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Guitar icon Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter talks solo debut ‘Speed of Heat’

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I’m sure he would scoff at the notion, but guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter is a legend – and not only in the music world.

The musician whose angular phrasing and fluid lead lines elevated classic material for Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers is also one of the trusted people relied upon by the U.S. Dept. of Defense to keep us safe.

Fifty years after the release of Steely Dan’s first album “Can’t Buy a Thrill,” “Skunk” has finally released his solo debut.

“Speed of Heat” offers a mix of original songs, carefully selected covers and special guests who were each directed to deliver a performance outside of their comfort zones. Stepping up to the plate to deliver big time were country singer Clint Black, blues guitarist Johnny Lang and Baxter’s former Doobies bandmate Michael McDonald.

Highlights include a rocking reappraisal of Steely Dan’s “My Old School” with “Skunk” himself delivering a lead vocal that received Steven Tyler’s stamp of approval. Black rocks out on “Bad Move” and Lang gets funky on the soulful “I Can Do Without.”

During an interview with The Maine Edge that will air Saturday morning on BIG 104 FM, Baxter gave the backstory on how “Speed of Heat” has literally been decades in the making.

“Skunk” also revealed that his memoir is earmarked for publication next year. In addition to his work with Steely Dan and the Doobies, the book is bound to contain stories related to his voluminous session work for artists including Joni Mitchell, Donna Summer, Rod Stewart, Joe Cocker, Sheryl Crow, Ringo Starr, Dolly Parton and Carly Simon.

Baxter’s autobiography is also likely to include the full story of his work as a consultant for the U.S. Dept. of Defense with a specialty in missile defense systems.

Maybe, just maybe, Baxter’s memoir will finally reveal how he acquired the moniker “Skunk.” It’s been a well-guarded secret for decades.

TME: You no longer have to endure questions like “When are you finally going to release a solo record?” How long has “Speed of Heat” been in the works?

“Skunk” Baxter: I looked at the track sheets when we handed it into the record company. I think we cut the first track in 1989. When I would find the time, I’d get together with my music partner, C.J. Vanston, and we would work on material. It’s been a long time coming but there was also a lot of other work done during that time.

TME: I love the new rocked up version of Steely Dan’s “My Old School” and it’s a cool and rare thing to hear you take a lead vocal. Why haven’t we heard you sing more often?

“Skunk” Baxter: (laughs) Well, I used to sing the song on the road with Steely Dan when we toured and I have kind of a love for the tune but I’ve never considered myself a lead singer. I originally wanted Steven Tyler to sing it so I sent it to Steve and he said “OK but who’s singing it?” I told him it was just my scratch vocal so he could hear what it is. He said, “Why don’t you sing it?” I told him I’m not a singer and he said “Don’t be stupid. It sounds good to me.” I said OK, I’ll take a shot.

TME: The song “Bad Move” has Clint Black on the lead vocal but I’m not sure I would have known it was him. Had you worked with Clint before?

“Skunk” Baxter: Yeah, he’s an old friend, and I’d mentioned to him to that I was working on this solo album and asked if he wanted to be involved. He said he’d do it in a heartbeat. The only criteria I had for Clint, Michael McDonald and Johnny Lang is that they co-write something with myself and C.J. and that they do something they’ve never done before that’s way out of their wheelhouse. I think Clint nailed it on “Bad Move.” Talk about a multi-faceted, very deeply capable musician. Like you said, unless you knew it was him, it would be tough to figure it out. He shows an incredible amount of versatility.

TME: I have a question submitted by one of your fans. Brett Slater of Wiscasset, Maine, asks: “What was the reason why Steely Dan decided to stop touring in 1974 which prompted you to leave the group?”

“Skunk” Baxter: I’m not really sure, I would posit they wanted much more control over the recording process. Fair enough, I had no problem with that. I was actually playing with two other bands at the time. One was Linda Ronstadt and the other was The Doobie Brothers. I was playing with The Doobie Brothers at the Knebworth festival in England when Steely Dan decided they didn’t want to tour anymore. I hung up the phone and said “That’s kind of it for me and Steely Dan.” One of the members of the Doobie Brothers turned to me and said “Now you’re in The Doobie Brothers.” I said OK, perfect.

TME: Donald Fagan and Walter Becker had a reputation for perfectionism when it came to Steely Dan’s music. How much freedom did you have to play what felt right to you?

“Skunk” Baxter: It depended on the song, and frankly, I’ve been a studio musician for almost 60 years, so perfection is in my wheelhouse. I don’t have a problem with that at all.

TME: There’s a story of how you became friends with the pre-fame Jimi Hendrix when he stopped into a music store in Manhattan where you worked in the mid-1960s. Did you see him again after he became so well known?

“Skunk” Baxter: I didn’t go to any other performances, but we had remained friends and every once in a while, we’d get together when we had the chance. Jimi Hendrix was one of the finer human beings I’ve ever met.

TME: Is it true that you played bass in his early band Jimmy James and the Blue Flames?

“Skunk” Baxter: Just for a couple of songs because he invited me down to see the band and his bass player was late. I also sold him a Fender Stratocaster and I think it was the first one he owned. I was working at Jimmy’s Music Shop and I had already set up a right-handed guitar for a left-handed player. He came in with a beat-up Fender Duo-Sonic and I did an even trade with him because he was a nice guy. For doing that I was docked two weeks’ pay (laughs) but that’s when he invited me to come down to see his band. He was a very special guy, no doubt about it.

TME: There is so much to your story that hasn’t been told. How about a book? Will we see your memoir some day?

“Skunk” Baxter: Yes, I’m kind of aiming for the second quarter of next year. I have settled on a title, but I’ll probably keep that classified (laughs) along with a lot of other stuff.

Last modified on Wednesday, 22 June 2022 07:19

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