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Music

The song that inspired the Steely Dan classic ‘Rikki Don’t Lose that Number’

@TomTaylorFO

Steely Dan did away with the term aficionado and hid jazz in plain popified sight for all us sinners uninitiated in the ways of augmented 7ths and the circle of fifths. To the ear, ‘Rikki Don’t Lose that Number’ might seem like a soft rock classic, but under the surface is a jazz structure more akin to a simplified Miles Davis than Hall & Oates.

The key word, however, is simplified. In fact, Donald Fagen thinks that it was almost too simple. “Walter and I aren’t fond of ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’. It’s not a bad song. I think it’s ‘well-written,’ but it’s so simple,” he told Rolling Stone back in 2013. “I just have listening fatigue. It’s been played so much. Same with ‘Reeling in the Years’.”

However, the original song that inspired their smash hit was also a simplified form of jazz. The introductory riff of the song doesn’t just hide jazz in plain sight, it also hides theft. For the classic Pretzel Logic opener in 1974, the Dan delved into their roots and repurposed the Horace Silver piano composition ‘Song for My Father’ from 1964. 

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With a classic 24-bar AAB structure, Silver transposed South American rhythms into the song, and this transposition was rooted in a direct inspiration itself. As Silver once explained, the song was “in part inspired by our Brazilian trip. We got the Brazilian rhythm for this tune from that trip, and the melodic line was inspired by some very old Cape Verdean Portuguese folk music.”

Low and behold, ten years and a few thousand miles later, that culturally ingrained rhythm was making its way into Steely Dan’s surprisingly most accessible song, and almost as a result of that alone, their biggest commercial hit. With a tango-like feel, the song of love to an old college flame who later became the successful writer Rikki Ducornet, is Dan at their most danceable, and yet it still says a lot that the initial sonic inspiration was an old jazz piece. 

What’s perhaps even more indicative of the band is the simple way that they just slapped Silver’s piece straight onto the song. Their liberal appropriation of influences is a central tenet of their work—even their name was lifted straight from a William S. Burroughs novel. However, there were so many influences in the welter of their work that even the direct theft of a piano signature is lost amid the swirl of other sounds, themes and everything else that they throw in. 

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