Donald Fagen

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Donald Fagen

Donald Fagen, right, in concert with Steely Dan in Luzerne, Switzerland, 2007.
Background information
Birth nameDonald Jay Fagen
Born(1948-01-10) January 10, 1948 (age 64)
OriginPassaic, New Jersey, United States
GenresRock, pop rock, jazz rock
InstrumentsPiano, organ, various keyboard instruments, melodica,[1] vocals, saxophone
Years active1971–present
LabelsABC, MCA, Reprise
Associated actsJay & the Americans, Steely Dan
WebsiteOfficial website
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Donald Fagen

Donald Fagen, right, in concert with Steely Dan in Luzerne, Switzerland, 2007.
Background information
Birth nameDonald Jay Fagen
Born(1948-01-10) January 10, 1948 (age 64)
OriginPassaic, New Jersey, United States
GenresRock, pop rock, jazz rock
InstrumentsPiano, organ, various keyboard instruments, melodica,[1] vocals, saxophone
Years active1971–present
LabelsABC, MCA, Reprise
Associated actsJay & the Americans, Steely Dan
WebsiteOfficial website

Donald Jay Fagen (born January 10, 1948[2]) is an American musician and songwriter, best known as the co-founder (along with partner Walter Becker) and lead singer of the rock band Steely Dan.

Fagen is known for his use of jazz harmonies, elaborate arrangements, and attention to detail. Following the initial breakup of Steely Dan in 1981, he launched a long-running, if sporadic, solo career in 1982, spawning three albums to date, with a fourth to be released on October 16, 2012.[3] In 1993, Fagen and Becker reunited and have since toured together as Steely Dan.


Early life

Fagen was born in Passaic, New Jersey, on January 10, 1948 to Joseph "Jerry" Fagen, an accountant and his wife Elinor.[4] From the age of 12 to 17, Elinor sang in a hotel band in upstate New York's Catskill Mountains until bouts of stage fright (a condition her son would later be afflicted with) forced her to discontinue performing live.[4] Fagen would later recall: "I can't ever remember when there was silence around the house. She was either playing records or singing."[4]

Around 1958, the Fagen family moved from Passaic first to the suburb of Fair Lawn, and then quickly moved and settled into a ranch-style house in Kendall Park, New Jersey.[5] The transition greatly upset Donald: he detested living in the suburbs. He would later recall to an interviewer that it "was like a prison. I think I lost faith in [my parents'] judgment… It was probably the first time I realised I had my own view of life." His life in Kendall Park would later inspire tracks on his album The Nightfly.[4]

In the late 1950s, Fagen became interested in rock and R&B music; his first record purchase being Chuck Berry's "Reelin' and Rockin'".[4] Around age 11, after receiving musical recommendations from a cousin and attending the Newport Jazz Festival, he quickly became a self-declared "jazz snob. I lost interest in rock n' roll and started developing an anti-social personality."[6] Fagen would regularly take the bus to Manhattan to see Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, and Miles Davis perform.[6] Soon afterwards, he learned to play the piano, and also played baritone horn in the in high school marching band.[6] Fagen also began a lifelong fondness for table tennis during his teenage years.[7]

After graduating from South Brunswick High School in 1965, Fagen enrolled at Bard College to study English literature, having been inspired by Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.[8] While at Bard, Fagen met musician Walter Becker. The duo, along with a revolving assortment of musicians which included future actor Chevy Chase, formed various groups called The Leather Canary, The Don Fagen Jazz Trio, and the Bad Rock Band.[9] Fagen would later describe his college bands as sounding like "The Kingsmen performing Frank Zappa material".[10] None of the groups lasted long, but the partnership between Fagen and Becker would continue for decades. The duo's early career included a stint with Jay and the Americans (where they went by pseudonyms), and in the early 1970s, as pop songwriters for ABC/Dunhill Records, which would go on to release all of Steely Dan's 1970s output.


Steely Dan

Responding to an ad in The Village Voice in the summer of 1970, Fagen and Becker met guitarist Denny Dias and started a musical partnership that formed the basis of what would eventually become Steely Dan. However, the original group's line-up would only be assembled in full around December 1971 in Los Angeles, California, to where Becker and Fagen had relocated, initially to work as staff song writers for ABC/Dunhill. Fagen and Becker formed the core of the band and co-wrote all the group's music; on tour and record, Becker played bass (and later lead guitar) and Fagen played keyboards, as well as performing almost all of the lead vocals on their recordings.

