Steely Dan Sunday, "Ruby Baby" (1982)

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*** STEELY DAN SUNDAY INDEX ***

For only the second — and last — time in this series, we’re discussing a cover song. (Click here for an account of the first cover.)

When Fagen decided to theme an album on “certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city during the late fifties and early sixties,” he could have easily filled it with songs from that place and time, but he only did that once. “Ruby Baby” was written by one of the most prolific pop songwriting teams of the 50s and 60s, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (“Jailhouse Rock,” “Hound Dog,” “Kansas City,” “Stand By Me,” “On Broadway”). The Drifters took the first crack at the song and made an R&B hit out of it in 1958, but Dion did much better when his 1963 rendition shot up to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Bobby Darin, Del Shannon and The Beach Boys also covered this tune.

Fagen stays pretty close to the original melody, only swapping out a chord here and there, and he and Valerie Simpson, of Ashford and Simpson fame, replace the original doo-wop vocals with some ritzy harmonies. But, like most of The Nightfly, it’s the groove that makes it pop. You’ve got Jeff Porcaro, of course, who supplies a shuffle with dead-on precision, the Brecker Brothers on horns and Larry Carlton noodling around on lead guitar. Listen in on Anthony Jackson’s bass, and you’ll find he’s playing a counterpart harmony that gives the song a cool, sleek modern undercurrent that goes well beyond its 1950s beginnings.

That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with those older versions; in fact, I really dig The Drifters’ original. Here’s Fagen’s take on it, followed by the two charting versions. Which one do you like the best?

Donald Fagen

The Drifters

Dion & The Belmonts

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S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is a CPA and mid-level data analyst for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.

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