The Mystery Man of Steely Dan: An Interview with Singer David Palmer

david palmer_today

In 1971, David Palmer was working in a plastics factory in his home state of New Jersey. He’d recently left the rock band he’d sung with, the Myddle Class. For a few years in the mid-1960s, the Myddle Class were one of the most scintillating club groups in greater New York City. They were also on the same label and publishing company as ex-Brill Building songwriting team (Gerry) Goffin and (Carole) King.

Then, out of the blue, Palmer got a phone call. It was from an old friend, a guitarist named Jeff “Skunk” Baxter. Baxter told him that a new band was forming out in Los Angeles. They were looking for a singer. Would he be interested in auditioning?

Palmer flew out to L.A., sang at the audition, and was eventually hired.  The group’s name was Steely Dan (Baxter was lead guitarist through the first three albums, then joined the Doobie Brothers). The leaders and songwriters were Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. These two would soon be the sole members of Steely Dan, and they enjoyed enormous success, racking up hit singles and albums through the 1970s, as well as critical adulation and hall of fame induction.

But what about Palmer? After only one album with Steely Dan [Can’t Buy a Thrill, on which he sang lead on two songs: “Dirty Work” (click here) and “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me),”] he dropped out of sight.

can't buy a thrill

I love good rock ‘n’ roll and have always been intrigued by footnotes, and Palmer seemed like the perfect rock footnote. So I decided to track him down. I soon located him, running his own digital photography business in California. I was pleasantly surprised when he agreed to a short interview.

In researching, I learned that, in addition to Steely Dan, Palmer crossed paths with some of the greatest names in popular music: Carole King and Gerry Goffin, of course, and also James Taylor, the Blues Project, and even the Velvet Underground.

I figured Palmer was very busy with his work in visual arts, and I assumed he distanced himself from music for a reason. So I kept my questions rudimentary and brief. Although his answers were also brief, I think they’re still real informative. So here’s my interview with a guy who, like Forrest Gump, seemed to always be at the right place at the right time.

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Early publicity photo of Steely Dan. L to R: “Skunk” Baxter, Walter Becker, David Palmer, Denny Dias, Donald Fagen, Jim Hodder

longitudes: You were an original member of Steely Dan, singing lead on “Dirty Work” and “Brooklyn,” as well as contributing harmony vocals on several other songs (and singing lead when the band toured).  What were Donald Fagen and Walter Becker like to work with?  Were they as demanding and perfectionist in the beginning as they supposedly were later on?

Palmer: Donald and Walter were The Dan. The rest of us were fortunate to be there. Brilliant writers both, and yes, demanding, but the result is on the record.

longitudes: Before joining Steely Dan, you were in a popular Jersey-NYC band called the Myddle Class. On December 11, 1965, you headlined an infamous show at Summit (New Jersey) High School, and your opening act was the Velvet Underground. It was their first gig under that name (occurring only a few weeks before the Velvets joined Andy Warhol).  Do you have any memories of that show, including meeting Lou Reed or the other Velvets?

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The Myddle Class.  L to R: Danny Mansolino, Dave Palmer, Rick Philp, Charles Larkey, Myke Rosa (image copyright Brett Aronowitz)

Palmer: No memories, really. I was only 19 and it wasn’t really a big deal to us. But that gig has become an urban legend of sorts, and you could probably fill Madison Square Garden with the amount of folks who claim to have been there that night!

longitudes: The Myddle Class did a classic garage-band rave-up, “Don’t Let Me Sleep Too Long” (click here), which Al Kooper and the Blues Project included on their album Projections (under the title “Wake Me, Shake Me”).  Your version is tremendously more exciting.  The song is derived from an old gospel tune.  Who originally adapted it, the Myddle Class or the Blues Project, and how close were you to the Project and/or other New York-based bands?

Palmer: We definitely stole it from the Blues Project, who stole it from Public Domain. We actually had a run-in with (Blues Project guitarist) Danny Kalb at Palisades Park when we opened for what was left of the Project. I think what really pissed him off was that (Myddle Class guitarist) Rick Philp played a much better solo on our record than (Kalb) had on theirs!

Someone once sent me a version of that tune that Springsteen recorded with one of his early bands…very cool. We weren’t close to the Project at all. We were closer to Kootch (guitarist/songwriter/producer Danny Kortchmar) and The Flying Machine, when James (Taylor) was in the band.myddle class poster_cropped

longitudes: Your vocals on the Myddle Class songs “I Happen to Love You” and “Don’t Let Me Sleep Too Long” have that archetypical sneering, teen rebel sound so prevalent in mid-60s urban bands.  It’s hard to reconcile this with the sweet-sounding guy who later sang with the Dan.  Was this a difficult vocal transition, or did it come naturally?

