By Charlie Gillett
After the release of The Nightfly, Donald Fagen visited the U.K. to promote it, and one of the few “interviews” he permitted was with Charlie Gillett on Capital. He selected some of his favorite songs and talked briefly about each one.
CG: So your new album is called The Nightfly.
DF: Yes that’s right.
Is that a current expression in America meaning a nighttime DJ?
No, actually I made it up all by myself. It’s kind of a combination of a lot of disc jockeys that I used to listen to when I was a kid.
Did you ever try it yourself? Have you ever been a DJ?
Well, I’ve been in a few interviews on radio shows and so on. Once a jazz station in Los Angeles invited Walter and myself to play some jazz sides and we did that. That was the only time really.
Did you always have the idea that it was a musician you were going to be?
Not actually. I guess it was just kind of a hobby with me for a long time, and then come the ’60s I decided it was definitely an option that I should pick up on.
Ok, well this is your turn as DJ. The first artist is Ray Charles. What about him?
He’s always been one of my favourites. He’s kind of legendary and the track I selected is basically a blues with a big band arrangement.
(Plays ‘I’ve Got News For You’)
Whew! Aside from sounding great it sounded very, very loud. People don’t make records that have that volume any more.
No. You don’t hear many records with a big band like that. It’s a great sound.
Originally I remember that on Genius + Soul = Jazz. That one I remember listening to as a kid, I guess you do, too.
This next one — I didn’t know about Little Willie John until much later.
No, actually, I didn’t either. I heard it much later. It’s a great record. I think Little Willie John eventually came to a rather bad end in prison. He was a great singer. I think he was most well know for ‘Fever’ — the original version of ‘Fever’ that Peggy Lee made famous.
And also ‘Need Your Love So Bad’ is a song that’s quite well known over here. But this is really sexy, for some reason…
Yeah, it’s a terrific track.
(Plays ‘Leave My Kitten Alone’)
Both those records sound like they were done all in one go in the studio.
Oh yeah, I’m sure in those days it was strictly live recording.
Presumably by the time you started recording that wasn’t on at all?
Not in pop music, for the most part.
Do you ever yearn for those days?
It would be nice, but with all the modern recording techniques, it’s hard to resist using.
So you don’t really yearn for them. You settle for that and that’s fine. I mean, it’s a very slow process, isn’t it, that’s the thing?
Yeah it is. You get better stereo separation and there’s a lot of other technical reasons that make the overdubbing technique better to use.
I’m interested because the records you’ve chosen have generally predated that kind of …
Oh, yeah, well the kind of music that I like comes from mainly the late ’50s and early ’60s, so it’s mostly all live dates.
So the next one up is Erma Franklin.
Yeah, that’s Aretha Franklin’s sister and this is a really good tune. I guess there’s a more famous version by Janis Joplin.
Is there any preference towards this one on your part?
Yeah, I always liked this one better, for some reason, although I once saw Janis Joplin do it live and I liked hers as well.
(Plays ‘Piece Of My Heart’)
A lot of emotion coming out of these records. Did you actually go and see any of these people? You grew up in New York, did you?
I grew up about 50 miles outside New York in the suburbs, but I used to get the broadcasts out of Manhattan by late night DJs playing rhythm and blues and jazz and that’s how I became familiar with a lot of these records.
So for a music fan in those days live music wasn’t necessarily a part of it?
Well, sometimes we used to take the bus into Manhattan and go to jazz clubs, but only when I had the funds, you know, ’cause I was quite young.
And who would’ve been the jazz people that you would’ve seen?
Oh, I used to see Charles Mingus and Miles Davis, you know, the big jazz stars of the late ’50s.
OK, well, Marvin Gaye doesn’t fit into that category but he’s coming up next. What about him?
A great singer. He made lots and lots of classic records and I like his new record, too.
This one, I think, was written by Smokey, wasn’t it?
I’m not sure.
(Plays ‘One More Heartache’)
I take it back, I think that is jazz.
Yeah, he has got a very jazz-like style.
The whole arrangement is actually very sophisticated.
Yeah, it’s a great record.
Was there a lot of difference in the process of making a record on your own as compared with Steely Dan?
Not too much, it was a little more difficult writing material because I’m used to bouncing ideas off my partner a little bit, and also if I get stuck for lyrics I could always look over my shoulder and ask him for a line. But I think it came out pretty well.
Just to go back to the beginning again, I gather he was quite important to you as far as giving you the confidence that you were on the right track in the first place?
Yeah, well, he was a producer at ABC Records in Los Angeles. I think he persuaded the record company to let us come out and have jobs as staff writers. And that’s how we got started.
