Everybody, everybody’s dog, and everybody’s dog’s water bowl has tried their hand at recording Leiber & Stoller’s “Ruby Baby.” The Drifters got it first, but the last will be many, many years from now — presumably when the sun explodes or humans evolve past the necessity for hearing.
But as Will Collier reminded me the other day, L&S’s favorite recording of their song was the one Donald Fagen made for his 1982 debut solo album, The Nightfly. There’s a little piano solo, about 35 seconds long, that caught my ear the very first time I heard it. It sounds like a sax solo, except on a piano — if that makes any sense at all, which it doesn’t. It comes in at the 1:49 mark, so give it a listen before you read the rest. There’s this laid-back, jazzy groove, and something else that I could never quite put my finger on. Hit play now and hear what I mean.
Fagen’s album credits were almost as cryptic as a Steely Dan lyric, so I never knew if the solo was Michael Omartian or Greg Phillinganes, each of whom received a piano credit.
Would you believe… both?
The recording sessions had turned into a real headache, in part because Fagen was using a brand-new 32-track digital recording system. The rest is a little more complicated:
While attempting a solo on “Ruby Baby”, Omartian was told by Fagen that he wanted isolation between the right and left hand parts. It was not to Fagen’s liking that the placement of the chords in the right hand were coming down simultaneously with that of the left. He was looking for a left-handed playing style that was more casual than that of the right. This meant that Omartian was to play his left hand as if he was playing his right as well, an incredibly difficult task. Anyone who’s ever played piano can tell you that the right hand plays off the left and vice versa.
“I tell you there’s no piano player on the face of the earth who can accommodate that,” Omartian protested. Fagen eventually recruited Greg Phillinganes to sit with Omartian, each musician playing a different part to achieve the effect Fagen was looking for.
There’s a real-world case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing.
And that two-man piano solo, that impossible thing, that’s what still catches my ear, every time, thirty years later.