Palmer: Actually, I’ve always had a split personality with vocals. But the sweetness was what I believed was called for on the Dan tunes. However, if you go to my website www.davidpalmerimages.com and click on The Lost Demos section, you’ll hear me morph again!

longitudes: The Myddle Class were managed by music critic Al Aronowitz, the man who introduced Bob Dylan to the Beatles.  He also wrote a classic article about the hit songwriting team of Goffin-King.  You eventually became close friends with Carole King, later co-wrote an entire album with her, Wrap Around Joy, and Carole married Myddle Class bassist Charles Larkey.  Are you in touch with Carole these days, or with any surviving members of Myddle Class?

wrap around joy

Carole King’s 1974 LP Wrap Around Joy, co-written by Palmer

Palmer: Carole is extremely busy with the Clinton campaign, I believe. The last time I spoke to her was to offer condolences on the death of Gerry Goffin. Before that, it was to thank her for the shout-out she gave me at the Gershwin Awards for having co-written “Jazzman.”

I was close to Myke Rosa, Myddle Class drummer, for many years until his passing.

longitudes: Speaking of “Jazzman” (click here), the melody for that 1974 hit is real similar to Carole’s earlier breakout solo hit “It’s Too Late,” but it’s got some very smooth saxophone by Tom Scott. Do you know if Carole was consciously trying to replicate “It’s Too Late”?  Also, were you thinking of any particular jazz artist when you penned the words?

Palmer: Since Carole was so prolific, I doubt if she was even aware of sounding like earlier tunes. I mean it’s hard not to “resemble” yourself when it’s your style. And, yes, (John) Coltrane was the inspiration (for the song).

longitudes: In the late 1970s you joined a soft-rock band called Wha-Koo, which made three albums.  Can you please comment on that experience?

Palmer: Danny Douma and I put that band together. I loved the way he wrote, and I wasn’t too sure of what it was I was trying to do until much later. But I think some great tunes came out of that band, but things were changing, and we just missed the rising tide.

longitudes: After Wha-Koo broke up, what were your activities before becoming an artist/photographer?

Palmer: I stayed in the music biz far past my expiration date – as a writer, basically. Once again, I refer you to The Lost Demos on my website.

longitudes: You’re now a successful digital photographer.  Why did you leave music, and how did you get involved with photography?

Palmer: I woke up one day and, literally, couldn’t write, and knew it was over. And yet I also knew I needed a way to be creative. I fell in love with the process of creating images – from the initial camera work to the post in Photoshop. There seemed to be no limitation. And I didn’t have to ask the band what they thought!

longitudes: Thank you for your time, David.

Palmer: You’re welcome.

myddle class poster 2

1966: A Very Good Musical Year

50 years

Louie-Louie

Listening to Spotify the other day, I landed on a band whose songs never fail to make me feel good: the Turtles. Remember them? Their No. 1 hit “Happy Together” is one of the most beloved anthems of the 1960s. Grade school lyrics, for sure, but absolutely luscious choral harmonies.

Years ago, when I began buying their records, I discovered the Turtles were not just a one-hit wonder. From 1965 to 1970 (in addition to their biggest song) they strung together a glittering necklace of golden tunes: “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” “Let Me Be,” “You Baby,” “She’d Rather Be With Me,” “She’s My Girl,” “Can I Get to Know You Better,” “Outside Chance,” “Is It Any Wonder,” “You Showed Me,” “Lady-O,” and many others.

The Turtles even recorded a version of the Kingston Trio’s “It Was a Very Good Year.”  Frank Sinatra heard it and loved it so much he did his own version… in inimitable Sinatra style, of course.

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The Turtles in 1966. L-R: Al Nichol, Chuck Portz, Howard Kaylan, Jim Tucker, Mark Volman, Don Murray.

The Turtles were one of the few groups able to combine the best genres of ‘60s pop music – British Invasion, folk-rock, baroque pop, and flower power – and they did it with a warm, southern California smile. They flirted with weighty themes during their five-year existence, but they never took themselves too seriously. For me, the Turtles typified the sunny side of the ‘60s. And the sun was never brighter than in the year 1966.

It was a very peculiar and particular time in American history, when the music was ruling the world.

