Jeffrey Allen “Skunk” Baxter (born December 13, 1948) is an American guitarist, known for his stints in the rock bands Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers during the 1970s and Spirit in the 1980s. More recently, he has been working as a defense consultant and chairs a Congressional Advisory Board on missile defense.
Jeff Baxter joined his first band at age 11. While still a high school student, he worked at Manny’s Music Shop in Manhattan in 1966. At Manny’s, Baxter met guitarist Jimi Hendrix, who was just beginning his career as a frontman. For a short period during that year, Baxter was the bassist in a Hendrix-led band called Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, along with fellow Manny’s employee Randy California. Moving to Boston to attend college, Baxter worked as a guitar technician and amplifier repairman at Jack’s Drum Shop on Boylston Street.
Baxter first reached a wide rock audience in 1968 as a member of the psychedelic rock band Ultimate Spinach. Baxter joined the band for III, their third and final album. After leaving the band, he played with the Holy Modal Rounders and backed singer Buzzy Linhart. By this time, he was using the moniker “Skunk,” although the nickname’s origins have been kept secret by Baxter.
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 the band Steely Dan, along with guitarist Denny Dias, guitarist-bassist Walter Becker, keyboardist-vocalist Donald Fagen, drummer Jim Hodder and vocalist David Palmer (and session player Elliott Randall on various tracks).
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
While finishing work on Pretzel Logic, Baxter became aware of Becker and Fagen’s intentions to retire Steely Dan from touring, and to work almost exclusively with session players in the future. With that in mind, Baxter left the band in 1974 to join The Doobie Brothers, who at the time were touring in support of their fourth album What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits. As a session man, he had contributed pedal steel guitar on Vices as well as “South City Midnight Lady” on its predecessor, The Captain and Me. Baxter’s first album as a full member of the group was 1975’s Stampede. Baxter contributed an acoustic interlude entitled “Precis,” significant turns on slide and pedal steel guitar, and the guitar solo for the hit single “Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me A Little While)”.
While preparing to tour in support of Stampede, Doobie Brothers founder Tom Johnston was hospitalized with a stomach ailment. To fill in for Johnston on vocals, Baxter suggested bringing in singer-keyboardist Michael McDonald, with whom Baxter had worked in Steely Dan. With Johnston still convalescing, McDonald soon was invited to join the band full-time. McDonald’s vocal and songwriting contributions, as well as Baxter’s jazzier guitar style, marked a new direction for the band. They went on to continued success with the 1976 album Takin’ It to the Streets, 1977’s Livin’ on the Fault Line, and particularly 1978’s Minute by Minute, which spent five weeks as the #1 album in the U.S. and spawned several hit singles; Baxter’s work on the album includes a noted performance at the end of “How Do the Fools Survive?”. In early 1979, Baxter and co-founding drummer John Hartman left the band.
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, Linda Ronstadt, and Billy Vera and the Beaters.
In 1982, he featured on Spirit’s album Spirit of ’84, released as The Thirteenth Dream outside of the USA.
In 1984, Baxter sat in and played keyboards with Bobby and the Midnites’ Bob Weir, Billy Cobham, Bobby Cochran, Kenny Gradney (“Tigger”), and Dave Garland at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, New Jersey. That same year, Baxter produced and played guitar and synthesizer on the band’s album Where the Beat Meets the Street on Columbia Records.
In 1986, Baxter joined James Brown and Maceo Parker on guitar for several North American tour dates.
In 1990, Baxter joined John Entwistle, Joe Walsh, Keith Emerson, Simon Phillips and relatively unknown vocalist Rick Livingstone in a supergroup called The Best. The group released a live performance video in Japan before disbanding. He also produced two albums for the hard rock band Nazareth, and also produced albums for Carl Wilson, Livingston Taylor, The Ventures, and Nils Lofgren. He was producer on a Bob Welch album in 1982, Eye Contact. In 1994 Baxter performed on the video game Tuneland. In 1991 Baxter also produced a documentary video titled ‘Guitar’ (Warner Brothers VHS and LaserDisc) where he travels the world and interviews respected guitarists he admires.
He continues accepting studio work; his most recent such work involved tribute albums to Pink Floyd and Aerosmith. In 2012, he appeared on keyboardist Brian Auger’s Language of the Heart, and The Beach Boys’ That’s Why God Made the Radio. He also occasionally plays in The Coalition of the Willing, a band comprising Andras Simonyi, Hungarian Ambassador to the United States; Alexander Vershbow, US Ambassador to South Korea; Daniel B. Poneman, formerly of the United States National Security Council and later the Obama Administration’s Deputy Secretary of Energy; and Lincoln Bloomfield, former United States Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs. On June 19, 2007, Baxter jammed with former White House Press Secretary Tony Snow’s band Beats Workin’ at the Congressional Picnic held on the South Lawn of the White House.
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