‘I was on the high of highs, and suddenly it was over’: Linda Hoover on her great lost LP with Steely Dan

At the age of 71, singer-songwriter Hoover is finally releasing her debut album – 50 years after she made it. She explains how Becker and Fagen lent a hand to a must-have record for Dan fans

Few wannabe pop stars release their debut album at the age of 71, especially one that was recorded more than half a century earlier. But Linda Hoover’s I Mean to Shine is no ordinary album. Not only does the backing group feature three future members of Steely Dan – Donald Fagen, Walter Becker and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter – it also includes five Becker-Fagen songs, all of them little-known and one of them never previously heard. This historic pop artefact has gathered dust for 52 years after her label boss withheld the release. “I was not emotionally prepared when I was told the album was being shelved, and I felt like it was my fault,” says Hoover today. “I knew nothing about the music business, or any business for that matter. I was rolling along on the high of highs and suddenly it was over.”

Back in the 1960s, Hoover was just a New Jersey kid with big dreams. A fixation with dance and acting gave way to pop. “During my high school years I wanted to sing like Barbra Streisand and look like Diana Ross,” she says. She won talent shows as a singer and guitar player, initially performing songs written by her brother Larry, though she was soon writing her own. After Larry came home from college in 1965, excitedly brandishing new albums, her musical horizons – and ambitions – broadened as Hoover discovered Dylan and Joni Mitchell’s “unique gift of writing musical poetry”.

A colleague of future Steely Dan svengali Gary Katz heard Hoover at a talent show and introduced them. Katz arranged a series of record company auditions: after five years of toil, in early 1970 Morris Levy at Roulette Records showed interest. To sweeten the deal, Katz promised him most of the publishing rights to the songs. Levy signed her. For the recording sessions, Katz turned to his friend Kenny Vance, who was selling work by a pair of young songwriters he managed: Becker and Fagen. Katz, Becker and Fagen began selecting songs for Hoover’s album. Five were theirs, and three were her own. A version of Stephen Stills’s 4+20, a song by the Band’s Richard Manuel and another by a friend of Vance completed the set.

Linda Hoover: I Mean to Shine – video

“My songs were usually inspired by something that happened in my teenage life,” says Hoover. “I was missing my mother and wrote Mama Tears.” Working with Becker and Fagen inspired her to “experiment with more interesting chords”, and of the Becker-Fagen compositions, her favourite was I Mean to Shine, a song about someone whose ambitions have caused her to split from her beau. “Donald and Walter had asked me about my aspirations the day we met for the first time, and then Donald came back with that song,” she says, though admits she’s uncertain about whether it was written for her.

Despite the curmudgeonly reputation the duo developed after they became famous, Hoover has only good memories of working with them. “Walter was a real character. He usually did most of the talking, and he was extremely bright. I thought he was hilarious. His wit and his flair for sarcasm were unequalled. Donald was more quiet but equally as bright, and, to this day, I believe that he is one of the most talented musicians in the world.” Every day he brought in copies of his handwritten lead sheets for each musician. Hoover couldn’t read music and created her own annotation system. “He had some unique harmonies that he wanted me to sing and it was not always easy. He would sing them to me and he was very patient as I committed them to memory.”

The duo’s lyrics, meanwhile, remained a mystery: “Quick, some redhots, cried the handsome fullback / I’m so nervous at this lonely bivouac”, goes The Roaring of the Lamb. “I felt like it was about the war in Vietnam, but no one ever said that to me,” says Hoover. “That sort of hip, lyrical style that they have is one of the things I’ve always liked about Becker and Fagen’s music. I like the brilliant mysteries in their stories.”

Linda Hoover in 1969.
Linda Hoover in 1969. Photograph: Music PR handout undefined

A less than brilliant mystery then put paid to the whole enterprise: Roulette’s Levy was checking over the album’s artwork when he noticed that all the songs except Hoover’s were owned by other publishers: Vance had already signed up Becker and Fagen, and the others were likewise spoken for. Levy was furious, and cancelled the release.

Trying to keep everyone together, Katz formed them into a group called Cody Canyon, but it came to nothing. The following year, he was offered a job with ABC Records in Los Angeles, and took Becker and Fagen with him. Within a year they were recording again, this time as Steely Dan. Baxter tried to convince Linda to go with them to California, and urged her to forget about what had happened with I Mean to Shine. “He had a much better grasp on what was going on than I did, but I just felt defeated,” she admits. “I hung around New York for a while and tried doing some work with a couple of other musician friends, but I’d run out of money, and finally went back to Orlando, to my parents’ home.”

In 1973 Hoover married a young law student called Jay Willingham, and together they had two sons. She carried on gigging and recording, playing restaurants and clubs, and the Florida music festival. Decades later she and Willingham learned that the Roulette Records catalogue had been sold to Rhino Records, and he sent the company a cleaned-up digital version of Linda’s original two-track tape. They pronounced it “stunning” and asked permission to send them to Omnivore Recordings, a new label specialising in excavating obscure or unknown albums with an interesting history. Hoover’s was a perfect fit.

All these years later, her voice sounds both confident and innocent, like an American Mary Hopkin, and she does full justice to Becker-Fagen songs like Roll Back the Meaning and Turn My Friend Away. But the album’s failure to launch left permanent scars. “Recording an album was the most important thing in my young life, so the loss was the most profound disappointment I had ever felt,” says Hoover. “After the extraordinary success of Steely Dan, I would tell people that I had worked with them and some people didn’t believe me, which was hard.” Now she feels vindicated. “Everyone involved has been so affirming. I am truly thankful that this album was restored and is going to be released. The moral of my story is: never give up.”

I Mean to Shine is out now. Peter Jones’s book Nightfly: The Life of Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen is published on 13 September.

Peter Jones

The GuardianTramp

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