September 3, 2017 – Walter Becker (Steely Dan) was born February 20, 1950 in Queens, New York. Becker was raised by his father and grandmother, after his parents separated when he was a young boy and his mother, who was British, moved back to England. They lived in Queens and as of the age of five in Scarsdale, New York. Becker’s father sold paper-cutting machinery for a company which had offices in Manhattan.
He graduated from Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan in the class of 1967. After starting out on saxophone, he switched to guitar and received instruction in blues technique from neighbor Randy Wolfe, better known as Randy California of the psychedelic westcoast sensation “Spirit”, a nickname he got from Jimi Hendrix while playing with him in New York in the mid sixties.
He encountered his future partner Fagen as a student at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, while playing a gig at the local club the Red Balloon. In his 2013 memoir “Eminent Hipsters,” Fagen – who studied music and English at the school — recalled, “His amp was tweaked to produce a fat, mellow sound, and turned up loud enough to generate a healthy Albert King-like sustain.”
The musicians bonded over their love of jazz and blues and the writing of such novelists as Vladimir Nabokov and humorists Bruce Jay Friedman and Terry Southern. They performed together in a number of campus bands, including one, the Leather Canary, which included classmate and future “Saturday Night Live” movie star Chevy Chase on drums.
Becker withdrew from Bard without a diploma; after Fagen graduated in 1969, the musicians moved to Brooklyn to find work in the professional music business. They served as studio members of the pop act Jay and the Americans. In 1971, the duo decamped to Los Angeles to serve as house songwriters for ABC/Dunhill, the publishing firm operated by the Americans’ record label.
Impressed by Fagen and Becker’s songwriting, label president Jay Lasker offered the pair a contract with the label. They organized a working group with New York guitarist Denny Dias, guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and drummer Jimmy Hodder; on early recordings with this lineup, Becker usually served as bassist.
The Band named after a Dildo
Dubbed Steely Dan after a like-named sex toy in William S. Burroughs’ black-hearted novel “Naked Lunch,” the unit debuted in 1972 with the LP “Can’t Buy a Thrill.” Produced by Gary Katz (who shepherded all the act’s ‘70s releases), it spawned the massive radio hit “Do It Again,” which climbed to No. 6; the follow-up single “Reeling in the Years” peaked at No. 11, but should have reached number 1 on the virtuosity of Elliott Randall’s magnificent solo guitar work.
The sophomore set “Countdown to Ecstasy” (1973) – which included “My Old School,” a backhanded tribute to Fagen and Becker’s alma mater Bard – was perhaps too bitter for most listeners and failed to produce any Billboard hits, although the album was definitely noticed by the insiders.
So no surprise when album rockers lofted the 1974 collection “Pretzel Logic” to No. 8. Driven mainly by the work of such jazz-bred sidemen as saxophonists Jerome Richardson and Ernie Watts and bassist Wilton Felder of the Crusaders, the album included the No. 4 single “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” which baldly lifted the keyboard hook of jazz keyboardist Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father.”
The group’s subsequent five albums during that decade — each more polished and ambitious than the one before it — reaffirmed Steely Dan’s status as the one of the most sophisticated and urbane in contemporary pop and rock. The fact that Becker and Fagen were both longtime jazz fans was reflected in the intricacy of Steely Dan’s twisting compositions, which featured advanced harmonies and modulations rarely attempted by other rock or pop acts. It also made touring a much more tense adventure. In the end they stopped touring, simply because it became too difficult to perform their challenging music well on stage.
“Originally we had a band known as Steely Dan. As we moved away from the band, we got whoever was appropriate for specific tunes,” Becker explained in a 1988 Union-Tribune interview. “In a lot of cases, we gravitated toward jazz players who had more sophisticated harmonic concepts… It’s a mystery to me why everybody doesn’t love jazz. I’ve never been able to figure that out.”
Growing tension within the band and Fagen and Becker’s antipathy for touring led to the dissolution of the touring Steely Dan configuration in 1974, and the duo would thereafter perform with a succession of studio musicians. Becker increasingly took on lead guitar chores, though such players as Lee Ritenour, Rick Derringer, Dean Parks, Elliott Randall, Larry Carlton and Mark Knopfler also contributed.
The albums “Katy Lied” (No. 13, 1975) and “The Royal Scam” (No. 15, 1976) bore no hit singles, but were lofted by FM radio play. The group’s biggest early hit came with “Aja,” a shimmering No. 3 set that included the top-20 singles “Peg” and “Deacon Blues.”
A confluence of difficulties led to the band’s 1981 dissolution. The prolonged two year making of “Gaucho,” which contained Steely Dan’s final top-10 hit “Hey Nineteen,” witnessed burgeoning antipathy between the two long-running partners.
“It was the ‘Gaucho’ album that finished us off,’ Becker said in a 1994 interview with England’s Independent. “We had pursued an idea beyond the point where it was practical. That album took about two years, and we were working on it all of that time – all these endless tracking sessions involving different musicians. It took forever and it was a very painful process.”
The personality clashes were exacerbated by a lawsuit engendered by the drug overdose death of Becker’s girlfriend Karen Stanley and a serious injury Becker sustained when he was struck by a New York cab.
After the Split with Donald Fagen
When Becker and Fagen went their separate ways in 1981, Becker retreated to the Hawaiian island of Maui, where he grappled with drug abuse and laid low. “I spent a couple of years not doing any music or anything, just here in Hawaii trying to get healthy and adjust to the new regimen I was setting up for myself,” he told England’s Mojo magazine in 1995.
