Donald Fagen was born in Passaic, New Jersey, on January 10, 1948 to Elinor and Joseph (Jerry) Fagen, then a C.P.A. working for a large accounting firm in New York City. Donald was exposed to popular music by his mother, who, as a child and teen, had sung professionally in the Catskills under the name Ellen Ross. Each day, as she went about her housework, she sang the works of Kern, Warren, Berlin, Arlen, Gershwin, Porter, and so on. When Dad springs for a TV set in ‘55, Donald, age 7, sees Chuck Berry on the Dick Clark show and starts spending his allowance on rhythm & blues singles. His collection soon includes 45s by Chuck, the Everly Brothers, vocal groups such as the Coasters and the Drifters, and the odd Spike Jones record.
Fagen subscribes to down beat and stays up all night listening to jazz radio personalities broadcasting out of New York City like Symphony Sid, Mort Fega, and monologist Jean Shepherd; he secures a membership in the Science Fiction Book Club. Other reading includes Ferlinghetti, Ted Joans, plays by Brecht and Albee and Paul Krassner’s Realist. As a teen, he reads his mom챠copy of Vladimir Nabokov챠Lolita and becomes a serious fan.
He is soon bussing to “the city” to see live jazz at clubs like Slug’s and the Village Vanguard, where Max Gordon pus him at the banquette by the drums and serves him sweet, flat bar cokes. He attends concert performances by Charles Mingus, Stan Kenton, Duke Ellington and others.
At eleven, he had begun to play standards and jazz tunes by ear on the new Acrosonic spinet. He struggled to understand the mysterious progressions and voicings as played on records by Red Garland, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans. There were several attempts at formal piano lessons, but Donald’s progress was hampered by a hyperactive disorder or ADD or whatever they’re calling it now. Nevertheless, by the time he finished high school, Fagen forced two other students, a bassist and a drummer, to form a trio, and begun writing crummy little jazz pieces.
In the fall of ‘65, Donald entered Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, where he seesawed between majors in English literature and music. In his third year (the rich-hued mid-sixties having given way to the psychedelic late sixties), he met freshman guitarist Walter Becker, already a veteran of several blues bands. After discovering many common interests (jazz, Chicago blues, soul music, science fiction, writers of the so-called “black humor school”), the two undergraduates began collaborating on songs and playing in assorted pickup bands. They listened to Motown singles and Laura Nyro albums on the massive Ampex studio monitors that Walter set up in his dorm room. They also got some studio experience when fellow student Terence (Boona) Boylan, having scored a record contract, hired them to play on sessions for his album, Alias Boona.
In 1969, Donald and Walter, having thus far failed to form a satisfactory band, try to peddle their growing list of songs on Tin Pan Alley, which is to say the Brill Building and 1650 Broadway in midtown Manhattan. They hooked up with a small production company, JATA, started by the members of Jay and the Americans, who are enjoying a brief career revival due to a hit remake of the Drifter’s “This Magic Moment.” Nothing much happens with the songs, but the Americans employ them as musicians (keyboard and bass) in their touring band and as player/arrangers in the recording studio. JATA pitchman Kenny Vance places one forgettable number on a Barbra Streisand album, but the action stops there.
In 1971, Broadway crony Gary Katz, now an A&R man for ABC-Dunhill Records in L.A., convinces president Jay Lasker to take the duo on as staff songwriters. They move out to the coast where they are given a tiny office containing a desk and a piano. While attempting to come up with pop material for the label’s roster of artists, they scheme to assemble a band and continue to add songs to their other book of songs, which they laughingly call “the dynamite.” When Lasker agrees to a recording budget, Becker, Fagen and Katz send for some game east coast players and rehearsals commence in a vacant room at ABC-Dunhill after hours. The original lineup (in addition to Donald and Walter on keyboard and bass) features: Jim Hodder, drums; Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, guitar; Denny Dias, guitar; and Dave Palmer, vocals.
In ‘73 and ‘74, the band, now named (at the last minute) Steely Dan (a cartoon-like sex appliance out of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch) tours the U.S. and Britain and releases two albums, Can’t Buy A Thrill and Countdown to Ecstasy. Always experimenting, Becker and Fagen expand the personnel to include, at various times, former Disneyland singers Porky and Bucky, singer/percussionist Royce Jones, singer/keyboardist Michael McDonald and drummer Jeff Porcaro. Nevertheless, in the summer of ‘74, the band breaks up.
