The Mystery Man of Steely Dan: An Interview with Singer David Palmer

david palmer_today

In 1971, David Palmer was working in a plastics factory in his home state of New Jersey. He’d recently left the rock band he’d sung with, the Myddle Class. For a few years in the mid-1960s, the Myddle Class were one of the most scintillating club groups in greater New York City. They were also on the same label and publishing company as ex-Brill Building songwriting team (Gerry) Goffin and (Carole) King.

Then, out of the blue, Palmer got a phone call. It was from an old friend, a guitarist named Jeff “Skunk” Baxter. Baxter told him that a new band was forming out in Los Angeles. They were looking for a singer. Would he be interested in auditioning?

Palmer flew out to L.A., sang at the audition, and was eventually hired.  The group’s name was Steely Dan (Baxter was lead guitarist through the first three albums, then joined the Doobie Brothers). The leaders and songwriters were Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. These two would soon be the sole members of Steely Dan, and they enjoyed enormous success, racking up hit singles and albums through the 1970s, as well as critical adulation and hall of fame induction. They’re still active today.

But what about Palmer? After only one album with Steely Dan [Can’t Buy a Thrill, on which he sang lead on two songs: “Dirty Work” (click here) and “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me),”] he dropped out of sight.

can't buy a thrill

I love good rock ‘n’ roll and have always been intrigued by footnotes, and Palmer seemed like the perfect rock footnote. So I decided to track him down. I soon located him, running his own digital photography business in California. I was pleasantly surprised when he agreed to a short interview.

In researching, I learned that, in addition to Steely Dan, Palmer crossed paths with some of the greatest names in popular music: Carole King and Gerry Goffin, of course, and also James Taylor, the Blues Project, and even the Velvet Underground.

I figured Palmer was very busy with his work in visual arts, and I assumed he distanced himself from music for a reason. So I kept my questions rudimentary and brief. Although his answers were also brief, I think they’re still real informative. So here’s my interview with a guy who, like Forrest Gump, seemed to always be at the right place at the right time.

steely dan_cropped

Early publicity photo of Steely Dan. L to R: “Skunk” Baxter, Walter Becker, David Palmer, Denny Dias, Donald Fagen, Jim Hodder

longitudes: You were an original member of Steely Dan, singing lead on “Dirty Work” and “Brooklyn,” as well as contributing harmony vocals on several other songs (and singing lead when the band toured).  What were Donald Fagen and Walter Becker like to work with?  Were they as demanding and perfectionist in the beginning as they supposedly were later on?

Palmer: Donald and Walter were The Dan. The rest of us were fortunate to be there. Brilliant writers both, and yes, demanding, but the result is on the record.

longitudes: Before joining Steely Dan, you were in a popular Jersey-NYC band called the Myddle Class. On December 11, 1965, you headlined an infamous show at Summit (New Jersey) High School, and your opening act was the Velvet Underground. It was their first gig under that name (occurring only a few weeks before the Velvets joined Andy Warhol).  Do you have any memories of that show, including meeting Lou Reed or the other Velvets?

TheMyddleClass_011-800x398

The Myddle Class.  L to R: Danny Mansolino, Dave Palmer, Rick Philp, Charles Larkey, Myke Rosa (image copyright Brett Aronowitz)

Palmer: No memories, really. I was only 19 and it wasn’t really a big deal to us. But that gig has become an urban legend of sorts, and you could probably fill Madison Square Garden with the amount of folks who claim to have been there that night!

longitudes: The Myddle Class did a classic garage-band rave-up, “Don’t Let Me Sleep Too Long” (click here), which Al Kooper and the Blues Project included on their album Projections (under the title “Wake Me, Shake Me”).  Your version is tremendously more exciting.  The song is derived from an old gospel tune.  Who originally adapted it, the Myddle Class or the Blues Project, and how close were you to the Project and/or other New York-based bands?

Palmer: We definitely stole it from the Blues Project, who stole it from Public Domain. We actually had a run-in with (Blues Project guitarist) Danny Kalb at Palisades Park when we opened for what was left of the Project. I think what really pissed him off was that (Myddle Class guitarist) Rick Philp played a much better solo on our record than (Kalb) had on theirs!

