On Donald Fagen’s last album Morph The Cat, there’s a great tune on there where he’s imagining himself as a young man asking Ray Charles what makes him tick. It was Fagen’s personalized tribute to one of his idols, who had at the time had only recently passed. Since that time, another one of Fagen’s RnB heroes Isaac Hayes had gone on to the Big Chocolate Chip In The Sky, and on his upcoming disc Sunken Condos (out October 16, by Reprise Records), Fagen is paying tribute again. This time, the tribute comes in the form of a re-creation of an old Hayes’ funky number, “Out Of The Ghetto.”
Whereas Fagen admired Charles from afar as a figure from a prior generation, Hayes’ connection came partly from the fact that he was an ABC Records stable mate with Steely Dan in the mid-70s. He was already gone from the label by the time he recorded “Out Of The Ghetto” and the rest of the songs for New Horizons, which was released in 1977, but it was this track that obviously made enough of an impression on Fagen to inspire him to make that one of his rare recorded covers. Perhaps what’s even more telling about the level of reverence is that Fagen’s version isn’t some slicked-up, sterilized Gaucho-ed take. Oh no, it’s just about as gritty, slippery and hot-buttered as Hayes’ thumb-popping, four-on-the-floor disco burner.
It first starts with Fagen’s vocals, and he sings this one with real commitment, at times even goes further than Hayes in soulful passion, getting worked up enough to shout “ghetto mama! Stay the same.” In the chorus, he’s sneers “but I could…not…get…that…ghetto….out…of…you” right along to the beat, and it’s righteous.
Fagen describes his rendition of the Hayes deep cut as “an Ashkenazi recasting,” a depiction that didn’t make itself obvious to me at first until noticing that the accordion, clarinets and the violin floating around the groove has a touch of klezmer to it. It’s all good, though, because Michael Leonhart’s clavinet, Freddie Washington’s bass and Jon Herington’s greasy guitar gyrating around the dance-beckoning beat make this rendition one tough take.
I don’t have a YouTube of the recording to offer you (and even if I did, I’d probably get sideways with Warners in a Brooklyn second if I posted it), so the above is Hayes’ original. That should give you a fairly good approximation of Fagen’s cover. Maybe not in sound, but the attitude and groove are about the same. And they both sound like they came from 1977. Only one of them actually does, and listening to them side-by-side, it’s sometimes hard to tell which one that is.
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