– Howard Kaylan, lead singer of the Turtles

Fifty years ago was a transitional time in popular music. The rock songs of 1966 bridged the folk, garage, and surf rock of the early ‘60s with the hard rock that came later on. It was also still an innocent time. The pied piper of the era – the Beatles – were still writing love songs and had only recently started experimenting with more exotic arrangements, instruments, and lyrics, like in “Rain,” “Norwegian Wood” and “Eleanor Rigby.” They’d also taken the hallucinogen LSD (at least, John and George had). But they’d yet to alter minds with their psychedelic masterwork, the LP “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (which arrived the following year).

barbarians

The Barbarians, with hook-handed drummer Moulty, had a minor hit with “Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl?” This was a crucial question in 1966.

On the radio, AM was still king in 1966. And AM radio played singles (45 rpm records), not album cuts. So the songs had to be brief but catchy. This format required artists to squeeze in their ideas in under three minutes. At minimum, you needed a verse, chorus, and bridge. Lyrics didn’t matter, but you had to have a catchy melody. Harmonica might provide a slight blues or folk feel, and guitars had to ring and chime. In 1966, most bands copped either the cheery, up-tempo Beatles or the bad-boy Rolling Stones. Some of the more adventurous tried covering Dylan (other than the Byrds, these attempts usually failed).

But the icing on the cake was multi-part vocal harmony. Great harmonies separated the men from the boys. They transformed modest two-and-a-half minute melodies into miniature symphonies. Not surprisingly, the best harmonizers had a big year in 1966: the Beatles, Mamas and Papas, Turtles, Beach Boys, Byrds, Hollies, Association, and anything Motown.

Also, in 1966 you didn’t have to be a virtuoso or author your own songs to ride the carousel of success. The Turtles used crack outside songwriters for most of their singles. Many of the biggest hits of ’66 were by teens who’d only recently purchased their first guitar. Tommy James was only 16 when he and the Shondells recorded the smash “Hanky Panky,” which went No. 1 in ’66. The members of the band Question Mark and the Mysterians, who had a No. 1 with the organ-driven “96 Tears,” had parents who were migrant farmers.

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The Leaves were the first of many groups to record the song “Hey Joe.” Leader Jim Pons is in the middle.

One of my favorite rock ’n’ roll rags-to-riches stories involves Jim Pons of the Leaves. Pons had never touched an instrument. But he formed a band to entertain his college fraternity brothers.

In ’66, the Leaves recorded the very first version of the four-chord song “Hey Joe.” It became a surprise hit in Los Angeles. Pons was then asked to join the Turtles on bass, right when “Happy Together” was riding the charts. When the Turtles disbanded, he joined Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, touring the world and appearing in Zappa’s film “200 Motels.” He parlayed his film experience into a job as video director for the New York Jets football team, which lasted till his retirement over 20 years later.

And it all started with an itch to play “Louie Louie” at frat parties!

Won’t you tell your dad get off my back / Tell him what we said ‘bout ‘Paint it Black.’

– from the song “Thirteen” by Big Star

Looking at the year-end Billboard chart reveals that rock artists weren’t the only players in 1966. Soul music (the Supremes, Miracles), crooners (Sinatra, Jack Jones), and even novelty songs (“Winchester Cathedral”) were also represented. This diversity of styles was good, since the local swimming club didn’t have to change the radio dial to appease both parents and kids. Chuck and Susie could dig the Kinks, Standells, or Monkees while slurping their ice cream, and Mom and Dad could sneak sips of gin while humming Sergio Mendes and the Brasil ’66.

But this heterogeneous programming could also be frustrating. Imagine hearing a Four Tops song one minute, then a few minutes later the year’s No. 1 hit, the jingoistic “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” sung by an army sergeant. No wonder people rioted in Detroit!

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The Hollies were from Manchester, England. They broke the U.S. Top 10 in ’66 with “Bus Stop.” Graham Nash, top right, later teamed with David Crosby and Stephen Stills.

Things changed in 1967, after another sergeant came along (Sgt. Pepper). Then came large, outdoor rock concerts, spearheaded by the Monterey Pop Festival. Albums replaced 45s as the medium of choice, rock lyrics became deeper and darker, the Vietnam War crept into songs, and free-form FM radio – pioneered by an underground rock DJ in San Francisco named Tom Donahue – began compartmentalizing musical genres. Rock was finally able to rid itself of the likes of Frank, Jack, Sergio, and Sgt. Sadler.

Also, hard drugs entered the picture, which had a profound effect on the musicians and their music. The chiming guitars were becoming distorted.

In 1966, though, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin were little known outside L.A., London, and Haight-Ashbury. Drug use was generally limited to a little pot or “a couple ‘o quarts ‘o beer” in Joe’s garage. And kids were still learning the chords to “Louie Louie.”

We were happy together, and it was a very good year.

harrison