I’m still a bit in disbelief about the sad news of the untimely death of Walter Becker at age 67. According to Rolling Stone, the passing of the Steely Dan co-founder was announced earlier today on his official website without providing any details. Uncut reported that Becker had a recent operation that prevented him from performing with the band at the Classic East and Classic West festivals in July in Los Angeles and New York, respectively – possibly an indication of a lingering health issue.
In early August, Becker’s Steely Dan compatriot Donald Fagen told Billboard that “Walter’s recovering from a procedure and hopefully he’ll be fine very soon.” He did not further elaborate. I imagine more details about the circumstances of Becker’s death are going to emerge over the next few days.
Becker was born in Queens, New York on February 20, 1950 and grew up in the city’s suburbs. He started getting into music by learning the saxophone before switching to the guitar. Becker ended up taking blues guitar lessons from his neighbor at the time, Randy Craig Wolfe, also known as Randy California. He was in good hands. Wolfe was an original member of rock band Spirit that was founded in 1967. The previous summer, he had played with Jimi Hendrix in his short-lived rock band Jimmy James and the Blue Flames.
In 1967, Becker and Fagen met at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., where they both studied at the time. They began to form Steely Dan in the summer of 1970. According to Wikipedia, the impetus was an ad in the Village Voice placed by guitarist Danny Dias, who was looking for a “bass player and keyboard player with jazz chops.” At that time, Becker and Fagen had already written a good amount of original music.
Steely Dan’s first lineup was assembled in December 1971, after Becker, Fagen and Dias had moved to Los Angeles. The additional members included Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (guitar), Jim Hodder (drums) and David Palmer (vocals). Earlier, Gary Katz, a staff producer at ABC Records, had hired Becker and Fagen as staff song writers. It was also Katz who signed the band to the label.
In 1972, Steely Dan’s first single Dallas was released but sold poorly. The debut studio album Can’t Buy a Thrill followed in November that year. The producer was Katz, who also served in that role for all of the band’s other ’70s albums. Unlike the initial single, the record became very successful. It reached Gold certification in August 1973. Eventually, in September 1993, Can’t Buy a Thrill was certified Platinum, after sales had reached one million copies. Here is a clip of the record’s great opener Do It Again, one of my favorite Steely Dan tunes.
Seven months after their debut, Steely Dan released Countdown to Ecstasy in July 1973. While Bodhisattva and My Old School became concert favorites among fans, the record didn’t generate a major hit single. That changed with Pretzel Logic, the band’s third studio album, which appeared in February 1974 and featured Rikki Don’t Lose That Number. Also released separately in April 1974, the tune became Steely Dan’s most successful single, reaching no. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the summer of 1974.
In March 1975, Steely Dan’s fourth album Katy Lied appeared. By that time, most of the band’s original members had left, and Steely Dan essentially became Becker and Fagen who hired additional musicians as needed. Katy Lied reached Gold certification. Lead single Black Friday charted at no. 37. Notable guest musicians on the record included future Toto members David Paich (keyboards) and Jeff Porcaro (drums), as well as Michael McDonald on background vocals. Royal Scam followed in May 1976, another gold record for Steely Dan. Lead single Kid Charlemagne charted at no. 82 on the Billboard Hot 100.
In September 1977, Steely Dan released their sixth studio album Aja, the band’s best-selling record and my Steely Dan favorite. It peaked at no. 3 and no. 5 on the U.S. and U.K. charts, respectively, and became Steely Dan’s first platinum record. Ultimately, the album sold more than five million copies. It generated three singles, Peg, Deacon Blues and Josie. Here is a clip of my favorite one, Deacon Blues.
Gaucho, which came out in November 1980, was Steely Dan’s last studio release before they disbanded in June 1981 and went on a 20-year recording hiatus. Becker and his family moved to Maui where he became sober from drug use and eventually started working as a record producer. Fagen went on to launch a solo career. While the recording of Gaucho was impacted by various personal and professional challenges, the album was mostly well received, peaking at no. 9 on the U.S. album chart and reaching Platinum certification. The record includes the classic Hey Nineteen, which became the lead single climbing to no. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Between 1981 and 1993, Becker produced records for various artists, including Rickie Lee Jones, Michael Franks and Fra Lippo Lippi. He also became involved with the band China Crisis. Becker is listed a member of the band on their third studio album Flaunt the Imperfection. While Fagen and Becker had a couple of one-off collaborations in-between, they resumed their official partnership in 1993 when they toured as Steely Dan for the first time in 13 years.
Becker also produced Fagan’s second solo album Kamakiriad, which appeared in May 1993. In turn, Fagan became the co-producer of Becker’s 1994 solo debut 11 Tracks of Whack. Here is a clip of one of the record’s tunes, Lucky Henry, which features some great guitar work.
While Becker and Fagan continued Steely Dan tours, it took them until 2000 before they released a new album, Two Against Nature. It was a successful recording comeback, peaking at no. 6 on the Billboard 200, and scoring four Grammy awards and Platinum certification in the U.S. One of the Grammy awards was the record’s lead single Cousin Dupree, which won Best Performance by a Pop Duo or Group with Vocal.
The final Steely Dan studio album Everything Must Go appeared in June 2003. While the record received mixed reviews, it reached no. 9 on the Billboard 200. Here is a clip of the title track.
Following the album’s release, Steely Dan continued to tour frequently. At the same time, Becker and Fagan occasionally released solo albums without involvement of the other partner. Becker’s second and final such record Circus Money appeared in June 2008. Here’s a clip of Bob Is Not Your Uncle Anymore, a tune with a nice reggae groove.
Following are excerpts from a statement Fagen posted on his Facebook page about his long-time music partner: “Walter Becker was my friend, my writing partner and my bandmate since we met as students at Bard College in 1967…We liked a lot of the same things: jazz (from the twenties through the mid-sixties), W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, science fiction, Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Berger, and Robert Altman films come to mind. Also soul music and Chicago blues…[Becker] was smart as a whip, an excellent guitarist and a great songwriter. He was cynical about human nature, including his own, and hysterically funny…I intend to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band.”
Sources: Rolling Stone, Uncut, Billboard, Wikipedia, Donald Fagen Facebook page, YouTube