The first track from Steely Dan’s The Royal Scam is about jazz changes over a tight, chugging funk-disco groove expertly manned by Chuck Rainey and Bernard Purdie. But it’s better known for two other things. First, the song is loosely based on the changed fortunes of famed LSD producer and Grateful Dead sound technician Owsley “Bear” Stanley. But secondly, and more famously, “Kid Charlemagne” is known for the most recognizable guitar solo in a SD song, after “Reelin’ In The Years.”
Larry Carlton, the author of that solo, first appeared for The Dan on Katy Lied but the guitarist for the funk-jazz band The Crusaders really came unto his own on Scam. Of all the literally thousands of sessions Carlton has done in one of the most illustrious careers of studio hired hands, his work on this album probably did more to make that legendary reputation of his than any other single project he’s been involved with. Fagen and Becker were certainly pleased enough; the credits include a “special thanks” shout out to Mr. Carlton, on an album that also employed the services of Dean Parks, Denny Dias and Elliott Randall.
The apex of his career-definer is clearly that impossibly wicked solo on the lead-off cut, ranked #88 in Rolling Stone‘s list of greatest guitar solos (if I recall correctly, they once had it ranked #2). What makes it so widely lauded is hard to know for sure as these things tend to be particularly subjective. But to me, I think it shows what a simultaneously cerebral and tasty guitarist LC is. Always locked into the groove, he strings together a series of memorable, nimble phrases with a tube-y tone on his signature Gibson ES-335. And to top it off, Carlton ends it with a little finger-tapping on the fretboard, a rare recorded instance of that technique pre-Eddie Van Halen.
“Kid Charlemagne” was spun off as a single and didn’t chart very high, peaking only at #82 in the US charts; even “The Fez” did better than that. The impression this song made proved to be a lot more enduring, though, and for all the usual reasons a favored Steely Dan song attains classic status: a well conceived composition, a well performed recording and a killer guitar solo.
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