Someone once sent me a version of that tune that Springsteen recorded with one of his early bands…very cool. We weren’t close to the Project at all. We were closer to Kootch (guitarist/songwriter/producer Danny Kortchmar) and The Flying Machine, when James (Taylor) was in the band.myddle class poster_cropped

longitudes: Your vocals on the Myddle Class songs “I Happen to Love You” and “Don’t Let Me Sleep Too Long” have that archetypical sneering, teen rebel sound so prevalent in mid-60s urban bands.  It’s hard to reconcile this with the sweet-sounding guy who later sang with the Dan.  Was this a difficult vocal transition, or did it come naturally?

Palmer: Actually, I’ve always had a split personality with vocals. But the sweetness was what I believed was called for on the Dan tunes. However, if you go to my website www.davidpalmerimages.com and click on The Lost Demos section, you’ll hear me morph again!

longitudes: The Myddle Class were managed by music critic Al Aronowitz, the man who introduced Bob Dylan to the Beatles.  He also wrote a classic article about the hit songwriting team of Goffin-King.  You eventually became close friends with Carole King, later co-wrote an entire album with her, Wrap Around Joy, and Carole married Myddle Class bassist Charles Larkey.  Are you in touch with Carole these days, or with any surviving members of Myddle Class?

wrap around joy

Carole King’s 1974 LP Wrap Around Joy, co-written by Palmer

Palmer: Carole is extremely busy with the Clinton campaign, I believe. The last time I spoke to her was to offer condolences on the death of Gerry Goffin. Before that, it was to thank her for the shout-out she gave me at the Gershwin Awards for having co-written “Jazzman.”

I was close to Myke Rosa, Myddle Class drummer, for many years until his passing.

longitudes: Speaking of “Jazzman” (click here), the melody for that 1974 hit is real similar to Carole’s earlier breakout solo hit “It’s Too Late,” but it’s got some very smooth saxophone by Tom Scott. Do you know if Carole was consciously trying to replicate “It’s Too Late”?  Also, were you thinking of any particular jazz artist when you penned the words?

Palmer: Since Carole was so prolific, I doubt if she was even aware of sounding like earlier tunes. I mean it’s hard not to “resemble” yourself when it’s your style. And, yes, (John) Coltrane was the inspiration (for the song).

longitudes: In the late 1970s you joined a soft-rock band called Wha-Koo, which made three albums.  Can you please comment on that experience?

Palmer: Danny Douma and I put that band together. I loved the way he wrote, and I wasn’t too sure of what it was I was trying to do until much later. But I think some great tunes came out of that band, but things were changing, and we just missed the rising tide.

longitudes: After Wha-Koo broke up, what were your activities before becoming an artist/photographer?

Palmer: I stayed in the music biz far past my expiration date – as a writer, basically. Once again, I refer you to The Lost Demos on my website.

longitudes: You’re now a successful digital photographer.  Why did you leave music, and how did you get involved with photography?

Palmer: I woke up one day and, literally, couldn’t write, and knew it was over. And yet I also knew I needed a way to be creative. I fell in love with the process of creating images – from the initial camera work to the post in Photoshop. There seemed to be no limitation. And I didn’t have to ask the band what they thought!

longitudes: Thank you for your time, David.

Palmer: You’re welcome.

myddle class poster 2

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32 thoughts on “The Mystery Man of Steely Dan: An Interview with Singer David Palmer

  1. Great read Peter. Steely Dan is among the “lost music of my 70s” when we spent more time on kids than music. I have packed my iPod with them since then.
    The serendipitous discovery here in your interview is Blues Project which I snapped up back in ’67. My best buddy grabbed it later and I had to replace it off eBay. Best cut: “Flute Thing”.
    Thanks for writing!

