Walter Becker, the co-founder of crossover jazz-rock legends Steely Dan, died Sunday. He was 67. The news was confirmed on Becker’s website. No cause of death or further details were provided at the time of publication. Becker had recently undergone a surgical procedure that prevented him from touring with his Steely Dan bandmate, Donald Fagen.
“Walter Becker was my friend, my writing partner and my bandmate since we met as students at Bard College in 1967,” Fagen wrote in a tribute to Becker at Rolling Stone. “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.”
Becker was born in Queens, NY, and grew up between Forest Hills and Westchester County. After picking up the guitar in high school, he learned blues technique from his neighbor, one-time Jimi Hendrix guitarist and Spirit founder Randy California. Becker attended Bard College where he first met Fagen in 1967, at the Red Balloon coffee shop on campus. The two bonded over a love of jazz and rock ‘n’ roll and soon started writing performing together, most notably as Leather Canary with fellow student and soon-to-be comedy actor Chevy Chase on drums.
The two moved back to New York after graduating in 1969. Despite the duo’s best efforts to find regular work, things didn’t take off in Brooklyn. They recorded the soundtrack for the now-forgotten Richard Pryor movie You’ve Got to Walk It Like You Talk It or You’ll Lose That Beat, and they had a small success in 1971 when Barbara Streisand covered their song “I Mean To Shine.” But things didn’t click until Becker and Fagen moved to Los Angeles in 1971 at the behest of ABC Records producer Gary Katz. They formed Steely Dan—named after the steam-powered dildo mentioned in William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch—alongside Denny Dias, Jeff Baxter, Jim Hodder, and vocalist David Palmer.
The band’s first single, “Dallas,” came out on ABC in 1972, but performed atrociously. It wasn’t until the band’s debut LP, Can’t Buy a Thrill, that they gained critical and commercial traction. “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ In the Years” both reached the top 20 of the Billboard Charts upon release (How about that?,” Robert Christgau wrote in his B+ review of the record for Creem in 1973. “A hit single with a good album attached. Oblique, even philosophical lyrics, as befit a band named after a dildo in a William Burroughs novel.)
Their second album, Countdown to Ecstasy, was released in ’73, with Fagen taking over singing duties after the departure of Palmer. While the album failed to match the commercial mark of their debut—…Ecstasy started at number 35 on the charts and failed to produce a hit single—it was almost universally lauded by critics.
“When we first started to do this kind of stuff, and when Donald and I were writing songs and showing them to people, I sang a lot of the songs because I sang much louder,” Becker told Time Out in 2008. “I liked to sing. Donald was sort of playing the piano and hunched over the piano and didn’t sing as loud. It was only when we actually really got in the studio and I heard his voice and heard my voice that I realized what a great singer he was and what a shitty, out-of-tune singer I was.”
1974’s Pretzel Logic generated the band’s biggest single, “Ricki Don’t Lose That Number.” It was the first Steely Dan record to feature Becker on guitar, rather than bass. The band would go on to tour the album with Doobie Brothers co-founder Michael Macdonald on keys, but the band soon began to pull apart. Becker and Fagen wanted to stop touring in order to focus on studio albums while Baxter, Dias, and Hodder wanted to go on the road. Becker and Fagen continued the band in their absence—now devoted to the studio—and Macdonald joined the band for 1975’s Katy Lied.
Steely Dan produced some of their best work in the late 1970s, with the now-classic records The Royal Scam and Aja coming out in 1976 and 1977 respectively. But Becker was struggling physically and mentally in this period, dragged down by a narcotics habit that had developed throughout his career with the band. Becker’s girlfriend, Karen Roberta Stanley, died of an overdose on the Upper West Side shortly after Steely Dan returned to New York City in 1978. Two years later, in 1980, Becker sustained injuries after being hit by a car in Manhattan. The band released Graucho in 1980, which included the hit “Hey Nineteen,” but they parted ways soon after.
Becker moved to Maui in 1981, cleaned up, and began a career as a record producer. He wrote and recorded with Fagen again sporadically in the late 1980s before the two announced a Steely Dan reunion and tour in 1993.
Speaking to JAZZIZ Magazine in 1993, Becker said that he was resting “quite comfortably” on the success of the 1970s. “It opens doors,” he said. “When I meet people and players for the first time, they’re already on my side. It’s been just a very good and very positive influence on people I meet and work with… It always gets a smile out of the people down in Paea. I pass out those free CDs like it was going out of style and pretty much milk it for what it’s worth. We were lucky we had that bleak decade. It seems like the seventies must have been a lot shorter than some of the other decades.”
Becker and Fagen produced solo records for each other in the early 1990s—Becker’s 11 Tracks of Whack came out in 1994. Steely Dan’s eighth studio album Two Against Nature, was released in 2000 and won Album of the Year at the Grammys over Radiohead’s Kid A. Becker was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001 alongside Fagen before Steely Dan released their final album, Everything Must Go, in 2003.
Becker’s final solo album, the reggae-infused Circus Money, was released in 2008.
Speaing to Time Out, Becker revealed something of his songwriting philosophy. “The dream, of course, is of the stable, intrauterine type of relationship,” he said. “But even that relationship ends the same way, you know? You’re kicked out. And that’s the impact zone. That’s where all the fun is. That’s where the stuff to write about is.”
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