It’s jazz. It’s always jazz. No matter how close they came to brushing up against the pop mainstream, no matter how much they leaned into the balladry of soft rock or adult contemporary, no matter how much their initial twin guitar attack was reminiscent of hard rock, and no matter how similar their lengthy instrumental excursions might have been to progressive rock, everything that misanthropic musical geniuses Steely Dan did always came back to jazz.
It was in their DNA. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were reserved and taciturn individuals, but they shared a similar intellectual bent and manic love for modal jazz, old-school R&B, and the earliest days of funk. They were unlike any two other people in the entire world, so it must have been fate that they found each other at Bard College during the late 1960s.
It was at Bard that Donald Fagen befriended the wife of one of his teachers, Professor Guy Ducornet. Rikki Ducornet was a writer who had grown up on the college’s campus and graduated from the university with a B.A. in Fine Arts a year before Fagen had enrolled there. The two found themselves at the same party, and despite Fagen’s knowledge of her marriage and her pregnancy at the time, he gave Rikki his number.
Ducornet, as can be culled from the lyrics, never called Fagen. When talking with writer Steven Moore in 1998, Ducornet offered up her own interpretation of the tune: “Philosophically it’s an interesting song; I mean I think his ‘number’ is a cipher for the self.” She wouldn’t be the only person looking for deeper meaning within the song’s lyrics, but Fagen has played these interpretations off, saying that it was simply an unrequited love song.
It’s not known precisely when Fagen turned his spurned advances into the inspiration for a song, but even if he had written the basis for ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’ soon after the event, he didn’t bring it to the band until 1973. Becker and Fagen had attempted to make it as Brill Building-esque songwriters after graduating from Bard and attracted the attention of producer Kenny Vance, who gave them jobs as touring musicians with his ’60s doo-wop group Jay and the Americans. One of Vance’s associates, Gary Katz, appreciated the material being written by Becker and Fagen, and when Katz got a staff producer job at ABC Records, he hired the duo as songwriters for the label.
Katz quickly realised 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 out to California with Katz, Becker and Fagen had played with a New York guitarist named Denny Dias, who flew out to join the project. The trio recruited drummer Jim Hodder and guitarist Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter to round out the initial incarnation of Steely Dan. However, ABC didn’t think Fagen had the voice or presence to be the group’s frontman, so the quintet became a sextet with the addition of vocalist David Palmer.
By the time the band reached 1974’s Pretzel Logic, Fagen and Becker made it clear in no uncertain terms 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 retained for the future, but the other members were largely phased out by the time recording sessions for Pretzel Logic began. Baxter would later join the Doobie Brothers, with his solo on ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’ being one of his final contributions to the band.
Fagen and Becker refined the song to include subtle key changes and layered harmonies that colour their entire discography. Ostensibly in the key of E, the song utilises flat sevenths and non-chord tones to create a certain floating atmosphere. Chords that are usually minor in E major, including C#, are major here, while chords that typically don’t appear in E major, like D major, C major, G major, along with the parallel E minor, are incorporated as well. The result is bright and vibrant, with minor chords used sparingly to add only hints of melancholy to the tune. The chorus also uses an Esus2 chord, which the band would later adopt as their 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 That Number’ eliminates the third. Had the song been written a year or two later, chances are it would have been a Mu Major chord instead, as the band’s following album Katy Lied is riddled with the unique voicing.
The band had almost all of the song’s elements in place, but they wanted an additional unique element to start the track. They turned to Victor Feldman, a jazz percussionist whose tenure working with the band outlasted most of the actual band members (that’s him doing the congas on 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 procured a flapamba – which is basically a marimba with altered wood bars to slip in between different pitches and tones – to perform the song’s intro. Feldman’s flapamba adds distinct flourishes throughout the song, often contrasting the more stately piano lines.
Becker and Fagen’s jazz intuitions wound up subconsciously coming through in more direct ways than they had intended, as the song’s intro riff is nearly identical to Horace Silver’s jazz standard ‘Song for My Father’. Fagen told All About Jazz in 2011: “There was never a conscious thought about picking up Horace Silver’s intro… as for the piano line, I think I had heard it on an old Sergio Mendes album. Maybe that where Horace heard it, too [laughs].”
Fagen was blunt about the group’s jazz roots in 1975, explaining: “We’re basically all jazz fans and most of the records we listen to are jazz — the people who made them are dead or they were recorded so long ago that they’ve been forgotten. We’re definitely pretty cold at the moment. We’ve more or less abandoned hope of being one of the big important rock ‘n’ roll groups, simply because our music is somehow a little too cheesy at times and turns off the rock intelligentsia for the most part, and at other times it’s too bizarre to be appreciated by anybody.”
Despite their attempts to jazz it up, ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’ would be the song that brought Steely Dan to a new level of pop success. The song reached as high as number four on the Billboard Hot 100 on August 3, 1974. The top five that week included ‘The Night Chicago Died’ by Paper Lace 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 in the first place. Just the most bizarre and appropriately ’70s top five. ABBA’s ‘Waterloo’ is down there in the eleventh spot.
Steely Dan used their newfound pop fortunes to turn their backs on the established rock and pop formula more thoroughly than ever before. The band quit touring in 1974, negating any use for a traditional band setup. Now focused solely on studio work, the band were able to hire the top session musicians of the day to bring their increasingly complex visions to life. Even at their most ambitious, Steely Dan always kept melody and hooks at the forefront of their music. It was always the thorough mix of pop sensibilities and jazz roots that made Walter Becker and Donald Fagen so unique, but it was never more palatable to the wider public than it was on ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’.