Songs of 74: Rikki Don’t Lose That Number / Steely Dan

This year Radioinfo will take you back 50 years to the songs that were released in 1974. It was a mighty fine year for music. This is a two-part special.

I’m a big fan of Steely Dan and like their fusion of rock, jazz, blues, funk with a pinch of additional flamenco flair. They are regulars on most Australian classic hits stations due to the their music aging like a fine wine. It will surprise many of you that Rikki Don’t Lose That Number was their only charting hit, reaching no 30 in 1974.

Steely Dan released their debut album Can’t Buy A Thrill in 1972, which included the US hits Reelin’ In The Years and Do It Again. The core of the band was Walter Becker, playing bass and later lead guitar, and keyboardist Donald Fagen who was also sometimes the lead vocalist.

I say ‘sometimes’ because the prodigiously talented Fagen suffered from crippling stage fright. He is the lead singer on both Reelin’ in the Years and Do It Again, and yet when it came time to tour the Can’t Buy A Thrill album, David Palmer, who had been recruited by the band as ‘second lead vocalist’, would sing those hits on stage.

By 1974, and the album from which this comes called Pretzel Logic, playing in the band was Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (who does the guitar work on Rikki), keyboardist and vocalist Michael McDonald, drummer Jeff Porcaro, pianist David Paich along with a host of others.

Steely Dan had released an album in 1973 called Countdown to Ecstasy which hadn’t sold well and had felt rushed and ill thought through, according to Fagen and Becker. They were now also working with recording engineer Roger Nichols who would go on to be known as ‘the immortal’ and a perfectionist of his craft. The three of them utilised these session artists and more having them record and re-record parts of the album till it replicated their high standards.

Apparently once everything was assembled for the Rikki Don’t Lose That Number recording something felt wrong with the sound. The fault, discovered by Nichols, was a glob of mustard someone had dropped on the master tape.

That’s why you aren’t allowed food in the studio, people!!

The song and the album were a success, but Fagan and Baxter refused to tour it due to the combination of Fagan’s stage fright and Baxter’s desire to have the time and space to write better material. For the next decade Steely Dan became a studio band. That decision though forced the hands of those talented session players who did want to tour, with two major bands resulting from it. Jeff Porcaro and David Paich went on to form Toto and Michael McDonald (who would remain involved with Steely Dan too) and Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter became part of…….well, more on that tomorrow.

Becker and Fagen changed their minds and began touring in the 80s. They wrote and played together up until Becker’s death in 2017.

The sound of Steely Dan, enhanced by Nichols, has become uniquely theirs, but there is no doubt they were highly influenced by some of the legends of jazz. If you want to hear that influence, particularly on Rikki, check out Horace Silver’s Song for My Father and Duke Ellington and his Orchestra’s East Saint Louie Toodle-Oo.

East Saint Louie Toodle-Oo is mentioned several times in William Burroughs‘ very famous novel Naked Lunch. That is also where Steely Dan got their band name from. As to what a ‘steely dan’ is in that book, I’ll let you do your own research to find out!

By Jen Seyderhelm – Radioinfo Writer, Editor and Music Trivia Buff.

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