The story of the song “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” by Steely Dan
It’s jazz. It’s still jazz. No matter how close they got to the mainstream of pop, no matter how much they leaned into the ballad of soft rock or adult contemporary, no matter how hard their initial twin guitar attack was reminiscent of hard. rock, and no matter how similar they were. their long instrumental forays could have been into progressive rock, everything misanthropic musical geniuses Steely Dan ever did was jazz.
It was in their DNA. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were reserved and taciturn individuals, but they shared a similar intellectual and manic love for modal jazz, old-school R&B and the early days of funk. They were unlike any other person in the whole world, so this is the fate they found themselves at Bard College in the late 1960s.
It is in Bard that Donald Fagen befriends the wife of one of his teachers, Professor Guy Ducornet. Rikki Ducornet was a writer who grew up on the college campus and graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the university a year before Fagen enrolled there. The two met at the same party, and despite Fagen knowing about her marriage and pregnancy at the time, he gave Rikki his number.
Ducornet, as one can deduce from the lyrics, never called Fagen. Speaking with writer Steven Moore in 1998, Ducornet offered his own interpretation of the melody: “Philosophically, it’s an interesting song; I mean, I think his “number” is a number for itself. She wouldn’t be the only person looking for deeper meaning in the song’s lyrics, but Fagen played those renditions, saying it was just an unrequited love song.
It’s unclear exactly when Fagen turned his repulsed advances into inspiration for a song, but even though he had written the basis for “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” shortly after the event, he didn’t. not brought to the band until 1973. Becker and Fagen attempted to become Brill Building songwriters after graduating from Bard and caught the attention of producer Kenny Vance, who gave them touring jobs with his 60s doo-wop band Jay and the Americans. One of Vance’s associates, Gary Katz, enjoyed the material written by Becker and Fagen, and when Katz got a producer job at ABC Records, he hired the duo as songwriter for the label.
Katz quickly realized that their material was too technically complex and lyrically obscure for some of the lighter artists on the ABC roster, so he suggested instead that Becker and Fagen create their own group. Before moving to California with Katz, Becker and Fagen had performed with a New York guitarist named Denny Dias, who flew to join the project. The trio recruited drummer Jim Hodder and guitarist Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter to complete the initial incarnation of Steely Dan. However, ABC didn’t believe Fagen had the voice or the presence to be the frontman of the group, so the quintet became a sextet with the addition of singer David Palmer.
By the time the band hit the 1974s Pretzel logic, Fagen and Becker made it clear that they were Steely Dan and that the rest of the members would be joined, or in most cases replaced, by studio musicians. Dias would be kept for the future, but the other members were largely eliminated by the time recording sessions for Pretzel logic has begun. Baxter would later join the Doobie Brothers, his solo on ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’ being one of his last contributions to the group.
Fagen and Becker refined the song to include subtle tonal changes and layered harmonies that color their entire discography. Apparently in the key of E, the song uses flat sevenths and chordless tones to create a certain floating atmosphere. Chords that are typically minor in E major, including C #, are major here, while chords that don’t typically appear in E major, such as D major, C major, G major, as well as parallel E minor, are also incorporated. The result is bright and vibrant, with minor chords used sparingly to add only hints of melancholy to the melody. The choir also uses an Esus2 chord, which the band would later adopt as the signature Mu Major chord – the difference here is that the Mu Major contains the major or minor third of the chord, while the sus2 used in ‘Rikki Don’ t Lose This number ‘eliminates the third. If the song was written a year or two later, there’s a good chance it was more of a Mu Major chord, as the band’s next album Katy lied is riddled with unique tones.
The band had almost all of the song elements in place, but they wanted an extra unique element to start the track. They turned to Victor Feldman, a jazz percussionist whose tenure with the band lasted longer than most of the band (he’s the one doing the congas on I can’t buy a thrill‘s’ Do It Again’, and he stuck around long enough to do the same on Gaucho‘s’ Hey nineteen’). Feldman got himself a flapamba – which is essentially a marimba with wooden bars modified to slip between different pitches and tones – to perform the intro of the song. Feldman’s flapamba adds distinct flourishes throughout the song, often contrasting with the more majestic piano lines.
Becker and Fagen’s jazz intuitions ended up unconsciously manifesting themselves in a more direct way than they expected, as the song’s opening riff is almost identical to Horace Silver’s jazz standard, “Song for My Father “. Fagen said Everything about jazz in 2011: “There was never the conscious idea to cover the intro of Horace Silver… as for the piano line, I think I heard it on an old album by Sergio Mendes. Maybe where Horace heard it too [laughs]. “
Fagen was adamant about the band’s jazz roots in 1975, explaining: been forgotten. We’re really cold right now. We’ve more or less given up hope of being one of the most important great rock’n’roll groups, simply because our music is sometimes a little too old-fashioned and stifles the rock intelligentsia for the most part, and to other times it’s too weird to be appreciated by anyone.
Despite their attempts to brighten it up, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” is said to be the song that took Steely Dan to a new level of pop success. The song reached number four on the Billboard Hot 100 on August 3, 1974. This week’s top five included Paper Lace’s “The Night Chicago Died” at number five, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” at number four, ‘ Feel Like Makin ‘Love’ by Roberta Flack at number three, ‘Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me’ by Elton John at two, and ‘Annie’s Song’ by John Denver first. Just the strangest and most appropriate top five of the ’70s. ABBA’s “Waterloo” is there in eleventh place.
Steely Dan used his new pop fortune to turn his back on the established rock and pop formula more completely than ever. The band ceased touring in 1974, canceling all use of a traditional band setup. Now focused solely on studio work, the band were able to hire the best session musicians of the day to bring their increasingly complex visions to life. Even at their most ambitious, Steely Dan has always kept melody and hooks at the forefront of their music. It’s still the careful mix of pop sensibilities and jazz roots that has made Walter Becker and Donald Fagen so unique, but it has never been more acceptable to mainstream audiences than on ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’.
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