Saturday, September 10, 2011

Vocal Harmonies: Steely Dan Edition

Steely Dan: Show Biz Kids


Rickie Lee Jones: Show Biz Kids


Steely Dan: Home at Last


This week, we have heard duets and group vocals. But there are also artists and groups who are justly well known for their use of background singers. Surely Steely Dan would be one of these. When I think of Steely Dan, the first things I hear in my head are those wonderful horn charts and vocal harmonies. But Steely Dan was not born sounding that way. The sound developed over time. Show Biz Kids offers an early example. There are no horns here at all. The background singers have only one line, which they repeat throughout the song, turning it into a chant. In interviews, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker have always been coy about the words they are chanting. Is it “Las Vegas” or “Lost Wages”? You be the judge. The other feature of the vocal harmonies that is notable in Show Biz Kids is Becker joining in with close harmonies on the chorus.

Now listen to Rickie Lee Jones’ version of Show Biz Kids. She uses the chanted vocals only part of the time, (and the words are definitely, “Las Vegas”). She uses a more complex vocal harmony on the chorus. And she has stripped out the screaming guitar that was so much a part of Steely Dan’s early sound. In short, with the exception of the stand up bass, she has recorded the song as Steely Dan might have if they had done it later in their career. Listen to Home at Last, from Aja, and you will see what I mean. Here are the horn charts, which Jones doesn’t use on Show Biz Kids, but which are certainly part of her sound as well. And, on the chorus of Home at Last we hear vocal harmonies as done by a mature Steely Dan.

Discographers note: the piano and background vocals on Jones’ version of Show Biz Kids is by Joe Jackson.

blog comments powered by Disqus