Jeff 'Skunk' Baxter talks tour, debut solo album & hall of fame career

MARSHALL TWP. - He played guitar in Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers, served as the tour guitarist for James Brown, and added his six-strings skills to such famed recordings as Dolly Parton's "9 to 5" and Donna Summers' "Hot Stuff."

Jeff "Skunk" Baxter's resume reads like a who's who of legendary musicians ― oh, and his side gig is as a U.S. defense missile advisor ― so it's cool to see as his 74th birthday approaches, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer still keeps scaling challenging new peaks.

This past June, Baxter released his debut solo album, "Speed of Heat," a highly enjoyable collection of originals featuring A-list guests (Michael McDonald, Clint Black, Jonny Lang) and reimagined versions of classics, including two Steely Dan hits ― "Do It Again" given a space-jazz sheen, and a high-octane “My Old School” with Baxter on lead vocals.

When's the last time Baxter sang lead vocals on a recording?

"That would have been the Paleozoic era, right before the dinosaurs," Baxter quipped in a phone interview publicizing his album and tour that includes a Dec. 18 stop at Jergel's Rhythm Grille in Marshall Township. Tickets are $25-$35 at jergels.com

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Jeff "Skunk" Baxter has a tour date at Jergel's Rhythm Grille.
Jeff "Skunk" Baxter has a tour date at Jergel's Rhythm Grille.

Baxter's tour band includes bassist Hank Horton ― "he plays bass with the Detroit Symphony, so he's no slouch," ― drummer Mark Damian "who's also a fabulous lead singer" ― and keyboardist CJ Vanston, "just an amazing composer, producer and player."

Vanston is the chief collaborator with Baxter on the "Speed of Heat" album.

"We had been playing together, writing together and sooner or later it got to the point where we were ― as they say ― filling up the penny jar," Baxter said. "So, it was time we rolled them up and took them to the bank."

Baxter initially thought his solo album would be all-instrumental, until a chance encounter with his old friend and bandmate Michael McDonald.

"He asked what I was up to. I said, 'Oh, I don't know, I'm trying to put together a solo record,'" Baxter said.

McDonald, the golden-voiced singer of Doobie Brothers hits "What a Fool Believes" and "Taking It to The Streets," told Baxter he'd be happy to sing on that record.

"I thought about that offer for about one-tenth of a second before I said yes," Baxter said.

Though Baxter had two stipulations for all his guest musicians:

"The only criteria was you have to help write an original song and you have to be willing to try something out of your wheelhouse," Baxter said.

Black sings on the Glenn Frey-ish "Bad Move."

"Even Clint's wife was like who is that on there?" Baxter said.

McDonald collaborated on the gripping ballad, “My Place in the Sun.”

Baxter said, “I really enjoyed crafting this track because I knew that Michael always thrived on call and response, so I thought a little bit about how Rod Stewart and Jeff Beck worked together and wanted to do something in that vein with Mike and it think it came off exceptionally well. You can really feel the chemistry between us on that track.”

Baxter was the guy who brought McDonald into the already successful Doobie Brothers in 1975, after the band's co-founder Tom Johnston had suffered a gastro-intestinal illness that required hospitalization.

"It was right before we were supposed to play a show at Louisiana State's stadium for 50,000 people. I went out on stage and told everyone 'If you want, we'll give you your money back, or if you give us a week, we'll put on a show.' Nobody turned in their tickets."

Baxter quickly recruited McDonald, whom he had worked with in Steely Dan.

"We rehearsed with him for 10 to 12-hours a day, then went out and played the show and ended up getting five encores," Baxter said. "So at that point, we said, OK, this was probably a good decision."

The rest is history.

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Jeff "Skunk" Baxter has a new solo album and tour headed here.
Jeff "Skunk" Baxter has a new solo album and tour headed here.

Baxter shares stories like that during concerts.

"That's half the fun," he said. "We'll be performing the record with a couple of added surprises and a lot of stories that go with it."

As a storyteller, he easily can switch gears from describing his tour dates with The Godfather of Soul, James Brown ("He was dynamic ... amazing ... I had so much respect for him because I grew up listening to his songs") to recording with Dolly Parton on the smash-hit single "9 to 5" ("I had a chart, but she also wanted me to interpret it a little... they picked me because I had been playing a lot of country, including shows at The Palomino with Linda Ronstadt.")

Music geeks might be most impressed that Baxter was a founding member of Steely Dan and played guitar on the jazzy rock group's highly acclaimed albums, "Can't Buy a Thrill," "Countdown to Ecstasy" and "Pretzel Logic," bearing songs like "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" and "My Old School."

Yes, Steely Dan's two leaders and lyricists were meticulous in the studio, as legend says, though Baxter, a quick learner, doesn't recall any horror stories of all-night recording sessions with innumerable retakes.

"Certainly, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were, to a point, perfectionists, but I'm a studio guy, and that's where you start. So that wasn't really a problem for me," Baxter said.

Baxter left Steely Dan in 1974, when Becker and Fagan decided to stop touring. Those years the band had been on the road (before a 1990s comeback), Baxter would sing "My Old School" live, "and it got a little more energetic every time."

A muscled-up "My Old School" was an obvious pick for Baxter's solo album, so he recorded a rough demo and sent it to his friend Steven Tyler, offering the Aerosmith frontman the lead vocal part.

“But then once he heard it, Steven asked me, ‘Hey, who’s singing on this?’ I told him it was me, and he said, ‘Well, it’s really great. You should do it yourself.’ I said 'Are you serious?' He said 'Yes, you absolutely should do this.' So, I took a shot," Baxter said, "and the reaction has been very positive.”

Jeff "Skunk" Baxter has a new album and tour bound for here.
Jeff "Skunk" Baxter has a new album and tour bound for here.

For guitar fanatics, album highlights include Baxter's spaghetti western romp through "Apache," the oft-sampled 1960 instrumental ("That's one of the first songs I learned"), a lovely rendering of Bette Midler "The Rose" dedicated to his father, and the appropriately titled "Speed of Heat" title track.

"Speed of Heat" is a scientific reference to a very, very fast speed More specifically, Baxter can tell you the speed of heat radiation is 3×108m/s.

Baxter's fascination with missile science and his intricate studies of the subject led the Washington, D.C., native to be named chairman of both a U.S. Congressional Advisory Board on missile defense and the Civilian Advisory Board for Ballistic Missile Defense at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies., as well as a consultant for the Global Security Sector of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

His missile studies began in the 1990s while consulting musical instrument companies at the onset of digital recording going commercial. To learn more about that technology, he read national defense articles and ended up writing a paper on the topic, drawing on similarities. Soon after, he was advising generals at the Pentagon.

Though that's a whole other story.

Any tales Baxter shares from the concert stage at Jergel's will most likely deal with his incredible music career.

This mini-Midwest jaunt is the third leg of the tour that's already played on the West Coast and in Japan. Fans who've missed his shows have regretted it.

"I've taken calls from folks saying, 'Why didn't you say this would be that good of a show,'" Baxter said. "I want to tell them, 'What, did you think, we'll be just average?'"

When he's off the road, Baxter, whose birthday is Dec. 13, can start thinking more about the autobiography he plans to write. Maybe that's where he finally will reveal publicly how he earned the nickname "Skunk."

"I've got to save some secrets for my book."

Scott Tady is entertainment editor at The Times and easy to reach at stady@timesonline.com.

This article originally appeared on Beaver County Times: Jeff 'Skunk' Baxter talks tour, debut solo album & hall of fame career