I have always loved the music of Steely Dan. As I first became aware of popular music around me, Steely Dan’s music was prominently in my ears. Throughout my adult years I became aware of some of the exceptional musicians that were a part of Steely Dan’s historic rise and fame. Therefore, like most music fans I was saddened a few months ago to hear of the death of longtime group member Walter Becker. His death was not like news of other musicians. No, it felt like the death of a friend who had been in my life a long time. However, imagine how his death impacted band mate, songwriting partner and friend Donald Fagan. Without a doubt, the two men shared a large part of their lives. Perhaps I can share some perspective.
The best place to start is with the beginning for Walter Carl Becker. Becker was born February 20, 1950 in Queens, New York. After Becker’s parents separated when he was a boy, his mother, who was British, returned to England. He was raised in Queens by his father and grandmother. His father sold paper-cutting machinery in Manhattan. He graduated from Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan in 1967. After starting out on saxophone, he switched to guitar and received instruction in blues technique from neighbor Randy Wolfe.
Like so many of us, we forge friendships and partnerships in our young adult years. College and sometimes the years afterward are times that most of us find marriage mates, business partners and others that change the course of our lives. This was certainly the case with Walter Becker. Future band mate Donald Fagen overheard Becker playing guitar at a campus café when they were both students at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. In an interview many years later, Fagen said, “I hear this guy practicing, and it sounded very professional and contemporary. It sounded like, you know, like a black person, really.” I think I read this quote many times over several years and still don’t quite know what Fagen meant. Nevertheless, I accepted the fact that Fagan was very impressed with Becker’s musicianship. They formed the band Leather Canary, which included fellow student and future SNL comedian Chevy Chase on drums. At the time, Chase called the group “a bad jazz band.”
Becker left the school in 1969 before completing his degree and moved with Fagen to Brooklyn, where the two began to build a career as a songwriting duo. They were members of the touring band for Jay and the Americans but used pseudonyms. They also composed music for the soundtrack to “You’ve Got to Walk It Like You Talk It or You’ll Lose That Beat”, a film starring Richard Pryor that was released in 1971.
The songwriting duo had little success after moving to Brooklyn, but their fortunes changed when one of Kenny Vance’s associates, Gary Katz, moved to Los Angeles to become a staff producer for ABC Records. He hired Becker and Fagen as staff songwriters and they flew to California.
After realizing that their songs were too complex for other ABC artists, at Katz’s suggestion Becker and Fagen formed their own band with guitarists Denny Dias and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, drummer Jim Hodder and singer David Palmer, and Katz signed them to ABC as recording artists. Fans of Beat Generation literature, Fagen and Becker named the band after “Steely Dan III from Yokohama”, an oversized, steam-powered strap-on dildo mentioned in the William S. Burroughs novel Naked Lunch. Palmer joined as a second lead vocalist because of Fagen’s occasional stage fright, his reluctance to sing in front of an audience, and because the label believed that his voice was not “commercial” enough. Interesting!
Can’t Buy a Thrill, Steely Dan’s début album, was released in 1972. Its hit singles “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ In the Years” reached No. 6 and No. 11 respectively on the Billboard singles chart. Along with “Dirty Work”, the songs became staples on classic rock radio.
Because of Fagen’s reluctance to sing live, Palmer handled most of the vocal duties on stage. During the first tour, however, Katz and Becker decided that they preferred Fagen’s interpretations of the band’s songs, persuading him to take over. Palmer quietly left the group while it recorded its second album.
As Steely Dan continued to record and perform through the 1970’s and beyond, one of the things that fans and musicians became aware of was Fagan and Becker’s work ethic. They were well-known for their grueling hours of work in the studio. Striving for perfection, Becker and Fagen sometimes asked musicians to record as many as forty takes of each track. Some of the best session musicians made their way into the studio with Becker and Fagan. Well-known musicians like Michael McDonald, Jeff Porcaro and David Paich were part of some of the legendary recordings. Pretzel Logic was the first Steely Dan album to feature Walter Becker on guitar. “Once I met (session musician) Chuck Rainey”, he explained, “I felt there really was no need for me to be bringing my bass guitar to the studio anymore”.
Steely Dan disbanded in June 1981. Becker and his family moved to Maui, where he became an “avocado rancher and self-styled critic of the contemporary scene.” He stopped using drugs, which he had used for most of his career.
During the 1980s, he produced albums for Michael Franks and Fra Lippo Lippi. He produced Rickie Lee Jones’s album Flying Cowboys, which was certified Gold by the RIAA in 1997. In 1985, he produced the album Flaunt the Imperfection by China Crisis and is credited on the album as a member of the band. Becker and Fagen reunited in 1986 to collaborate on Zazu, the début album by Rosie Vela.
Following their band reunion in 1993, Steely Dan toured once again, and in 2000 they released Two Against Nature, their first studio album in twenty years. The album won four Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year. In 2001 they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and received honorary doctorates from the Berklee College of Music, which they accepted in person. In 2003, they released the album Everything Must Go with Becker singing lead vocal on “Slang of Ages”. They followed the album with a tour.
In an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine Donald Fagan described his last visit with Walter Becker. “I could see he was really struggling. When I put a chair next to the bed, he grabbed my hand. It was something he had never done ever before. And we had a great talk and, you know, he was listening to hard bop – his wife had put on Dexter Gordon records. He was very weak but he was still very funny. I’m really glad I had those hours.”
Following Becker’s death, his family and Fagan are locked in a legal battle for control of the band. I’m not sure how it will be resolved, but whatever the case, we still have a wonderful history of some of the best music ever recorded.