Music Special – East St Louis Toodle-oo – Vale Walter Becker

Posted on Mon 09/04/2017 by


I was saddened this morning, Australian time, to learn of the passing of Walter Becker. I don’t usually mark the passing of musicians, because if I did, I would be posting something almost every day, but Walter Becker was a member of one of my favourite bands, Steely Dan. Others might mark his passing with one of the bands big hits, but I will post perhaps what may seem to be an obscure song from the band, but it was always one of my favourite songs they performed, and one which features the guitar playing of Walter Becker, and that song is the band’s cover of the famous Duke Ellington song, East St Louis Toodle-oo. Because that song was perhaps a little obscure, there are very few video clips which show the band performing the song live around the time it was first recorded, back in 1974, so the clip for this song just shows the cover of the album that the song was on, and that album was Pretzel Logic.

Link to Video at You Tube

This video was posted to You Tube by fadiese1993

While the band Steely Dan were hugely popular in the U.S. the band hardly registered here in Australia, and only had a couple of minor hits, and every time I am asked for some of my favourite bands, and I mention Steely Dan, nearly everyone asks who they were.

I was a fan from their first album, Can’t Buy A Thrill, not because I had heard their music on radio, because the two pretty big hits from that album didn’t even make it onto the National Charts here in Australia, and were hardly played by any radio station at all. My record guy, who owned a tiny little record shop in Newcastle pointed me to that first album in early 1973, and as I had come to trust his opinion I got hold of the album, and I wasn’t disappointed. I didn’t hear anything from them until that same record guy pointed me to another of their albums, their third album Pretzel Logic.

That album is one of the quirks in my collection, as this one is one of the few Imports I have in my large collection of vinyl LPs. When records are released, they are done at different times, firstly in their home Country, and then progressively in other Countries around the World. What would happen is that in the band’s home Country, the albums would be pressed from the Masters, and then released. Then, in the case of Australia, a copy of the Master would be sent out to Australia, and then the record company outlet here in Australia would press the Australian album from that Master, so the album would not be released until a month or two after the original was released in the home Country of the band or artist. Such was the case with this album, but my record guy, owning a record shop as he did would get hold of the most recent releases, almost at the time of release as a special order, usually a dozen or so new albums each week. He knew I already had a Steely Dan record, so in the week he got hold of this new Import, he pointed it out to me, and I purchased it on the spot. The image is one of that Import from my collection. Although this Import was released as a Quadraphonic album, that system of playing music came and went very quickly here in Australia, mainly due to the huge cost, so while my Import is that Quadraphonic release, all I ever had to play it on was a good stereo sound system.

I loved the album right from the first time I played it. That first album was good, but this one was so much better. The first album was when the band was actually a full band, with five members, but after a couple of years, the two main guys who formed the band in the first place, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker concentrated their work in the studio, and as the new music arose, they just gathered new musicians around them to perform the songs for albums and for touring. This core of two then were the main part of Steely Dan from then on. This was the last album that all five original members played together as a band, and a number of further musicians were brought in to augment the instruments played on the album.

Oddly, this song I have featured today was my favourite song from the album, and while the big hit from the album was Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, that song also was only a minor hit here in Australia, barely making it into the National Charts, and even then only for a few weeks. I especially liked every song on side one of that album, with the hit single, Barrytown, Any Major Dude Will Tell You, and this song I have featured.

This song was originally written by Duke Ellington on the piano, and co-composer Bubber Miley on trumpet. Miley used a plunger muted technique on the trumpet, and he was one of the first to use this technique, later copied by virtually every jazz trumpeter.

Here on this song, the whole effect of what Bubber Miley did is done with guitar, note for note, and Walter Becker also used what was a (relatively) new technique, one which was revived in the early 70’s, and used by Peter Frampton especially to bring it to a wider audience, that of using a Talk Box to give that special sound to the guitar. The effect was also used in the same song by Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter, the band’s original guitarist, where he plays a pedal steel guitar, also through his own Talk Box to give a sound effect similar to a slide trombone.

This Talk Box is connected to the amp as a speaker output. There is a small speaker fully enclosed in the box itself, and all that comes out of the box is a flexible tube, which is then taped up the microphone stand with the tube protruding a little further out than the actual head of the microphone itself. In this manner, the guitarist can play the notes on the guitar, and each of those notes is then played through the amp, and then out through the speakers as a normal guitar note. At the same time, those same notes he is playing are also played in the speaker inside the talk box, and on up that tube, and what the guitarist does is to place his mouth (loosely) around the end of that tube and then the notes he is playing are then played into his mouth, He then vocalises those notes by moving his mouth and lips. The music is then reflected back to the microphone and played almost as a vocal track as sung by a singer.

The end result in this case is that Walter Becker makes the guitar sound almost the same as Bubber Miley did with his trumpet, and the plunger muted sound he got from his trumpet. You hear each guitar note as a guitar note, and then also that vocalised section as well. Donald Fagen comes in later with piano and again, they stay true to the original composition, and then, they also include a small part of the song with an actual horn section as well, as well as Baxter’s own playing as well.

This song is almost a note for note copy of that original jazz piece, originally done by the Ellington band back in 1927, so the song itself is now 90 years old.

Walter Becker was 67 when he passed away overnight, and luckily, we will always have his music, as part of this wonderful band to remember him by.

Vale Walter Becker.

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