And always with a lot of jazz, but maybe people hadn’t appreciated how much R&B might have been hidden in there?
Yeah, we always liked R&B and blues — Chicago blues.
And what do you feel is reflected in this new single, “New Frontier,” any of that?
You’ll hear a little blues guitar played by Larry Carlton, and it’s kind of a track reflecting the spirit of the times. The storyline is basically about a bunch of kids who have a party in a fall-out shelter while their parents are away for the weekend.
(Plays ‘New Frontier’)
That track sounded like it has a reggae influence there on the keyboards.
Yeah, a bit, that kind of backbeat.
‘Cause reggae hasn’t really taken off in America in any big way, but I think musicians like it, don’t they?
I think its influence has been felt more than the authentic reggae.
And are there people that you’ve particularly liked yourself, that you’ve listened to, reggae artists, I mean?
Bob Marley especially, I guess. Most people are familiar with him, I guess I am too.
Ok, well all the records we’ve played before yours were R&B records of one kind or another. Lovin’ Spoonful coming up.
John Sebastian is a singer I’ve always liked. There’s something about his voice that’s always been very attractive to me — a charming sound.
You never actually saw them or had any particular contact with them?
No, although he’s done music for films — he still does some occasionally — and whenever I hear his voice in films, it always brings me back to those days when I used to hear him on the radio.
(Plays ‘Wild About My Lover’)
So we go from there to Shirley Bassey. How are we gonna do that?
[chuckling] That’s a difficult transition, I think I’ll leave that one up to you.
No, I’m just sittin’ here playing the records. Your choice.
Well, it’s kind of a novelty record. I think it’s typical of a certain kind of very slick kind of record they used to make in the ’60s and, of course, it’s for a James Bond film, and I hear Shirley Bassey’s very popular in England.
Other than being amused by it, you like that kind of singing?
Yeah, I think she’s a good singer. There is something incredibly bizarre about that record. I don’t know, they milk it for all it’s worth. A melodramatic sort of arrangement.
I’ve always found her to be very theatrical. But to me it’s a criticism, but perhaps to you it isn’t?
I see what you mean. I mean, I do listen to it with a bit of irony.
Whereas Erma Franklin goes straight to the heart.
What’s the next one? I know it’s one I don’t know very well ’cause it’s on tape ’cause I don’t have a record of it. Oh yes, Ray Charles and Betty Carter.
This is a beautiful record. Oh, I must have bought this when I was 14 or 15 years old and it’s extremely romantic, and it’s also an illustration of what Betty Carter sounded like when she was very young.
(Plays ‘Every Time We Say Goodbye’)
An unusual duet, ’cause one of them sings one half then the other the other half.
Yeah. They made an album — I guess it was all duets — and that was one of the tracks. Cole Porter song.
Is Betty Carter still good to see? I know I’ve seen her live.
Yeah, she plays quite a bit in New York and her style’s become more abstruse lately. She’s very modern and almost avant-garde, but she’s quite good still, yeah.
One record that I’d like to mention which we couldn’t find at all — although you’ve requested it — was Buddy Johnson and Ella Johnson singing ‘Since I Fell For You’.
Yeah, right. Too bad we couldn’t find that one.
Sorry about that. Was there a special reason or just a record you like?
Yeah, I think it was one of the original versions of ‘Since I Fell For You,’ which was covered many times after.
Well, we’ll continue to hunt it and if any listener’s got it, we’ll be back to play it — if not during the event, then after the event. Now another kind of master singer, although this is a track I don’t actually know. Frank Sinatra and the Count Basie Band.
This is off one of those Count Basie/Frank Sinatra records and I always like it. It’s a great groove and I think Frank Sinatra, when he sang with Count Basie, changed his style. It’s very sharp and it’s a good record.
(Plays ‘Pennies From Heaven’)
Surprisingly enough, that’s the second time for the Count Basie Band in as many months, because when Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller came in here they played a track from Joe Williams singing with Count Basie. And they played Frank Sinatra, too. And we played your version of ‘Ruby Baby’, which they liked.
Oh yeah? It’s great that they liked it.
Right, well, we’ve almost come to the end. This next one I’m particularly pleased you’ve chosen, ’cause Clyde McPhatter’s one of my favorite singers. Do I take it he’s one of yours?
Yeah, he’s terrific. This is very early Drifters. The Drifters went through many changes of personnel. I think it’s one of their first records.
Great. Does sound good. Sounds like he was at the end of a session ’cause his voice really tired out.
Yeah, it does sound raspy.
I’d like to thank Donald Fagen very much for coming in. Thank you very much, I’ve enjoyed it.
I’ve enjoyed it too. Thanks.