He crept back to work as a producer, helming albums by China Crisis (“Flaunt the Imperfection,” 1985), Rickie Lee Jones (“Flying Cowboys,” 1989) and Michael Franks (“Blue Pacific,” 1990).
His work on Rosie Vela’s 1986 collection “Zazu” marked his first work with Fagen since the breakup of Steely Dan; five years later, he gigged informally with Fagen’s group the New York Rock and Soul Revue, which harbingered the partnership’s touring reunion in 1993 in support of the comprehensive boxed set “Citizen Steely Dan.”
In 1993, Becker and Fagen reunited for a Steely Dan tour, but on the solo front, Becker not only produced Fagen’s 1993 album KAMAKIRIAD but also finally got around to releasing his solo debut album, 11 TRACKS OF WHACK, in 1994.
After doing a few more tours and an extended period of studio work, Becker and Fagen entered the studio and recorded their first album in two decades, the self-produced “Two Against Nature,” which climbed to No. 6 and collected great kudos as it went on to win four Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year. The following year, Steely Dan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 2003 the band released another new album, EVERYTHING MUST GO, which featured the first-ever lead vocal by Becker on the song “Slang of Ages.” That same year, Bard dropout Becker and partner Fagen received honorary music doctorates from the Berklee College of Music.
Although Becker and Fagen never got around to recording another Steely Dan album, they continued to tour together while for his part, Becker did manage to release a second solo album (2008’s CIRCUS MONEY) and continued to produce, write, and play for other artists, among them Krishna Das, Rebecca Pidgeon and jazzy vocalist Madeleine Peyroux’s “Half the Perfect World” (2006) and “Bare Bones” (2009).
Anecdote: The band’s wry sense of humor was reflected in its often devious song lyrics and in the names of its tours, which in 2013 included the “8 Miles to Pancake Day” tour. Explaining the name of that tour in a 2013 San Diego Union-Tribune interview, Becker said — with his tongue firmly in cheek — “ ‘8 Miles to Pancake Day’ is a reconciliation of the classic space-time dilemma. In other words, time vs. distance. In other words, like the Russian army sergeant says: ‘You will dig me a ditch from here to dinner time’.”
Concern for Becker’s health was raised earlier in the summer of 2017 when he missed both of Steely Dan’s July appearances at the Classic West and Classic East music festivals. During a press conference later, Fagen stated that Becker was “recovering from a procedure and hopefully he’ll be fine very soon.” He offered no further specifics on Becker’s ailment or condition.
Together with his longtime Steely Dan collaborator Donald Fagen, Becker brought revolutionary new levels of sophistication to rock and roll songwriting and studio production, incorporating elements of jazz, latin music, R&B, soul and traditional pop, reason why I have included him in the line up of legends. They were truly revolutionary.
Walter Becker passed on September 3, 2017 in Hawaii, from an undisclosed illness.
Donald Fagen: Walter Becker was my friend, my writing partner and my bandmate since we met as students at Bard College in 1967. We started writing nutty little tunes on an upright piano in a small sitting room in the lobby of Ward Manor, a mouldering old mansion on the Hudson River that the college used as a dorm.
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.
Walter had a very rough childhood — I’ll spare you the details. Luckily, he was smart as a whip, an excellent guitarist and a great songwriter. He was cynical about human nature, including his own, and hysterically funny. Like a lot of kids from fractured families, he had the knack of creative mimicry, reading people’s hidden psychology and transforming what he saw into bubbly, incisive art. He used to write letters (never meant to be sent) in my wife Libby’s singular voice that made the three of us collapse with laughter.
His habits got the best of him by the end of the seventies, and we lost touch for a while. In the eighties, when I was putting together the NY Rock and Soul Review with Libby, we hooked up again, revived the Steely Dan concept and developed another terrific band.
I intend to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band.
Sayan Becker – A DAUGHTER’S TRIBUTE
You loved music more than anyone I know. You’re always there bobbing your head to each beat, doing a little dance here and there, or sitting over there with your big head phones on and swaying back and forth. I could see it, your dissecting the song — listening in closely for each beat, for each musical instrument — you know, whatever you musicians do. But I get it.
Every road trip without fail came The Pit Stop at some guitar store. Heck, dad, I keep telling you why don’t you just own your own store? Five hours go by as I sit watching you fiddle with a guitar here and there…yet you never end up buying one. I understand though; it was your fun place, like an arcade; playing all you can, and as loud as you can. Your candy shop.
Dad you’re kinda funny; sometimes I may not understand the meaning behind your witty highly intelligent comments or jokes, but for you to smile and make everyone — or even thousands all at once — smile and laugh, then yeah you got something going for you pops… I get it. Your presence makes everyone’s day a little brighter. I love you for that.
Coast to coast. How is it that you know so many facts about every state or country we visit? We would walk through Central Park Zoo and just randomly point out some little thing… and here it comes, some long historical fact about it. Dad, it’s a seal for crying out loud! It amazes me how intelligent you are.
“Dad, I like that we understand one another”
“Sa-girl, we are soul mates”
“Dad I love you to the moon and back”
“Girly face I love you more than that, to the next galaxy”
“Wow, that’s far!”
“Well it’s true”
… for your love for music, your fatherly advice and devotion, your knowledge about the world and your blindingly sharp sense of humor … for all that, and more.
We had one hell of a ride. You are my world, my soulmate, my father, that I love so much.
It’s true your love is shining from the next galaxy. I could see it now; you got a whole galaxy of guitars to look at. Rock on dad, rock on until your heart is content.
I hear you.
I get you.
-Your only Pulama Ama Lama.