“Skunk” is the nickname of Jeff Baxter, a guitarist and producer who’s made a point of being different.
During the early 80’s, when I had the chance to work with him, he had already made a name for himself as a member of two of the biggest bands of the 70’s: Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers.
He grew his hair long, and wore a large walrus mustache. He wore a beret, and aviator glasses.
He had a distinctive style.
I appreciate “Skunk.” He was a bright guy, navigating the various realms of the music business with skill - always being more than just a guitarist. He had his own way of handling fame while maintaining his individual identity.
Billy Vera and The Beaters at The Roxy, 1981
front row: Keith Robertson, Jim Ehinger, Ron Viola, Beau Segal, Billy Vera, Jerry Peterson
back row: Bryan Cumming, George Marinelli, Jeff Baxter, Lon Price, Chuck Fiore
Jeff became part of the Billy & The Beaters scene by sitting in with us. That adventure started with a series of shows at the Troubador in Hollywood every Monday night that kept drawing larger crowds.
For us, it was always a fun musical occasion. For Billy, it was also a Hollywood social experience. Somehow what we were doing on those Monday nights at the Troubador gained an air of “hipness,” which became validated, in Hollywood terms, by having various celebrity musicians join us onstage. Rickie Lee Jones was one great example.
Billy cultivated those connections, making friends with actors and actresses as often as with musicians and songwriters. It was easy to do in those days, as actors and musicians are intersecting communities.
But Skunk was definitely a musician. He played guitar with us, then switched to steel guitar. That’s what you hear on “At This Moment.”
When we appeared on television, he wore a western style jacket, looking like a member of New Riders of the Purple Sage or something.
Here's a link to the youtube video of the band performing Billy's song "Millie, Make Some Chili."
In this video, you will see much younger versions of us. George Marinelli, who takes the guitar solo, is now a Nashville resident, making records of his own, between road trips playing for Bonnie Raitt. After 35 years of changes, I'm back to wearing a tie onstage, but the dark hair and mustache have turned light gray.
I remember Jeff from those Troubador days, sitting stage left, with the horn section, sharing with us his appreciation for jazz. He would play bits of “Green Dolphin Street” as a way of connecting with us, displaying his appreciation for the jazz language of chord motion.
Realizing he had been among Fagen and Becker playing on those early Steely Dan records gave me a whiff of how musicians learn from each other and pick up “cool stuff” - little inspirational treasures of music history, licks and theory that they hear along the way, which can become part of their sense of identity.
Skunk was definitely a skilled and creative guitarist, with a very creative approach to the instrument. One particular guitar he brought on stage with us was a clear lucite solid body guitar, based on the strat, but enhanced with custom pickups and other technical details that reflected his innate scientific curiosity.
Japan, Roland, & Guitar Technology
Skunk took that curiosity into a long and productive relationship with the Roland company, which was producing some major equipment at the time - guitar pedals (the Boss Chorus, made famous by Andrew Gold on Linda Rondstadt’s record "You’re No Good,”) guitar amps (JC 160, with built in stereo chorus), and keyboards (the Juno 106, heard on Ray Parker Jr.’s “Ghost Busters.”)
Skunk was already exploring the possibilities of MIDI pickups on guitars with the Roland research team. He liked telling us that the horn sounds we heard on a recent Doobie Brothers record were not played by keyboard synthesizers but on a guitar.
Roland is a Japanese company, and Skunk’s Japanese connections became a big part of our trip there in 1981. Billy ended up signing with Alfa, a Japanese label. I don’t know how much Skunk had to do with that deal, or getting us the chance to play the Tokyo Music Festival, but I know he had plenty of contacts in Japan, which helped us out while we were there. He was the only one of us who had been there before. The night we arrived he advised us to stay up late to fight jet lag.
Billy Vera and The Beaters in Tokyo, 1981, with three Japanese children joining us. "Skunk" on left.
Recording the first album was quite an adventure. It may have been Skunk who helped Billy decide to record it live, since the band had such a good live energy.
This involved a truck devoted to recording parked outside the Roxy, and spending all day running cables back and forth, to establish individual microphones for each of the ten members of the band, plus at least ten mics on Beau Segal’s drum kit.
It was a big night, and we were nervous, and we may have played too loud, and been out of tune.
But, thanks to recording technology, we could take the tracks from that night and work on them in the studio, which we did, replacing almost all the horn parts with studio versions that were more in tune. Of course, crucial parts of the night’s show could not (and should not) be replaced, especially Billy’s vocals, the drums, and the solos. But the horn parts were “fixable.”
It’s a little embarrassing to think that we spent all that time playing everything over, but that was considered a necessary part of making the album. Or at least Skunk convinced the record company that it was necessary, and they paid for it.
Every time we went into the studio to record the horn parts over, we got paid union scale, which amounted to several thousand dollars for each of us when those sessions were over.
Skunk let us know, in his own offhanded way, that he had done us a favor. It was impossible to know at the time how much.
I can testify now, thirty five years later, that the money I earned in those sessions that Skunk produced for that Beaters record contributed substantially to the pension fund that becomes the basis for calculating the monthly pension check I get from the Musicians Union. It also showed up in my Social Security records, boosting the income that would determine my “retirement” income. The records show that my earnings as a musician were (relatively) substantial in 1981, if in no other year before or since. But that bump in my earnings made a difference, and blesses me every month.
Thanks, Jeff, for your playing skills, and your wisdom that blessed us in our adventure.
Blogging Bryan 19September2018