    • You’re welcome, Phil. Yeah, “Flute Thing.” Didn’t that song kind of foreshadow the jazz-related work of Blood, Sweat and Tears? Interestingly, Steve Katz is now touring, and appeared at the same venue here just before our man Tom Rush. Hey, it’s great sharing musical memories with people like yourself…thanks for commenting!

  2. Thanks for posting your interview with David. I was friends with members of The Myddle Class;Charlie Larkey and I met in high school,and Michael Rosa and I were friends from early childhood up until his passing.Those years were a wonderful time to receive a musical education in the clubs of Greenwich Village and other parts of NYC.
    The Blues revival was happening and the greats were in The City. The powerful Muddy Waters Band,John Lee Hooker,Otis Spann,Paul Butterfield Band ,etc.,also the Folk scene was still going on. So now you had Tom Rush,David Bromberg,Buffy Ste Marie,Jesse Colin Young,Richie Havens ,Jose Feliciano,Happy & Artie Traum ,et al.
    Last but not least were the young bands from the tri state area all tryin’ to make it happen.

    A great time was had by all.

    • Thanks for your comment, Daniel. It’s great to get an “insider’s” view of the ’60s NYC music scene, from someone who knew David and the other Myddle Class members. Maybe I’m wrong, but the early Dylan, folk scene in Greenwich Village is fondly remembered, while music historians seem to under-represent all the exciting blues, jazz, rock and pop that was happening. Then starting around ’66 or ’67, the attention focuses mainly on the West Coast and London. I don’t know if there’s a good book out there about that time and place, but if not, it needs to be written. Thanks again!

      P.S. You mentioned Tom Rush. My wife and I recently saw him perform here, and I got to chat with him at intermission. Not only is his music still great, but he’s a really nice, humble guy as well.

      • Track down the book “Bob Dylan meets the Beatles” by Al Aronowitz. You can try for it on Amazon. You might try googling “The Blacklisted Journalist”. Lots of deep background and great stories. Or just look up Al Aronowitz.

      • I’ll seek out those books, thanks. I learned about Aronowitz years ago while reading the Velvets bio “Up-Tight.” There’s an interesting story in there (maybe it’s also in “The blacklisted Journalist”) about John Cale meeting Aronowitz, Brian Jones, and (supposedly) Carole King in a limo on Ludlow Street. What a lineup, and what an era!

      • Peter, my wife( girlfriend at the time )first saw Tom Rush at Fairleigh Dickinson University in 1969. He was backed by an electric guitar ,Duke somethin’ or other,bass and drummer. The additional instrumentation really added a nice effect.
        Just recently we were fortunate enough to see him two more times,here in Fort Lauderdale in a familiar acoustic setting. I agree with your assessment;2 great shows.