By the time Pretzel Logic is released, Donald has taken over the lead vocal spot and professional session players are being called in for recording dates. ABC-Dunhill staff engineer Roger Nichols begins to take a larger role in the recording process and the partners enlist the help of uber-manager Irving Azoff. During the last half of the seventies, the duo release four more critically acclaimed albums - Katy Lied, The Royal Scam, Aja, and Gaucho - featuring a long list of world-class players including Bernard Purdie, Chuck Rainey, Joe Sample, Larry Carlton, Phil Woods and Wayne Shorter. Both Aja and Gaucho are nominated for the Album of the Year Award. Roger Nichols and Elliot Scheiner take home several engineering Grammys.
The eighties see Donald and Walter leading mostly separate lives, Donald in New York City and Walter in Hawaii. Donald’s innovative 1981 release, The Nightfly, becomes an instant classic. This rich work, one of the first major pop releases to use the new digital recording technology, also draws an Album of the Year nomination at the Grammy awards and wins France’s coveted Grand Prix du Disques. In 1984, Donald receives an honorary Doctorate of Arts from his alma mater, Bard College.
During the eighties, Donald takes on various projects including composing songs for films (Heavy Metal, The King of Comedy, Bright Lights Big City), for other artists (Diana Ross, Yellowjackets, Jennifer Warnes, Manhattan Transfer) and co-production (The Gospel at Colonus soundtrack), as well as writing the occasional column on film music for Premiere Magazine. As the nineties begin, Donald collaborates with producer and wife-to-be Libby Titus on a series of legendary “club-concerts” exploring the work of specific songwriters, such as Bert Berns and Jerry Ragovoy. This culminates in several national tours and the recording, The New York Rock and Soul Revue - Live at the Beacon Theater, which featured Michael McDonald, Phoebe Snow, Boz Scaggs, Charles Brown and the Brigati Brothers. Walter, back in NYC to produce Donald’s solo album, Kamakiriad, joins the revue for the ‘92 season.
Kamakiriad, an account of a dangerous journey in the “sedan of tomorrow” is released to widespread acclaim in ‘93. Meanwhile, encouraged by the response to their performances in the Rock and Soul Revue, Donald and Walter, now under the management of Craig Fruin, debut the All New Steely Dan Orchestra that summer. A career retrospective boxed-set, Citizen Steely Dan, is released for Christmas. Walter’s solo album, 11 Tracks of Whack, with Donald co-producing, comes out the next year.
At the conclusion of the Art Crimes Tour in ‘96, Donald and Walter begin writing for a new Steely Dan CD, the first album of all new songs in twenty years. Two Against Nature finally comes out in 2000, supported by a tour, a PBS Television concert and several other TV appearances. The album wins four Grammy awards, including Album of the Year. A few months later, Steely Dan is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In addition, the two songwriters become the recipients of ASCAP’s Founder’s Award and honorary Doctorates from the Berklee College of Music. Everything Must Go is released in 2003 and is yet another instant classic. On the 2003 tour, Donald and Walter may finally have achieved their “dream” band: on drums, Keith Carlock; bass, Tom Barney; guitar, Jon Herington; keyboard, Ted Baker; trumpet, Michael Leonhart; saxes, Cornelius Bumpus and Walt Weiskopf; trombone, Jim Pugh; backup vocals, Carolyn Leonhart, Cynthia Calhoun and Cindy Mizelle.
The band has continued to tour through the summer of 2011. The current lineup may be the best ever: Keith Carlock on drums; Freddie Washington on bass; guitar: Jon Herington; piano & organ: Jim Beard; trumpet: Michael Leonhart; tenor & baritone saxes; Walt Weiskopf & Roger Rosenberg; trombone: Jim Pugh; SD singers: Carolyn Leonhart, Cindy Mizelle, and Catherine Russell. As Jean Shepherd used to say: Excelsior!
Donald Fagen’s fourth solo album for Warner Reprise, Sunken Condos (2012), was released in October 2012. His first three solo albums, The Nightfly, Kamakiriad and Morph the Cat comprised the project known as “The Nightfly Trilogy.” Sunken Condos begins a chapter in the creative evolution of this innovative artist, whose career is still going strong after forty years.
The nine tracks on Sunken Condos were co-produced by Michael Leonhart and Donald. All but one track, an Ashkenazi recasting of Isaac Hayes’ “Out of the Ghetto,” are Fagen originals. Some familiar names from the Steely Dan family of players are on hand (Jon Herington, the Steely Dan horns, Freddie Washington) plus some new faces. The word is that, from now on, everything Donald does has got to be funky.