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Music

What's That Sound? The strange percussion on Steely Dan's 'Rikki Don't Lose That Number'

@TylerGolsen

“Eclectic” is one of the many words that can be used to describe Steely Dan. Never afraid to step outside the box, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were experts on keying into a specific sound, note, or tone that would bring an otherwise fully fleshed out arrangement to another level. Whether that’s blowing a whistle during the instrumental bridge of ‘Aja’ or using a talk box for the central melody of ‘East St. Louis Toodle-Oo’, the Dan were experts at the extraordinary instrumentation.

Part of that came from the rotation of session musicians that the duo favoured. Even though they had a notorious reputation for cycling different players in and out of the studio, Becker and Fagen nonetheless had a core group of experts to who they consistently turned. This included bassist Chuck Rainey, guitarist Larry Carlton, and Doobie Brothers vocalist Michael McDonald.

It also included percussionist Victor Feldman, who was invaluable because of his diverse multi-instrumental abilities. Ostensibly a percussionist, Feldman had the expertise of just about any keyboard instrument to add different sonic layers to Steely Dan’s best work. His contributions have included piano, electric piano, congas, vibraphone, marimba, and tambourine, to name a few. 

But one of Feldman’s most iconic contributions to the Steely Dan canon was during the 30 second-long intro to the band’s most giant chart hit, ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’. Sounding like a muted marimba or another wooden keyboard instrument of some kind, Feldman was actually playing the flapamba, a variant of the marimba with grooved bars that landed each note’s pitch in between specific tones and general percussive slaps.

Feldman’s free-form intro, which acts as the opening to 1974’s Pretzel Logic, indicates a clear embrace of more traditional jazz sounds on the band’s third album. But Feldman’s iconic runs are absent from the version of the song that most listeners became familiar with back in 1974. That’s because his intro is cut from the original ABC single version of ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’, the version that climbed all the way to number four on the Billboard Hot 100.

Feldman’s intro was later restored on reissue versions of the single, and it remains intact when you revisit Pretzel Logic today. It’s an atypical intro featuring a unique instrument, but the flurry of notes came from a trusted source. Feldman would contribute to every Steely Dan album during their original run, from 1972’s Can’t Buy a Thrill to 1980’s Gaucho.