  3. Here’s some more background about Palmer and the Myddle Class after 50+ yrs.

    In 1965 there were 5 high school guys from the Watchung Hills area, who had a kick ass blues band. I was their friend and first “road manager” , doing promotion and other roadie stuff. They called themselves the King Bees and they were Mike Rosa on drums, Dan Manselino keyboards, Rick Philps Guitar, Charlie Larkey Bass and Dave Palmer vocals.
    In the spring of that year, Al Aronowitz, the great pop culture writer for the Saturday evening post, became the band’s manager. Gerry Goffin and Carole King started writing songs for the group and began producing records for them. The band was re-named the Myddle Class and their star began a meteoric rise.
    In the summer they started playing some of the clubs in the Village. At several other events where the Myddle Class appeared, riots broke out. They were getting lots of important press and a reputation as “bad boys”. This is where Aronowitz wanted things to go.
    By the winter of 66 the MC got a long term gig at the Cafe a-go-go down in the Village. They were on the bill with the Blues Project and Richie Havens. Both had bigger names than the MC but Aronowitz told them to do their thing and make some noise. The boys turned up the amps and blew everybody away with their take no prisoners style. The New York press was proclaiming them the Loudest band in NYC!
    It’s important to note here that when you wanted to hear good live music like the blues, or jazz or what was happening in the popular field, you went downtown NYC. Uptown there was only Disco, dance music and clubs. In the spring of 66, For some reason or other Aronowitz got the Myddle Class booked into the most popular Disco in NYC, called Scott Muni’s Rolling Stone Discothèque . Again the press was talking about the MC and how would the disco crowd handle these “bad boys” from down town. Would they even be able to dance to their music. I think it took only one note from the opening song for everyone to realize that this was going to be a great relationship. The Myddle Class was accepted.
    The group was always looking for new material and at some point I leant Rick, the lead guitarist, my copy of an album by Lonnie Mack, a blues guitarist and singer. He pulled out a number called,”Where ever there’s will there’s a way”, a gospel of all things. Certainly not a dance song.
    The band introduced the song and things were going along fine until the end of the song when Dave, the lead singer, started to testify. He was testifying about everything from wishing he owned your dog to the sin of wearing bermuda shorts on Sundays and everything in between.
    Suddenly everything stopped. Not something that happens in a disco. The dancing stopped. The drinking stopped. The crowd moved towards the stage. Everyone was “Amen”-ing and shouting and pounding the floors and walls. Dave kept it up and the crowd took all he could give. When he was done the place went wild!
    News of Dave’s performance spread though the clubs and crowds increased every night, just to see and hear this incredible performance. The news reached all the way to Brooklyn where Murray the K was having his Easter show at the Brooklyn Fox theatre. Most particularly the news reached Mitch Ryder. He and his band the Detroit Wheels had had a few recent hits.
    So, one night Mitch Ryder and his bass player and drummer from the Wheels came into the club to see the show. For some reason they ended up sitting at my table, probably because I had the only empty chairs in the place. Dave’s performance caused it’s usual effect being spot on amazing. After blowing Ryder and his boys away, Mitch got up saying he had to split. He leaned over to the bassplayer and said, “he don’t sound as “colored” as me.” Then he left. The bass player stayed the rest of the night.
    I asked him what was that comment about. He told me that Mitch had heard that Dave sounded more “colored” than he did and he was actually concerned about it.
    That was the power of the Myddle Class. 
    I hope you enjoyed this tale. I wish there was a recording of the Myddle Class doing it. Now that would be something.

     

    • Thom, I sure did enjoy this. I wish there was a recording, too. Wow. Dave’s getting up and “testifying,” with the news reaching Murray the K, Mitch Ryder and others, adds a new dimension to the Myddle Class bio. They sound reminiscent of Detroit’s MC5, but without the radical politics. Wish I could’ve been there! (I was born in Montclair and lived in Florham Park, NJ, but was way too young, and we left for the Midwest early on). Since I’m not a native New Yorker, I’m curious about “uptown” versus “downtown.” Assume downtown is the Village area, and uptown is closer to Harlem/The Bronx?

      Thanks for sharing this great story!

      • uptown here is really midtown like 42nd to the 50s. The MyddleClass were really acomplished musicians. MC5 were ok. loud and lots of attitude.

  4. Cool piece. I always like it when bands use different voices. Back in the day when people like David departed bands they were hard to track down even if they went on in music. Good to see he fell into something on the creative side. I love his last quote about “creating images”. I can relate to that. Also asking “the band what they thought”. Tells a tale. CB really digs Steely Dan. Yeah regular over here also.

  5. Thank you for being so meticulous. I am a Dan fan and have often wondered about Palmer. Your knowledge and affection for the material shines through.

  6. A couple of things:

    1. Thanks for following my blog. I’ve reciprocated as yours looks interesting.
    2. I have never heard of the Myddle Class or any of these stories. Big gap in my knowledge, thanks.
    3. David Palmer. What a great idea. One of those “where are they now” stories.
    4. But I gotta ask this – you say you “decided to track him down” and “he agreed to be interviewed.” Ok. How does THAT happen? Your blog, like mine, is somewhat of a boutique. We’re not Pitchfork or Consequence of Sound much less Rolling Stone. Putting aside how you track him down, how do you convince him to sit for an interview?
    5. My understanding is that his leaving the Dan may not have been, um, amicable. Or that they just didn’t like his singing. Did that come up or did he ask you not to go into that? Just curious because it’s pretty well-known.

