Steely Dan were never terribly particular about whether they appeared on their own song. At numerous points throughout their discography, the central duo of Walter Becker and Donald Fagan would often cede their instrumental contributions to others if they felt that someone else could play it better. The two controlled songwriting, arrangement, and production, so why be caught up in the battles of ego over who played what?
Becker and Fagan famously employed some of the best studio musicians of the time, including Bernard Purdie, Chuck Rainey, Steve Gadd, Larry Carlton, and Victor Feldman, to bring the duo’s exacting musical vision to life. Becker’s original as bass guitarist was happily turned over to Rainey by the time the band reached 1974’s Pretzel Logic, and Fagan’s keyboard parts were mostly limited to background synths during the production of Aja.
But in the band’s early history, they were truly a band. Featuring the twin guitar attack of Denny Dias and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, the first two Steely Dan albums were made more or less as a tight, cohesive five-piece. As Becker and Fagan made it clear that they would be using studio musicians in the future, the official members began to fall away until only Fagan’s voice became the sole frequent irreplaceable element to the band’s music. But even that got replaced on one notable occasion.
When the band first signed to ABC Records in the early ’70s, Fagan expressed concern about singing live. A naturally shy and reserved person, Fagan felt that his presence would be too small for a stage and that he was not comfortable attracting the most attention. Drummer Jim Hodder took the lead on songs like ‘Midnite Cruiser’ and ‘Dallas’, but a more explicit frontman figure was deemed necessary. The solution came in the form of the singer-songwriter David Palmer.
Palmer provided the lead vocals for the song ‘Brooklyn’ and sang most of the songs for the band in concert, but his most memorable and longest-lasting contribution came from one of the band’s earliest rock radio staples: ‘Dirty Work’. Fagan’s soul-influenced voice was deemed inappropriate for a song that laid out the rituals of a cheating wife, so Palmer’s light tenor was brought to the fore. The delicateness of Palmer’s voice adds a vulnerability to the song, and his mainstream-adjacent tones were perfect to give Steely Dan a slot on the ascending genre of soft rock.
Fagan began to gain confidence in his own voice after the recording of Can’t Buy a Thrill, and by the time the band began recording their follow up, Countdown to Ecstasy, Becker and Fagan informed Palmer that his services were no longer required. Palmer stuck around long enough to add some backing vocals to their second album, but his tenure in Steely Dan was finished by the time the group resumed touring in 1973.
Palmer’s lead is forever preserved on classic rock radio, but his unique tone of voice posed a problem when the band would perform ‘Dirty Work’ live. Fagan either had no interest in singing the song or once again felt he wasn’t right for the role, so touring vocalist Royce Jones took the lead during the band’s final tours of their initial heyday. When the song was revived during the modern-day reunion, the band’s female backing singers took on the song. But it’s Palmer’s voice that most still hear in their head whenever someone mentions ‘Dirty Work’, Steely Dan’s soft rock classic.