 1982. Its alphabetical entries covered soul, reggae, R&B, blues, disco, and jazz-funk artists with plenty of photos of album covers and artists, plus brief discographies. I found it very useful for reference, but just as entertaining to read for fun, so when I spotted The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock and The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz, I snatched those up too. Years later, someone told me that those books had lots of flaws, but I never noticed any. Then again, the professional researcher in me knows never to rely on any one source; I will cross-check in my sleep!

Illustrated Encyclopedia of Black Music

My well-worn copy of TIEOBM, stuffed with assorted relevant clippings. (click to enlarge–and note Roger’s name on the cover)

Anyway, there were eight authors listed for The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Black Music, and although the publishing company was Harmony Books in New York, the copyright page stated that all correspondence concerning the book should be addressed to Salamander Books, in London. This became relevant because a year or so after I bought the book, I took my second big-girl vacation: a return trip to London.

My first-ever vacation had only been the previous year, in 1986. When I’d received my tax refund that year, I decided to dream BIG: “Come on, DP.” I said to myself. “Think of a place in the world where you always, always wanted to go.” I squeezed my eyes shut and thought hard. And I came up with… LONDON!!

(Don’t ask me why a black girl born and raised in the South Bronx would dream of England. At the time, I would have blamed it on my big brother Pat, who as an Air Force man had been all over the world. He was full of stories and slang from the places he’d been, one of which was England. He’d say things like “ta” and “how about a spot of tea?” in his best British accent, and he liked to watch old British movies. Decades later, though, after I discovered that my biological father’s people were from Barbados, I considered that the perfect explanation for my Anglophilia. Case closed!)

Fast forward to 1987, and planning my second trip to London. By that time, I’d been writing articles for about a year; in fact, one of my early articles–a review of Baba Olatunji’s album Dance to the Beat of My Drum–had been for a British music magazine called WIRE. So I decided to use the trip as a chance to do a little business. First, I wrote to my WIRE editor Richard Cook, asking if we could meet. Next, just for the hell of it I wrote to Ray Bonds, who was listed as the editor of TIEOBM, at the Salamander offices. He was kind enough to write back, inviting me to his office–plus he provided the contact information for some of the book’s authors! Luckily, with a few weeks left before my trip, there was time to write letters to a few of the TIEOBM authors, one of whom was Roger St. Pierre. Roger wrote back, inviting me to meet him during my visit to London. It turns out that Roger was a freelance journalist–like I wanted to be–specializing in not only music, but travel, cars, and cycling.

When I arrived in London, I met Richard Cook for lunch, and visited Ray Bonds at the Salamander offices, where he gave me a copy of The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz–making me the proud owner of both the British and the American editions! And on May 16, I met Roger St. Pierre at the Stockwell tube station. He’d brought along his two children, Nicole and Richard, and their dog Sooty. He drove us to Kent, where we had lunch in a 14th-century pub, and then took a walk in the countryside… where I touched my first cow. (I’m a city girl… what can I say?) Afterwards, we went to his house in London, and I’ll never forget his upstairs office, where he had thousands upon thousands of… records!

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L-R: Cows; Nicole; Sooty; DP; and Richard–just chillin’ in the countryside in Kent, England, May 1987. (Click to enlarge and see the herd of cows!)

Fast forward even more, to the twenty-first century. Nicole and Richard are now grown up, and Roger is a proud granddad. Over all these years, we’ve stayed in touch via long letters and telephone calls, but now it’s through long emails and long telephone calls. Plus a visit if Roger passes through New York on his travel assignments.

What a friend. What a mentor. I’m still glad that that one little music book brought us together.