Steely Dan's Donald Fagen talks ahead of Birmingham show
Grammy Award-winning rockers Steely Dan have sold more than 40 million records during a remarkable career that stretches almost 50 years.
Co-founder, lead singer and keyboardist Donald Fagen is in the form of his life and he will be joined by special guest Steve Winwood when his band headline Birmingham’s Resorts World Arena tomorrow.
Steely Dan’s critically acclaimed album Can’t Buy A Thrill was named 145 in Rolling Stone’s 500 albums of all time, Aja became a platinum selling album and Two Against Nature saw Steely Dan win an impressive total of four Grammys including Album of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Album.
With plenty to showcase on their UK arena tour, Steely Dan have celebrated a long history of success having worked with the likes of multi-award winning singers Barbara Streisand and Diana Ross.
Fagen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001 and has also released four albums as a solo artist. The 2017 death of Steely Dan’s co-founder Walter Becker left him as Steely Dan’s sole member.
Fagen became interested in rock and rhythm and blues in the late 1950s after buying Reelin’ and Rockin’ by Chuck Berry. At age 11, he went to the Newport Jazz Festival, becoming what he called a ‘jazz snob’.
“I lost interest in rock ‘n’ roll and started developing an anti-social personality.”
He regularly took the bus to Manhattan to see performances by jazz musicians Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, and Miles Davis and learned to play the piano.
Later, he enrolled at Bard College to study English literature, having been inspired by Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. At Bard he met musician Walter Becker and after forming a number of bands, they eventually formed Steely Dan in the summer of 1970. The group’s first line-up was assembled in December 1971 in Los Angeles, California, where Becker and Fagen had relocated to work as staff songwriters for ABC/Dunhill. Becker and Fagen formed the core of the band and wrote all the songs, with Becker on bass, and later lead guitar, and Fagen on keyboards and vocal.
After the release of their third LP in 1974, the other members left or were fired from the band, which evolved into a studio project headed by Becker and Fagen. Steely Dan’s bestselling album was 1977’s Aja, which was certified platinum. Three years later, they released Gaucho. Their next album wasn’t until 1995, when they released the live album Alive in America. It was followed by the multiple Grammy Award winning Two Against Nature in 2000, and Steely Dan’s final album Everything Must Go in 2003.
The loss of Becker hit Fagen hard. “When I heard he was really ill I was on the road in, I think, Salina, Kansas, and I flew back. I had a day off and he was in his apartment in New York. And I was really glad that I went. I could see he was really struggling. When I put a chair next to the bed, he grabbed my hand. It was something he had never done ever before. And we had a great talk and, you know, he was listening to hard bop – his wife had put on Dexter Gordon records. He was very weak but he was still very funny. I’m really glad I had those hours.”
Fagen decided to keep his band on the road and he’d have been happy to change its name to honour the legacy of his former band mate. “I would actually prefer to call it Donald Fagen and the Steely Dan Band or something like that. That’s an ongoing debate. To me, Steely Dan was just me and Walter, really – it was like a concept we had together.”
Becker’s death has led to lawsuits surrounding the future of the band but Fagen just wants to go out there and play.
“Decades ago, when we started the band, Walter and I had a contract, and it was really a simple thing that a lot of bands have – if someone resigns or is fired or dies, they sell their rock ‘n’ roll stock back to the company. So we signed this thing and it ended up being that Walter and I were the remaining partners...50/50 partners, and the idea was that if somebody dies the other guy would essentially run the band and take control of the band, so we’re just trying to defend that contract.”
For now, such issues can be put to one side. Last year, Steely Dan performed on a summer tour of the United States with The Doobie Brothers as co-headliners. The band also played a nine-show residency at the Beacon Theatre in New York City that October. And now they’re back with another major tour of the UK.