Donald Jay Fagen (born January 10, 1948) is an American musician and songwriter, best known as the co-founder, lead singer, and the principal songwriter (along with partner Walter Becker) of the jazz-influenced rock band Steely Dan. Fagen is known for his use of complex jazz harmonies, elaborate arrangements, and exacting attention to detail??all anomalies in the pop-rock genre. Fagen launched a successful, if sporadic solo career in 1982, spawning three albums to date.
Fagen was born in Passaic, New Jersey, on January 10, 1948 to Joseph "Jerry" Fagen and his wife Elinor. Joseph worked as an accountant. From the ages of 12 to 17, Elinor sang in a hotel band in upstate New York's Catskill Mountains until bouts of stage fright (a condition her son would later be afflicted with) forced her to discontinue performing live. Donald would later recall: "I can't ever remember when there was silence around the house. She was either playing records or singing."
Around 1958, the Fagen family moved from Passaic first to the suburb of Fair Lawn, and then quickly moved and settled into a ranch-style house house in Kendall Park, New Jersey. The transition greatly upset Donald, and he detested living in the suburbs. He would later tell an interviewer that it "was like a prison. I think I lost faith in judgement? It was probably the first time I realised I had my own view of life." Living in Kendall Park would later inspire tracks on his album The Nightfly.
In the late 1950s, Fagen became interested in rock and R&B music, with his first record purchase being Chuck Berry's "Reelin' and Rockin'". Around age 11, after receiving musical recommendations from a cousin and attending the Newport Jazz Festival, he quickly became a self-declared "jazz snob. I lost interest in rock n' roll and started developing an anti-social personality." Fagen would regularly take the bus to Manhattan to see Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, and Miles Davis perform. Soon afterwards, he learned to play the piano, and also played baritone horn in the in high school marching band. Fagen also began a life-long fondness for table tennis during his teenage years.
The family was of the Jewish faith. Donald had his bar mitzvah at Kendall Park's Congregation Beth Shalom in 1961, a synagogue his father helped found.
After graduating from South Brunswick High School in 1965, Fagen enrolled at Bard College to study English literature, having been inspired by Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. While at Bard, Fagen met musician Walter Becker. The duo, along with a revolving assortment of musicians which included future-actor Chevy Chase, formed various groups called The Leather Canary, The Don Fagen Jazz Trio, and the Bad Rock Band. Fagen would later describe his college bands as sounding like "The Kingsmen performing Frank Zappa material." None of the groups lasted long, but the partnership between Fagen and Becker would continue for decades. The duo's early career included a stint with Jay and the Americans under pseudonyms, and in the early 1970s, as pop songwriters, prior to forming Steely Dan.
Main article: Steely Dan
Fagen and Becker founded Steely Dan in August 1972. They initially formed the core of the band, and co-wrote all the group's music; on tour and record, Becker played bass (and later lead guitar) and Fagen played keyboards, as well as performing almost all of the lead vocals on their recordings.
After releasing their third LP in 1974, the other members gradually left (or were fired from) the band, and it evolved into a studio project headed by Becker and Fagen. From the mid-70s onward, Steely Dan only recorded their albums with well-known American jazz and rock session musicians. They scored their biggest success in 1977 with the platinum-selling album Aja.
After a lengthy period of inactivity as a band which began in the early 80's, the duo of Becker and Fagen revived Steely Dan in the late 90's, and have since produced two more Steely Dan studio albums: 2000's Two Against Nature which won several Grammy's, and Everything Must Go (2003), as well as the live CD Alive in America (1995) and a live concert DVD.
After Steely Dan's breakup in 1981, Fagen released his solo debut album, The Nightfly (1982), which went platinum and yielded the top-twenty hit, "I.G.Y. (International Geophysical Year)." The Nightfly has been favorably compared to his Steely Dan work.
Fagen's second solo album, 1993's Kamakiriad, was produced by Becker.
Recording sessions for Fagen's third solo album, Morph the Cat, began in August 2004 and the album was released March 14, 2006. Performing on the album are Wayne Krantz (guitar), Jon Herington (guitar), Keith Carlock (drums), Freddy Washington (bass), Ted Baker (piano), and Walt Weiskopf (sax). Upon its release, Morph the Cat received universal acclaim and was later named Album of the Year by Mix magazine. Fagen was also given the Producer of the Year award.The 5.1 mix of "Morph the Cat" won the 2007 Grammy Award for Best Surround Sound Album.
All three of Fagen's albums previously released on the DVDA format have now been released in Warner's latest format MVI (Music Video Interactive) as a boxed set. Each album features a DTS 5.1, Dolby 5.1 and PCM Stereo mix but no MLP encoded track, along with bonus audio and video content. Customers will also be able to select any track or any portion of a track and use it as their mobile phone ringtone.
In March 2006, Fagen embarked on his first-ever solo tour to support Morph the Cat. This theater tour of the northeast (including one Canadian date in Toronto), the midwest, and the west coast played to sold-out houses and excellent reviews. Fagen's management also sold VIP packages for the tour, which included a pre-show party, premium seats, and access to the band's sound checks. This was mocked on his song-writing partner Walter Becker's website. Fagen joined Becker for a Steely Dan/Michael McDonald tour the following summer of 2007.
He also toured with the New York Rock and Soul Revue. The 1986 debut album by Rosie Vela, Zazu, inspired the first collaboration between Fagen and Becker following the disbanding of Steely Dan. This led to their reunion as a writing team and the creation of a new touring version of Steely Dan. The following year Fagen co-produced Becker's solo debut, 11 Tracks of Whack.
Work for, and with, other Artists
In 1983, he played synthesizer for the track "Love will make it Right", which he also wrote, on Diana Ross's solo album Ross.
1986 had Donald writing the title track to The Yellowjackets' album Shades.
1991 saw the group The Manhattan Transfer record Donald's song "Confide in Me" on their album The Offbeat of Avenues.
In 1992, Jennifer Warnes recorded Big Noise New York (co-written by Donald Fagen and Marcelle Clements)on her solo album The Hunter.
Note: Donald's own versions of both "Confide in Me" and "Big Noise New York" would finally be released on the Bonus CD of the Nightfly Trilogy Boxed set in 2007.
In 2008, Donald played synthesizer on the album I Know You're Married But I've Got Feelings Too by Canadian American folksinger Martha Wainwright.
Donald Fagen has contributed work to the following film soundtracks:
(1981)"True Companion", to the animated cult film Heavy Metal.
(1983)He wrote "The Finer Things" which appeared on the soundtrack to the Martin Scorcese film "The King of Comedy", as well as sang background vocals on the song. David Sanborn is given credit for the main part of the song.
(1988) "Century's End", to Bright Lights, Big City.
(1988) "Reflections",along with guitarist Steve Khan, on the film "Arthur 2:On the Rocks". This song was not an orignial composition, however, it was a cover of a song by Thelonius Monk. .
(1992) "Blue Lou" was an instumental piece recorded for the film Glengarry Glen Ross.
Donald Fagen wrote briefly in the 1980's for Premiere magazine, including a few witty pieces on Henry Mancini and Ennio Morricone. These are available online from Donaldfagen.com His website also features other articles he has written, such as ones for Slate.com.
In 1988, Fagen was a co-producer of the Broadway soundtrack album The Gospel at Colonus.
In the late 2000's, he appeared as the "Wise Man" in a promotional video for the Electro-Harmonix Stereo Memory Man with Hazarai digital delay/looper. This short promo video was directed by frequent Steely Dan trumpet player Michael Leonhart.