The Eagle who soared with Steely Dan
A conversation with Timothy B. Schmit
With the announcement yesterday that an Eagles–Steely Dan tour is upon us, my thoughts immediately went to the corporal connective tissue between the two groups: Timothy B. Schmit. Before he was anointed as the bass player of the Eagles in 1977, he had been a loyal soldier in the Steely Dan recording corps, serving for a few years as a go-to backing vocalist. If there is anyone who understands both the backstreets of Barrytown and the corridors of Hotel California, so to speak, it’s Timothy B. Schmit. (The only other person would be Irving “Big Shorty” Azoff,1 the longtime manager of both groups and undoubtedly the capitalist mastermind behind the upcoming tour.)
One day in the early ’70s, Schmit walked into the office of Steely Dan producer Gary Katz. He had been an admirer of the songs of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen since Can’t Buy a Thrill, and expressed interest in working for Katz in any capacity. Schmit had joined the country-rock group Poco following the abrupt departure of bassist Randy Meisner; several years later, incredibly, he would again succeed Meisner, this time after Meisner’s less-than-cheerful exit from the Eagles. “Tim played me some music, and I said, ‘Wow, you’re great,’” Katz told me. “So he soon became a regular background singer who I would call.”
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Schmit would make his Steely Dan debut on 1974’s Pretzel Logic. He quickly became the long-haired Major Dude they relied on to add harmonic punch to Fagen’s voice, sending refrains soaring skyward—and, shortly thereafter, through radios around the world. If you’ve ever sung along with the chorus of “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” the Dan’s highest-charting single, you’ve harmonized with Timothy B. Schmit. He was absent from Katy Lied—presumably because Michael McDonald and his magic larynx had entered the fold—but returned for both The Royal Scam and Aja.
Contrary to popular belief, Schmit is the lone Eagle you hear on “FM (No Static at All),” the song Becker and Fagen penned for the 1978 film FM. According to both Schmit and Katz, Glenn Frey and Don Henley do not sing on the track. “Henley never sang background vocals on any Steely Dan song,” Katz told me. And he would know—not only did Katz produce “FM,” he also was left with the awkward task of firing Henley from “Peg,” after the “Desperado” singer failed to deliver a vocal that pleased Becker and Fagen. They also tried Schmit on “Peg” before ultimately bringing in McDonald, who famously nailed the tight multipart harmony.
Following yesterday’s tour news, I revisited my interview with Schmit from last year, a couple snippets of which appeared in “Dirty Work,” my oral history of recording with Steely Dan. When I reached him over the phone, he was in the midst of a leg of the Hotel California Tour alongside Don Henley, Joe Walsh, and Vince Gill. While he seemed excited to talk about anything other than the Eagles’ mega-selling 1976 album, it was clear he still has a deep and earnest affection for the work he did with Fagen and Becker. We discussed the perceived rivalry between Steely Dan and the Eagles (who Fagen once called “the white Drifters”), their lyrical sparring, his perspective on Lebowski-style Eagles haters, and more. (Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)