A Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Inductee, guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, known for his work with Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers and from the many hit recordings he’s performed on as an in-demand, first-call studio musician, just released his first-ever solo album, Speed of Heat, earlier this year.
The single, a hard-driving remake of Steely Dan’s “My Old School,” features a rare lead vocal by Baxter himself and suggests the wide range of material found on the album, which also includes a handful of original tunes.
You’ve been playing music professionally since the 1960s. What took you so long to put out a solo album?
I guess it was just a question of what made sense. I have never been a huge fan of the idea of running out and making a solo record after you leave a successful band. For me, there was so much other work to do. There was a lot of studio work as well as producing records as well as the work I do for Roland and other companies. It didn’t leave a whole lot of time.
You worked with guitarist and producing/music partner C.J. Vanston on the disc. What was that like?
C.J. is just an incredible musician and producer. We co-produced this record together. He’s a composer and all-around talented musician. We met doing jingle sessions in Chicago many years ago. We decided we should maybe work together in the future. We had done a session where the producer of the session didn’t have any music for the jingle. We made it up as we went along. I thought that was pretty amazing. I said to C.J. that if I ever do a solo project, I would like to work with him. He has a full schedule as well. But when we had the time, we would get together and see what we could come up with. The best metaphor I could use is that you fill a jar with pennies and you get to the point that you have to roll them up. That’s kind of what happened.
When did you start putting the material together?
The first track we did, “Insecurity,” was cut in 1989. We’ve been doing this for awhile.
Where did you go to record?
Most of the recording was done at C.J.’s studio in North Hollywood. It’s called the Treehouse. It’s a great spot. It obviously sounds pretty good, and people enjoy working there.
That opener, “Ladies from Hell,” rocks pretty hard.
My heritage is Scottish, and I thought it might be fun to do a musical journey through Scotland. As you listen to it, there are different approaches to the music. It has a very Celtic feel to it. At the end, you can hear the Scottish pipers marching through the mist through the moors and down the mountain. It was a fun idea to be able to describe Scotland as best I could musically. The actual term comes from the Germans who said that in World War I when they saw the Scots coming over the trenches with their pipes screaming and kilts swaying like they were crazed maniacs. They called them the “ladies from hell.” The whole track was so much fun to put together.
What made you want to cover “My Old School”?
Well, I had sung the song live with Steely Dan when we toured. Every time we would perform it, it would gain a little more energy. I thought that someday it might be interesting to revisit it with an arrangement that had a lot more punch. I put together an arrangement for it. I wanted Steven Tyler to sing it. When I sent it to him, he said that whoever is singing on it should do it. I said, “That’s me. I just did it as a scratch vocal." He said, “Why don’t you do it?” I said, “I’m not a singer.” He said, “You should do it.” I said, “You know a lot more about this stuff than I do.” He’s a friend, so I trusted him.
And what about “Do It Again,” another Steely Dan tune that’s on the album?
In the spirt of everything we did on the record, we thought it might be fun to take “Do It Again” and turn it upside down and inside out and see what we could do. It’s a fun track to play. I love shuffles. To me, that’s one of the great all-time grooves, and we turned it into a shuffle.
What was it like to work with former Doobie Brothers bandmate Michael McDonald again? He sings on “My Place in the Sun.”
Michael has been a friend for many, many years. We played together in Steely Dan and I brought him into the Doobie Brothers. We kept in touch. I ran into him again at a charity event in Santa Barbara. He asked me what I was doing. I told him I was taking a shot at a solo project. Originally, it was going to be an instrumental record. But he said that if I would want him to do something, he would. It took me one second to make that decision. The only criteria was that he had to come to L.A. and write something original and try something out of his wheelhouse. Certainly, I think “My Place in the Sun” is not your typical Michael McDonald song. He did a beautiful job. The same with Clint Black and Jonny Lang [who also appear on the album]. The idea was to do something very different. When I played the Clint Black track for his wife, she half-jokingly said “Who is that?” I said, “That’s your husband.” He’s an incredibly talent musician. I thought it would be fun to give my friends to try something new.
There’s a nice balance of instrumentals and songs with vocals.
I’m happy with the record. I’m not always happy with how things turn out, though I’m proud of everything I’ve done. The end product was pretty much what I wanted it to be.
You’ve been inducted into the Rock Hall and many of the musicians, including now Dolly Parton, have been inducted as well. What does the honor mean to you?
I think that anytime you have recognition from your peers is something that we all as human beings care about. I’m sure some people say they don’t. I think deep down inside everyone would like to be recognized by the folks that they work with. I think it’s a great honor.
Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected]