Featured Album – Jeff “Skunk” Baxter – Speed of Heat

Even though Jeff Baxter doesn’t need any introduction to many rock folks, some may be less familiar with him. A little background on this unusual guitar god from his website:

Baxter joined his first band at age 11. In junior high school in Mexico City. He formed a surf band that hit the top 10 on radio in Mexico. While still a high school student, he worked at Jimmy’s Music Shop in Manhattan in 1965 and 1966.

At Jimmy’s, Baxter met guitarist Jimi James (later to become Jimi Hendrix), who was just beginning his career as a frontman and provided him with his first custom left-handed Fender Stratocaster. Baxter and Hendrix went on to become good friends.

After leaving Jimmy’s, Baxter moved on to Dan Armstrong’s guitar repair and custom shop, the mecca for guitar players in New York and around the United States. Moving to Boston to attend college, Baxter worked as a guitar technician and amplifier repairman at Jack’s Drum Shop on Boylston Street.

Skunk first reached a wide rock audience in 1968 as a member of the psychedelic rock band Ultimate Spinach. After leaving the band, he played with the Holy Modal Rounders, played bass for Tim Buckley, and joined the Buzzy Linhart band. While still in Boston, Baxter began establishing himself as a studio musician in both Boston and New York City.

After the breakup of Ultimate Spinach, Baxter relocated to Los Angeles, finding work as a session guitarist. In 1972 he became a founding member of  Steely Dan. Baxter appeared with Steely Dan on their first three albums, Can’t Buy a Thrill in 1972, Countdown to Ecstasy in 1973, and Pretzel Logic in 1974.

When Mr. Steely and Mr. Dan decided to use only studio musicians and stop touring, Skunk – as he now seems to like to be called – moved on to the Doobie Brothers.

Baxter has continued working as a session guitarist for a diverse group of artists including Willy DeVille, Bryan Adams, Hoyt Axton, Eric Clapton, Gene Clark, Sheryl Crow, Freddie Hubbard, Tim Weisberg, Joni Mitchell, Ricky Nelson, Dolly Parton, Carly Simon, Ringo Starr, Gene Simmons, Rod Stewart, Burton Cummings, Barbra Streisand, and Donna Summer. He has worked as a touring musician for Elton John and Linda Ronstadt.

The one thing Skunk hasn’t done – till now – is to release a solo album. In an interview in Glide Magazine, he said that he and his music partner CJ Vanston put their heads together and got it done. (I’m gonna guess he had Covid time on his hands as well.)

So how is it? Well, given that it’s Baxter you can assume tons of good guitar There’s some ripping stuff here but there’s also some middle-of-the-road stuff. A perfect example is the fact that he covers two Dan songs – “My Old School,” and “Do it Again.”

“School” is especially interesting because in the original, Jeff pulls off one of my all-time favorite solos, a solo he said he had created and found a song to play it on. This version is, somehow, ‘rockier’ than the original but I found the “Do it Again” to be too laid back. I didn’t even recognize it.

Of “My Old School,” he says, “I always felt that the song had a lot of rock potential,” the guitarist says. “That was my goal going in, to muscle it up.” And he sings!

I had almost forgotten about blues guitarist Jonny Lang as I haven’t heard from him for a while. He and Skunk sound mighty fine on this Lenny Kravitz-sounding “I Can Do Without.”

You may or may not know about Baxter’s Defense consulting job. “Baxter fell into his second profession almost by accident. In the mid-1980s, his interest in music recording technology led him to wonder about hardware and software originally developed for military use, specifically data compression algorithms and large-capacity storage devices.

He got a subscription to Aviation Week magazine, provoking his interest in additional military-oriented publications and missile defense systems in particular. He became self-taught in this area, and at one point wrote a five-page paper that proposed converting the ship-based anti-aircraft Aegis missile into a rudimentary missile defense system. He gave the paper to California Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, and his career as a defense consultant began.” He’s got all sorts of security clearances.

Here Jeff covers the song “The Rose” from the Bette Midler movie. Pure instrumental with some nice pedal steel:

One more for ya with country singer Clint Black. (Skunk is an incredibly versatile guy. If it surprises you he’s doing country, don’t be. He says Dolly Parton is his favorite person ever to work with.) It’s actually kinda hard to peg this as country. It’s more like high-tech pop with a funky beat:

BTW, Baxter is reticent to discuss his nickname. But I’ve read that he was peeing outside (maybe against a door), some bandmate opened the door and well, you can fill in the rest. The guy kept saying, “You skunk, you skunk!”

 

 

 

 

12 thoughts on “Featured Album – Jeff “Skunk” Baxter – Speed of Heat

  1. I was going to mention the defense stuff but you beat me to it. The album that Baxter played on where he met Fagen and Becker just got released last month (52 years after it was recorded….).

    He’s fine at singing on ‘My Old School’.

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    1. The whole Defense Department thing is so bizarre. I’ve known about that for a while. He has all sort of top security clearances.

      What album was just released? As to his singing, he’s actually been doing it for years but sees himself as a guitarist primarily and there was always somebody better. In his own words.

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        1. I Mean to Shine. So you must know that the dynamic duo wrote that for Streisand to sing and she recorded the first version of it. (I don’t have the slightest idea who Linda Hoover is.). This is back when Streisand’s label was trying to get her to seem “hip” to the Sixties generation which was literally impossible.

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        2. My reading was that Hoover recorded it first (in 1970), and once her LP was shelved they sold the song to Streisand to record (in 1971).

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  2. I’ve always loved the guitar solo on “My Old School”. It’s true it’s much more rock-oriented than the original Steely Dan song. I think Skunk Baxter’s new version works pretty well. He also does a credible job on vocals. Based on sampling some of the other tracks, the album does sound intriguing.

    Frankly, I only knew of Baxter’s Steely Dan connection. Somehow I had missed his membership in the Doobies! But I’m not surprised a guitarist of his caliber has also worked with so many other high-profile artists.

    Baxter’s Defense consulting is really strange. I suppose it must have been a lucrative and perhaps more stable second career than the volatile music business!

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    1. Yeah, I plan on learning that solo one day. It’s great. I think the original is basically a rock song but Baxter gave it a harder edge. And in the interview I read he admitted that he’s always sung, mostly backing vocals. But I agree, he’s good.

      He was with the Doobies starting
      with “What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits” all the way to the end of the Seventies. It was Skunk who brought Michael McDonald into the Doobies and who, BTW, sings on this album.

      Yeah, the whole Defense thing is so out of character for ANY rocker, especially a Sixties guy. If he had done that back then, trust me he would have been crucified. Thanks to the Vietnam War anybody even remotely connected with Defense was automatically the enemy in this country. To the anti-war crowd that is.

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      1. Baxter is definitely an amazing guitarist and also an interesting guy. It sounds like his entry into working for the Defense Department was more coincidental. Then he probably recognized it was lucrative and stuck with it.

        Interestingly, before starting his longtime career at Atlantic Records, Tom Dowd after being drafted into the military through his work at the physics laboratory at Columbia University became involved in the Manhattan Project.

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        1. Yeah, I recall that about Dowd, possibly in that documentary. There’s a fun memory. Agreed about Baxter. Totally fell into it, turns out he had a knack for digesting that data. And Brian May is an astrophysicist. Guitarists are smart!🤣

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