    • Hi Jim, thanks for following (I saw you on CB’s blog, and liked your comments…we have much in common). To answer your questions: Palmer’s departure from SD was, from my understanding, amicable. Fagen grew more confident with his vocals – and they stopped touring – so they didn’t require his services anymore. Palmer actually sang backup vocals on the 2nd LP, “Countdown to Ecstasy.” He was very complimentary of both guys (he sued for royalties a few years ago, but I think it was directed more at the publishing company than Becker or Fagen).

      As far as “tracking him down,” I just Googled his name one night, came upon his digital art business, then emailed him. The “interview” was merely an emailed set of questions I sent him. I didn’t get a response for a long time, and gave up, but months later he finally responded. I’ve done interviews with other name musicians (phone and paper). His was the easiest because, like you said, “longitudes” is just a boutique blog that I do for my own kicks. The trick, I think, is getting a direct email. I’ve tried contacting a few folks via their websites, but I never get a response. I guess the “webmaster” throws my query in the trash can!

      Thanks again, and look forward to reading your blog.

      • Huh! Well, I’m glad to hear Palmer’s departure was amicable. So many bands have horror stories I guess they’re just too easy to believe. In fact, I did a series on the Dan and in it I say he was “asked to leave.” It makes it sound more ominous than it really was. I like his voice, especially on “Dirty Work.” Such a great tune. You can’t not sing along.

        As far as your interview though, that’s pretty good. Got me to thinking about whether or not I could chase a few guys down. I don’t really have anybody in mind and it’s not really a burning passion. But it is potentially another avenue to pursue. Come to think of it, I tracked down a woman who worked for Michael Lang at Woodstock. She was willing to be interviewed for my series on same. But she was so erratic about reading email that by the time she got around to it, I’d long since published the articles.

        As to Myddle Class, in the intervening time I read up on them in Wikipedia. Boy, how did I miss them? Carole King. Palmer. Al Aronowtiz. Velvet Underground. They sure had the right dance partners. I even lived in NY in the late ’60’s, early ’70’s and never heard the name. And all my friends were music junkies. I bet if I went back to one or two of my friends from there it’d ring a bell.

  7. “Don’t Let Me Sleep Too Long” and “I Happen to Love You” are both on compilations accessible on Spotify. I’m flabbergasted the Myddle Class doesn’t get more attention, even by garage band fanatics. I’m not sure they were ever included on one of those “Nuggets” or “Pebbles” compilations. Maybe the fact they never cut an album worked against their being appreciated more. Both songs, I think, are incredible, especially if you love ’60s music.

    • Yes, that was a shock. He had a lower profile than Fagen, not being a singer, but evidently they were equally important to the songs. It’d be nice to one day get specifics on who wrote what. I have China Crisis’ “Flaunt the Imperfection,” that Becker produced, and his skills are all over that record.

  8. Nice interview, Pete, and as previously stated, what a great idea to track down David Palmer. I was introduced to Steely Dan in the 70’s through one of my older brothers and have been a huge fan ever since….have every “album” and have seen them 3-4 times along with the Rock & Soul Revue. I was just watching them on YouTube earlier today performing Do It Again on the Midnight Special and I thought “What the heck ever happened to David Palmer”? When I Googled it, your blog was one of the first links. Thanks for clearing it up! BTW, RIP Walter Becker. I was devastated when I heard that he had passed away.

    • Thanks for the compliment, Neal. I was about 14 or 15 when I heard “Rikki” on AM radio. Then a few years later graduated to free-form rock radio and realized there was a lot more to this band. Like you, I saw Fagen’s NY Rock & Soul Revue, and soon after the first Dan reunion tour (early 90s?). But those first six albums are the bedrock, and there’s nary a bad song on any of them, which is quite an achievement.

  9. Just ran across your blog…enjoyed it.
    We appear to be of a “certain age”, Fillmore East, Zappa, Cream, etc.
    Tabbed you into my favorites.
    I’ll be back 🙂
    rob

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