Sunday, September 3, 2017

Steely Dan’s Walter Becker, R.I.P.

Walter Becker photo by Arielinson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Walter Becker 2013 photo by Arielinson
Rolling Stone magazine and other outlets have reported the death of Steely Dan co-founder Walter Becker at the age of 67 years after an undisclosed illness. The talented musician and songwriter will forever be yoked to Steely Dan and his longtime creative partner, Donald Fagen, the pair creating a back catalog of innovative music that was meager in numbers but over-sized in influence and creativity.

Becker and Fagen met at Bard College in upstate New York in the late ‘60s, forming a band that included comedian and actor Chevy Chase on drums. Becker left school before getting a degree, moving to Brooklyn, New York with Fagen where they worked towards a career as songwriters, which included a gig backing the pop band Jay & the Americans. They moved to Los Angeles in the early ‘70s and scored a gig as staff songwriters for ABC Dunhill Records and artists like the Grass Roots and Three Dog Night. When their material proved to be too complex for radio-friendly pop artists, they were encouraged to form their own band.

Steely Dan Years

As a result, Fagen and Becker put together Steely Dan with singer David Palmer, guitarists Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Denny Dias, and drummer Jim Hodder (with Becker playing bass). This is the band that recorded Steely Dan’s 1972 debut album, Can’t Buy A Thrill, which scored hits right out of the gate with “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ In The Years,” the album peaking at #17 on the charts. Although the following year’s Countdown to Ecstasy album brought the band universal critical acclaim, representing a huge step forward in terms of creativity, it was also a step backwards commercially, peaking at #35 on the albums chart and its two singles failing to reach the Top 40. Palmer had left the band and Fagen took over vocals, but neither he nor Becker were happy with the recording of the album, which was done in between tour dates.

Pretzel Logic, the band’s third album, fared much better due to the chart success of the single “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” which peaked at #4 and pushed the album itself to #8 on the charts on its way to eventual Platinum™ sales status. After touring for several years, Fagen and Becker decided to stop touring and become a studio band, using session players to fill the roles of the former band members. Katy Lied, the band’s 1975 release, would be the first to feature Becker’s guitar skills; the pair were assisted in the studio by talented session musicians like guitarists Larry Carlton and Rick Derringer, and drummer Hal Blaine.

The Royal Scam, released in 1976, followed a similar musical blueprint (using many of the same musicians), and both albums would chart in the Top 20, in spite of the meager chart showing of their single releases, the band targeting AOR FM radio instead. Steely Dan would hit the big-time with their 1977 album Aja, which featured a jazzier sound, yielding Top 20 charting hit singles in “Peg” and the Classic Rock radio staple “Deacon Blues” while earning the band its first Platinum™ album (awarded before Pretzel Logic). Working with talents like guitarists Carlton, Lee Ritenour, and Jay Graydon; drummers Steve Gadd, Bernard Purdie, and Jim Keltner; and saxophonists Tom Scott and Wayne Shorter, around whose solo the title song was constructed, the album was a pioneering work of jazz-rock fusion.

The partnership between Becker and Fagen was strained by this point, partially due to Becker’s increased drug use. The pair took two years to record the 1980 release Gaucho, the two men obsessing over the sound of each performance, using better than 40 different musicians in the studio and spending far above the label’s studio budget. There was additional stress created by a fight between the band, MCA Records, and Warner Brothers Records over the rights to the album (their former label, ABC Dunhill, had been bought by MCA but the duo wanted to sign with Warner). In spite of its troubled creation, Gaucho would enjoy Platinum™ sales status, peaking at #9 on the charts on the strength of the Top Ten hit “Hey Nineteen.”

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan
Walter Becker (left) and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan

Becker & Fagen Reunite

That would be it for Steely Dan for better than a decade, Fagen breaking up the band and Becker moving his family to Hawaii where he’d kick his addictions and slide into production work, most notably two albums for the British pop group China Crisis, which was heavily influenced by Steely Dan, and an album for singer Rickie Lee Jones. Becker and Fagen reunited to perform on a 1986 album by former model Rosie Vela, which led to a handful of songwriting sessions. Becker produced Fagen’s second solo album, Kamakiriad, in 1993 and the two would tour in support of the recording. A year later, MCA Records released the Citizen Steely Dan box set, and Becker released his solo debut album, 11 Tracks of Whack, with Fagen co-producing.

The two reassembled Steely Dan and toured in support of the box set, subsequently releasing a 1995 live CD Alive In America. The pair continued to tour, returning to the studio to record Two Against Nature, the band’s first album in nearly 20 years. Released in 2000, the Two Against Nature won the pair four Grammy® Awards while returning the band to their Platinum™ sales status. Steely Dan was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2001 and released the critically-acclaimed Everything Must Go album in 2003. Becker released his second solo album, Circus Money, in 2008.

Becker and Fagen continued to tour as Steely Dan through the present day, Becker’s illness forcing him to miss the band’s recent east and west coast concert dates. In a statement about his longtime partner’s death, Fagen says “Walter Becker was my friend, my writing partner and my bandmate since we met as students at Bard College in 1967. 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.”

Writer Roger Friedman has a great interview with Becker and Fagen from 2000 on his Showbiz411 website. Check it out!

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