After releasing their third LP in 1974, the other members gradually left (or were fired from) the band, which gradually evolved into a studio project headed by Becker and Fagen. From the mid-1970s onwards, Steely Dan recorded their albums exclusively with top-notch jazz and rock session musicians. They scored their biggest success in 1977 with the platinum-selling album Aja.

After a lengthy period of inactivity as a band which began in the early 1980s, the duo of Becker and Fagen revived Steely Dan in the mid 1990s, and have since produced two more Steely Dan studio albums: 2000s Two Against Nature which won several Grammys, Everything Must Go (2003), as well as the live CD Alive in America (1995) and a live concert DVD entitled Two Against Nature, which included material spanning much of the band's history.

Solo career

After Steely Dan's breakup in 1981, Fagen released his critically acclaimed solo debut album, The Nightfly, in October 1982. It reached #11 on the Billboard album chart and was certified Platinum for sales of over a million copies in the United States alone. Its premiere single was "I.G.Y. (What a Beautiful World)". The song hit the Adult Contemporary Top 10 and peaked at #26 on the Billboard Hot 100. The follow-up single, "New Frontier" peaked at #34 AC and #70 Pop and was aided by a popular MTV music video. The Nightfly was nominated for several Grammy Awards including Album Of The Year. It was significantly more jazz-based than Fagen's Steely Dan work. Rhino Records released a special DVD Audio version of The Nightfly in honor of the album's 20th anniversary in 2002.

Fagen's second solo album, 1993's Kamakiriad, was produced by Becker. It climbed into Billboard's Top 10 but sold fewer copies than The Nightfly, topping off at 900,000 in sales. Kamakiriad was also nominated for a Grammy Award for Album Of The Year.

Recording sessions for Fagen's third solo album, Morph the Cat, began in August 2004 and the album was released March 14, 2006. Performing on the album are Wayne Krantz (guitar), Jon Herington (guitar), Keith Carlock (drums), Freddy Washington (bass), Ted Baker (piano), and Walt Weiskopf (sax). Upon its release, Morph the Cat received universal acclaim[citation needed] and was later named Album of the Year by Mix magazine. Fagen was also given 'Producer of the Year' award.[citation needed]The 5.1 mix of Morph the Cat won the 2007 Grammy Award for Best Surround Sound Album.[11]

All three of Fagen's albums previously released on the DVDA format have now been released in Warner's latest format MVI (Music Video Interactive) as a boxed set. Each album features a DTS 5.1, Dolby 5.1 and PCM Stereo mix but no MLP encoded track, along with bonus audio and video content. Customers will also be able to select any track or any portion of a track and use it as their mobile phone ringtone.

In March 2006, Fagen embarked on his first-ever solo tour to support Morph the Cat. This theater tour of the Northeast (including one Canadian date in Toronto), the Midwest, and the West Coast played to sold-out houses and excellent reviews.[citation needed] Fagen's management also sold VIP packages for the tour, which included a pre-show party, premium seats, and access to the band's sound checks. This was mocked on his song-writing partner Walter Becker's website.[12] Fagen joined Becker for a Steely Dan/Michael McDonald tour the following summer of 2007.

He also toured with the New York Rock and Soul Revue. The 1986 debut album by Rosie Vela, Zazu, inspired the first collaboration between Fagen and Becker following the disbanding of Steely Dan.[13] This led to their reunion as a writing team and the creation of a new touring version of Steely Dan. The following year Fagen co-produced Becker's solo debut, 11 Tracks of Whack.

In the spring of 2010, Fagen stated plans to record a fourth solo album which will be lighter in tone and not an extension of the Nightfly trilogy,[14] anticipating a 2012 release.[15] On August 13, 2012, the album title was revealed to be Sunken Condos and the release date October 16. [16]

In 2012, Fagen also started a second tour with The Dukes of September Rhythm Revue[17] which includes Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs.

Musical style

Fagen has classified himself as both a self-taught pianist and self-taught vocalist. He is said to have taken some vocal lessons in the mid 1970s as a precaution after feeling the straining effects of years of touring. Although he learned to become a consummate entertainer, early on Fagen suffered from severe stage fright which originally prompted Steely Dan producer Gary Katz to hire David Palmer to sing two songs on Steely Dan's debut album Can't Buy a Thrill. This also lead to the hiring of Royce Jones and Michael McDonald as additional singers in the band's early 1970s' tours. Eventually, Becker, Katz, and the rest of the band convinced Fagen that he was the only one capable of delivering Steely Dan songs with the attitude they needed and by the mid 1970s his confidence in his voice had grown immensely. Jeff Baxter once went on to call Fagen one of the greatest rock voices of all time. Fagen's name routinely appears on all time underrated lists when talking about rock singers and his influence and phrasing can be heard in artists such as Joe Jackson, Ben Folds, and Elvis Costello who have all paid tribute to him with Steely Dan covers. Fagen sings almost exclusively in a nasally tenor, usually with a thick North Jersey accent and many of his songs feature lead vocals sung in 3 or 4 part harmony with himself. Fagen plays keyboards on many of his own songs. He predominantly features the Fender Rhodes Electric Piano and Wurlitzer Electric Piano driving the chord progressions. He's often a featured soloist as well contributing piano (Fire in the Hole), electric piano (Your Gold Teeth), organ (Do it Again, My Rival, etc.), synthesizer (Home at Last, Lunch with Gina, I.G.Y. (What a Beautiful World), etc.), and even saxophone (East St. Louis Toodle-oo).

Work for, and with, other artists

In 1977, he played synthesizer on Poco's Indian Summer album.

In 1978, he coproduced, with Walter Becker, "Apogee,"[18] an album of straight-ahead jazz featuring Warne Marsh and Pete Christlieb, both on Tenor, and Lou Levy on piano. Also co-wrote, with Walter Becker, "Rapunzel", the third track on the album.

In 1983, he played synthesizer for the track "Love Will Make It Right", which he also wrote, on Diana Ross's solo album Ross.[19]

Fagen wrote and co-arranged the track "Lazy Nina" on Greg Phillinganes' 1984 album Pulse.

In 1986, he wrote the title track to the Yellowjackets' album Shades.[20]

Also in 1986, Fagen and Becker contributed to Rosie Vela's album Zazu

In 1991, The Manhattan Transfer recorded Fagen's song "Confide in Me" on their album The Offbeat of Avenues.[19]

In 1992, Jennifer Warnes recorded "Big Noise New York" (co-written by Fagen and Marcelle Clements) on her solo album The Hunter.[21]

Fagen's own versions of both "Confide in Me" and "Big Noise New York" were released as 'B' sides for the CD singles of the Kamakiriad tracks "Tomorrow's Girls" and "Snowbound," respectively. They were subsequently made available on the Bonus CD of The Nightfly Trilogy boxed set in 2007.[22]

In 2008, Fagen played synthesizer on the album I Know You're Married But I've Got Feelings Too by folk singer Martha Wainwright.[23]

Starting in 2008, Fagen made regular appearances with the Levon Helm Band, performing at Helm's Midnight Ramble concerts in Woodstock, New York. He plays keyboards and sings with his stepdaughter, Amy Helm (Amy's mother is Fagen's wife, Libby Titus).

Soundtrack contributions

In 1978 Steely Dan recorded "FM (No Static at All)" (sometimes referred to as "FM"). It is the title theme to the film FM. The soundtrack to the film won the 1979 Grammy Award for Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical, with engineers Roger Nichols and Al Schmitt taking the honors. This was the first single Steely Dan released on MCA Records (which had released the soundtrack), predating MCA's acquisition of ABC Records by one year.

He recorded "True Companion" for the 1981 animated cult film Heavy Metal.[24]

He wrote "The Finer Things", which appeared on the soundtrack to the Martin Scorsese 1983 film The King of Comedy, as well as sang background vocals on the song. David Sanborn is given credit for the main part of the song.[25]

He recorded "Century's End" for 1988's Bright Lights, Big City.[26]

He recorded "Reflections", a Thelonious Monk cover, along with guitarist Steve Khan, for the film 1988 Arthur 2: On the Rocks.[19]

He recorded "Blue Lou" an instrumental piece, for the 1992 film Glengarry Glen Ross.[27]

Other works

Fagen wrote briefly in the 1980s for Premiere magazine, including a few witty pieces on Henry Mancini and Ennio Morricone. These are available online from his website.[28] His website also features other articles he has written, such as ones for

In 1988, Fagen was a co-producer of the Broadway soundtrack album The Gospel at Colonus.[29]

In the late 2000s, he appeared as the "Wise Man" in a promotional video for the Electro-Harmonix Stereo Memory Man with Hazarai digital delay/looper. This short promo video was directed by frequent Steely Dan trumpet player Michael Leonhart.[30]


Studio albums

YearAlbum detailsPeak chart positionsCertifications
(sales thresholds)
1982The Nightfly11169844
  • Released: May 25, 1993
  • Label: Reprise
2006Morph the Cat
  • Released: March 7, 2006
  • Label: Reprise
2012Sunken Condos
  • To be released: October 16, 2012
  • Label: Reprise [16]

Other releases


In 1984, Fagen was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Arts degree by his alma mater, Bard College.

