Steely Dan's Aja is one of the finest albums of the 1970s and easily one of the group's most exotic and captivating works. The title track has always been particularly special, since it features an extended robust solo by tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter [pictured]. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker specifically wanted Shorter, but he almost wasn't on the album. More on how that came to be in a moment.
New subject: Dick LaPalm is one of the greatest living legends of the record business. He worked with Nat King Cole in the '50s up until the singer's death in 1965 to promote his Capitol records. Dick's many clients during this period included Sarah Vaughan, Woody Herman, Peggy Lee, Mel Torme and the Modern Jazz Quartet. Dick also worked as a jazz consultant to Chess Records before joining the Chicago label fulltime in the '60s. In the '70s, Dick ran the Village Recorder, one of Los Angeles' finest recording studios where many rock albums of the era were made.
Rather than let any cats out of the bag, let me have Dick take over from here:
"I first met Donald Fagen and Walter Becker through Gary Katz, Steely Dan's producer. He had run Bobby Darin’s music publishing company in New York when I was there working with Nat as his record promoter and partner in his company, KC Records.
"After Nat died in February 1965, I worked for Chess Records in Chicago in the '60s. But when the label was sold in 1969 to GRT [General Recorded Tape], I quickly realized I wasn’t happy. The new owner was focusing more and more on its 8-track and cassette tape formats rather than the music itself. Today, it's easy to forget how radical those formats were when they first came out. They were the iTunes or iPod of their day. For the first time, you could travel around with your music in cars and on headsets.
"But GRT wasn’t for me, and I soon handed in my letter of resignation. Afterward, I called Mike Maitland [pictured], president of Warner Bros. Records. Mike asked me to come to L.A. to meet with him. When we met, Mike talked about me joining the company. We talked about everything except salary. When he finally got around to asking me what I wanted, I told him. But we couldn’t come to terms. I finally said I’d think about his offer.
"When I left Mike’s office, I called Geordie Hormel [pictured], an old friend since 1952. Geordie was the grandson of George Hormel, who had founded the giant meatpacking company. Geordie was a musician and owner of a recording studio in L.A. called the Village Recorder. Geordie said on the phone, “Why don’t you come over to the house.” When I arrived, I told him about the Warner Bros. offer and that I was considering it.
"Geordie then drove me over to the Village Recorder [pictured], which he had started in 1968. Geordie took me on a tour. He said the studio was state of the art, with Dolby systems no one else in town had. I told him, 'I know music and how to move records but virtually nothing about Dolby or recording studios.'
"Geordie said that didn’t matter and asked if I would be interested in running the Village Recorder. Again, I told him, 'Geordie, I don’t’ know anything about studios.' He said, 'Yeah, but you know everyone in the record business and that matters for what you’ll need to do here.'
"So I took the job as general manager. The first group I brought in to record was Steely Dan in August 1972. One day, just before Donald and Walter had started to record Can't Buy a Thrill, their first album, I was in the studio talking to Gary [Katz], telling him a story that involved legendary disc jockey Mort Fega.
"All of a sudden, Donald turns around and says, 'You know Mort Fega?' Donald and Walter apparently knew all about him. They had grown up listening to Fega and were huge fans. We all talked at length, and I couldn’t believe the depth of Donald and Walter’s knowledge of jazz.
"In the years that followed, all went well with the Village Recorder. We had all the major rock groups of the day in to record—including the Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac and Supertramp. Then in 1977, Donald and Walter were in to record Aja.
"During the session, I was in my office sitting at my desk one day when Gary came up. He said, 'Dick, are you still tight with Wayne Shorter?' I told him that I was and that Wayne and I had spoken just a few weeks earlier.
"Gary said, 'Well Donald and Walter need a favor. They want Wayne to do the solo on the title track. Will you call him? They’d appreciate it so much.' I said, 'Sure, Gary, happy to.' But on his way out of my office, Gary wheeled around and said, 'Oh, I guess I had better tell you that Wayne turned us down a couple of days ago.' Gary told me that Steve Diener, president of ABC Records, Steely Dan’s label, had called him.
After Gary left, thought about what he had said and realized that Steve must have called Wayne and proudly said something like, 'Wayne, will you do an overdub for Steely Dan?'
"Now from Wayne’s perspective, that’s like saying Iron Butterfly or the Purple Cabbage. It’s just another odd-named rock group to him, nothing special. Wayne didn’t realize who Steely Dan was and how good Donald and Walter were.
"So I picked up the phone and called Wayne. I had known him for years and loved his writing and playing. We chatted for a bit, and I said, 'Listen, are you available to come into the Village Recorder and do an overdub for me this week in Studio A?' That’s where we recorded all of our top acts.
"Wayne asked me who the group was. I said, 'I don’t remember. But you’re going to love the music.' He said, 'When? I said, 'You tell me.' He said, 'How’s Friday at 1 p.m.?' I said, 'Great.'
"So I walked down to the studio, Roger Nichols, Steely Dan’s engineer; Gary; Donald and Walter were in there. I said, 'Wayne will be here on Friday at 1 p.m.' That's when someone cracked, 'Yeah, sure he will.' Gary jumped in and said, 'Hey, Dick isn’t going to say Wayne is going to be here unless Wayne is going to be here.'
"That Friday, I walked down to Studio A. Donald was dressed in a starched striped shirt—white with blue stripes—pretty spiffy compared to the T-shirts he customarily wore in the studio.
"When Wayne arrived at the Village Recorder, I met him before Donald and Walter. Wayne asked if before he got started he could chant. I said, “Sure” and sent him into Studio C. When he was done, he came into Studio A.
"I introduced him around and then walked out. Wayne did his solos—six passes in all. He loved the music, and was gone in 35 minutes. The guys were sitting around watching, stunned. After he left, Donald and Walter spliced together the six passes, and that’s what you hear on the album. Donald and Walter couldn’t thank me enough.
"During the same recording session, the second engineer, Lenise Bent [pictured], came into my office. She said, 'Dick, I have to talk to you.' She put her head down on the desk in her arms and said, 'Well-the, well-the, well-the.' I said, 'What are you doing?'
Lenise looked up and said, 'Dick, I have to get off the Aja session. They worked on the words ‘well the’ for six hours last night. It's on Home at Last, for the the line, Well the danger on the rocks is surely past. All they did was work those two words for just the right sound for hours. I really have to get off the session.'
"I said, 'Look Lenise, if you want off, that’s no problem. I’ll get another second. But it will be the biggest mistake you will ever make. You’re going to have a credit on Aja, and the album is going to be huge.' So she stayed, and to this day she thanks me as a running joke [laughs]."
JazzWax clip: Here's Aja with Wayne Shorter's solo...