As Steely Dan transitioned beyond the structures of a normal rock band, it wasn’t just the non-songwriting members that gave up their playing privileges. Starting 1974’s Pretzel Logic, Walter Becker steadily began playing less and less bass on Steely Dan records until, by 1977’s Aja, it was a rare occurrence for him to be playing the four string at all.
That’s because Becker and his songwriting partner in Steely Dan, Donald Fagan, had begun using the talents of session musician Chuck Rainey. “Once I met Chuck Rainey,” Becker explained in 1995. “I felt there really was no need for me to be bringing my bass guitar to the studio anymore.” Becker instead moved to guitar, but it wasn’t uncommon for Becker to simply not appear on the instrumental for any given song.
Picking up the bass while killing time as an enlisted military man, Rainey began picking up gigs with local jazz bands before catching the attention of saxophonist King Curtis. Curtis was a unique figure in music, as his music often blurred the lines between jazz, R&B, and rock ‘n roll. It wasn’t uncommon for Curtis to do sessions for rock musicians, and while Rainey was a part of his band, Curtis opened up for The Beatles on their 1965 American tour.
After his tenure with Curtis, Rainey had the versatility to play in just about any style. He returned to jazz when he joined Quincy Jones’ big band, but also contributed to the gospel soul of Aretha Franklin on albums like Young, Gifted, and Black. Rainey was amidst the new boom of Los Angeles studio musicians of the early ’70s that were sought out by Becker and Fagan who were looking for primarily-jazz players who could read charts quickly. In that respect, Rainey was a perfect fit for the band.
Rainey brought in a whole new sensibility to the band’s rhythm section. While Becker himself had plenty of jazz influence, Rainey brought a more nuanced feel and a more elastic playing style, exploring scales and lines that hadn’t filled out the band’s previous arrangements. Although Becker and Fagan were known to mix and match their musicians, it was a rare sessions where Rainey wasn’t involved.
His work includes some of the band’s best-known material: ‘Bad Sneakers’, ‘Peg’, ‘Josie’, and ‘Babylon Sisters’, just to name a few. But it’s his playing on ‘Kid Charlemagne’ that remains some of his most inventive. Working up and down the neck, Rainey rarely stays committed to the root. Instead, he explores the fretboard to bring out melodies that hadn’t been predetermined by Becker and Fagan. It was rare for a musician to improvise during a Steely Dan session, but Rainey was trusted so much by the core duo that he was often given free reign to play whatever he wanted.
Check out the isolated bass for ‘Kid Charlemagne’ down below.