In 2001, both Fagen and Becker received Honorary Doctor of Music degrees from Berklee College of Music. They both accepted their degrees in person.[38]

In 2001, Steely Dan (Fagen and Becker) were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.[39]

Personal life

In 1993, Fagen married fellow songwriter Libby Titus.[40] Although the two of them had attended Bard College at around the same time, they did not become friends until 1987 when they were both going backstage after a Dr. John concert.[41] Libby Titus co-wrote the song "Florida Room", which appears on 1993's album Kamakiriad.[42]

Fagen is Jewish;[4] his writings and interviews show a close identification with Jewish culture,[43] but indicate skepticism about all religion.[44] Donald celebrated his bar mitzvah at Kendall Park's Congregation Beth Shalom in 1961, a synagogue his father helped found.[45]


  1. ^ "Morph The Cat". Retrieved 2010-05-09. "Fagen's melodica features on the down-and-dirty 'Mary Shut the Garden Door' [in his album, 'Morph The Cat']" 
  2. ^ The Times January 10, 2009, Retrieved January 9, 2010
  3. ^ "Donald Fagen to Release Sunken Condos, October 16 on Reprise Records". BroadcastNewsroom. 2012-08-13. Retrieved 2012-09-16. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f Steely Dan: Reelin in the Years by Brian Sweet - page 7
  5. ^ 10/14/1987 -Henry Mancini's Anomie Deluxe - Premiere, October 1987
  6. ^ a b c Steely Dan: Reelin in the Years by Brian Sweet - page 8
  7. ^ Steely Dan: Reelin in the Years by Brian Sweet - page 9
  8. ^ Steely Dan: Reelin in the Years by Brian Sweet - page 10
  9. ^ Fruchter, Rena. I'm Chevy Chase...and You're Not. Virgin Books, 2007.
  10. ^ Steely Dan: Reelin in the Years by Brian Sweet - page 12
  11. ^ 49th Annual GRAMMY Awards Winners List, retrieved May 7, 2008
  12. ^
  13. ^ Rosie Vela: Zazu
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^ a b "Donald Fagen to Release Sunken Condos, October 16 on Reprise Records". Broadcast Newsroom. Retrieved 2012-08-13. 
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^ a b c
  20. ^ Yellowjackets History, retrieved on 14-September 2009
  21. ^
  22. ^ Donald Fagen: The Nightfly Trilogy, retrieved on 15-September 2009.
  23. ^ "Martha Wainwright:'I like old guys cos they like me!'", retrieved on 15-September 2009.
  24. ^
  25. ^ Outre Daniel
  26. ^
  27. ^ Donald Fagen: The Nightfly Trilogy
  28. ^, retrieved on 14-September 2009
  29. ^
  30. ^ Stereo Memory Man with Hazarai - Film by Michael Leonhart - Digital Delay/ Looper
  31. ^ "Billboard Chart - Donald Fagen". Retrieved 2011-09-22. 
  32. ^ "Dutch Charts - Donald Fagen". Retrieved 2011-09-22. 
  33. ^ "New Zealand Chart - Donald Fagen". Retrieved 2011-09-22. 
  34. ^ "Swedish Chart - Donald Fagen". Retrieved 2011-09-22. 
  35. ^ "UK Chart Company - Donald Fagen". Retrieved 2011-09-22. 
  36. ^ a b "Searchable Database". Recording Industry Association of America. Retrieved 2011-09-22.  Note: User must define 'Artist' search parameter as "Donald Fagen".
  37. ^ a b "Certified Awards Search". British Phonographic Industry. Retrieved on 22 September 2011. Note: User needs to enter "Donald Fagen" in the "Search" field, "Artist" in the "Search by" field and click the "Go" button. Select "More info" next to the relevant entry to see full certification history.
  38. ^ Berklee College of Music: Commencement 2001 - Photographs, retrieved October 15, 2007
  39. ^ Steely Dan in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
  40. ^ Donald Fagen-Biography, retrieved on 2009-9-10.
  41. ^ Return of the Dark Brothers, retrieved on 2009-9-10.
  42. ^ 'Kamakiriad -Lyrics and Credits' from "Discography Section", retrieved on 2009-9-10
  43. ^ Flamingo Park, a tongue-in-cheek play believed to be written by Fagen
  44. ^ "What Rhymes With Orange Alert?," The New York Times, February 26, 2006: "I'm afraid of religious people in general — any adult who believes in magic."
  45. ^ Bringing up Steely Dan [1] Retrieved on 14-September 2009

External links