By Jim Schutze
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By Lauren Drewes Daniels
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Both Alvarez and Ken Smith manufacture a Chuck Rainey signature line of bass guitars. His kids run in and out of the house as he plugs one into a 10-pedal floorboard. "Of course, they didn't have these effects when I did soundtracks like The Pit and the Pendulum," referring to the 1961 movie with Vincent Price. Rainey demonstrates dramatic bass lines from the only two score basslines he can recall: Money, and For the Love of Benji (in which a little dog is hiding).
His fingers fumble before recalling some of his most famous Steely Dan parts. "Peg" has instruments playing simultaneously in different keys: "It breaks the law of theory, which jazz--and the blues--does do. On 'Peg,' you just have to not listen to it when you're playing it. I've had people try and analyze this in clinics," he says, finally hitting the riff, "and you just can't do it." He plays his remarkable bass parts from "Josie," incorporating his trademark three-note chords and tenths. The phone interrupts.
"A new book sale! Just sold my latest textbook," he says, hanging up. "It's called Interval Studies for Four and Five-String Electric Bass."
Steely Dan--named after a dildo in a William Burroughs novel--became the premier studio "band" of the 1970s. The only major rock group besides the Beatles that could buck the touring system, the studio creation of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker assembled a court of session cat royalty. Chuck Rainey was Steely Dan's primary bass player on Pretzel Logic, Katy Lied, The Royal Scam, Aja, and Gaucho, as well as Fagen's Nightfly.
"Let me tell you: When you listen to Aja, those are some masterful songs. Those things'll be around for a hundred years, man. Walter does not read music, neither does Donald. They came to the studio with full-blown demos, but the demos would sound like punk rock. You talk about credit--Victor Feldman and Paul Griffin [keyboards], Larry Carlton [guitar], Jeff Porcaro [drums]--those are the people who sat down and put the chord changes on paper and made a road map for us to play. As always, the good guys fall through the cracks. I may be going back even to The Royal Scam . They should be as rich as Becker, Fagen, and [producer] Gary Katz. Paul Griffin was so good, they gave him songwriting credit for part of a tune."
Rainey doesn't suggest that he ever earned a songwriting credit with the Dan--which would be a lifetime pension. "If you're not a musician, you'd think Donald Fagen's the world's greatest writer. But if you're a musician, you know that he ain't it. He writes good melodies, he can play a little bit of piano. But if it don't be for Walter Becker, there don't be no Steely Dan. Seriously."
But then Rainey concedes that Fagen's solo Nightfly album does sound pretty much on a par with Steely Dan. "It had the same producer and family of musicians. Becker and Fagen had a talent for voicing things in ways you never heard it before." But Rainey believes Steely Dan--after Pretzel Logic in 1974--modeled their style from a group in England on A&M in 1972. "A horn band--I can't remember their name. The times I brought this up, I was made to feel that I shouldn't by Gary Katz."
Rainey got paid double-scale, and he played on tons of sessions. While Royal Scam was cut in two weeks, it took three years each to produce Gaucho and Aja. "They had budget up the yin-yang. I was very fortunate. For every song on Aja--with the exception of "Deacon Blues," which Walter played--as many drummers as are listed, I did the whole album through with that drummer. There were six drummers, that's how many albums of Aja I did. I would do a month with Rick Marotta, then three months later do the same shit with Jeff Porcaro, and then Paul Humphrey, then Bernard Purdie, or Steve Gadd." Steely Dan extracted favorite versions for the final release.
Rainey left Los Angeles for Texas in 1982, after he split from Ricki Lee Jones' band to tour with sax player Hank Crawford. Colleagues like Cornell Dupree and Fathead Newman kept homes in the Dallas area; after Rainey met his second wife, Susan, he decided to settle here. After he arrived, he gigged with former Blood, Sweat & Tears member and local restaurateur Bill Tillman. "The best rhythm and blues band I've ever been in--and I'm sayin' a whole lot here--has been the Rodney Johnson Blues Band, except he could not get more than $225 for his band." After a few years in town, Rainey claims a prominent Dallas promoter began referring to him as "the uppity nigger from up north" and screwed Rainey on a $1,700 contract as opener for a Herbie Hancock concert. "If he had gone down to $400, I would have taken it," Rainey says. "Because my band wanted to work."
Three days before the show, the promoter suddenly reneged on his $1,700 guarantee, saying he only had $200 left on the budget. Rainey pulled out. "I told him, you owe me one. It's not a matter of me suing; I don't sue people. You don't go into a new area--I'm new--and sue a prominent person over some bullshit.