Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-inducted bassist-guitarist’s partnership with Donald Fagen yielded classic LPs like ‘Aja,’ ‘Katy Lied’ and ‘Pretzel Logic’
Walter Becker, guitarist, bassist and co-founder of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-inducted band Steely Dan, died Sunday at the age of 67.
Becker’s official site announced the death; no cause of death or other details were provided.
“Walter Becker was my friend, my writing partner and my bandmate since we met as students at Bard College in 1967,” Donald Fagen wrote in a tribute to Becker. “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 missed Steely Dan’s Classic East and West concerts in July as he recovered from an unspecified ailment. “Walter’s recovering from a procedure and hopefully he’ll be fine very soon,” Fagen told Billboard at the time. Becker’s doctor advised the guitarist not to leave his Maui home for the performances.
Becker and Fagen first became collaborators when they were both students at New York’s Bard College. After working as songwriters (Barbra Streisand’s “I Mean to Shine”) and members of Jay and the Americans’ backing band, the duo moved to California in the early Seventies to form Steely Dan – named after a sex toy in William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch – alongside guitarists Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Denny Dias, drummer Jim Hodder and singer David Palmer.
Following the release of their debut 1972 LP Can’t Buy a Thrill, the lineup would change again with Palmer’s exit; while Steely Dan would routinely rotate musicians, Becker and Fagen remained the group’s core members. Despite the ever-changing lineup, Steely Dan made their stamp on music with a string of pristine, sophisticated albums with “calculated and literary lyrics” that blurred the lines of jazz, pop, rock and soul.
“I’m not interested in a rock/jazz fusion,” Becker told Rolling Stone in 1974. “That kind of marriage has so far only come up with ponderous results. We play rock & roll, but we swing when we play. We want that ongoing flow, that lightness, that forward rush of jazz.”
He added, “I learned music from a book on piano theory. I was only interested in knowing about chords. From that, and from the Harvard Dictionary of Music, I learned everything I wanted to know.”
With Becker on bass, Can’t Buy a Thrill produced the hits “Reelin’ in the Years,” “Dirty Work” and “Do It Again.” Countdown to Ecstasy followed in 1973 with Fagen now entrenched as lead singer. Following 1974’s Pretzel Logic – which yielded the band’s biggest hit, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” – the band experienced a major upheaval as in-demand touring musicians Dias, Baxter and Hodder all exited the quintet. “It was unfair of us to spend eight months writing and recording when Jeffrey Baxter and others in the group wanted to tour,” Becker told Rolling Stone in 1977. “We weren’t making very much money and everybody wanted to be out touring a lot. We didn’t. That was that.”
For 1975’s Katy Lied, the now-duo – with Becker also picking up guitar duties – surrounded themselves with a team of expert studio musicians that included Toto’s Jeff Porcaro, guitarist Hugh McCracken and Michael McDonald. “We don’t feel it’s something to be ashamed of,” Becker said of Steely Dan’s “enlarged-band concept.” “We had outside players on the first album. The Beatles did it quite a bit, by their own admission. A lot of things Eric Clapton played…everyone thought it was George Harrison.”
With that “supergroup” structure in place – the album features contributions from McDonald, the Eagles’ Timothy B. Schmit, drummer Jim Keltner and legendary saxophonist Wayne Shorter – Steely Dan released their masterpiece Aja in 1977. The album, one of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, features classics like “Peg,” “Deacon Blues” and “Aja” and became the duo’s first platinum album, selling over 5 million copies and peaking at Number Three on the Billboard 200.
As their manager Irving Azoff told Rolling Stone in 1977, “Think of the biggest American supergroups. Fleetwood Mac. The Eagles, Chicago… And Steely Dan. Everybody knows Steely Dan. They belong in that list. All we had to do was make it official.” Despite the success, the duo would dissolve their partnership within three years, following the release of 1980’s Gaucho.
It would be another 20 years – with the release of 2000’s Two Against Nature – that Becker and Fagen would record another Steely Dan album. That LP ultimately won four Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year. The band would record one more studio album, 2003’s Everything Must Go, with Becker making his Steely Dan lead vocal debut on the track “Slang of Ages.”
When asked by Time Out in 2008 about “Deacon Blues” sneaking onto classic rock radio, Becker said, “That’s sort of what we wanted to do, conquer from the margins, sort of find our place in the middle based on the fact that we were creatures of the margin and of alienation, and I think that a lot of kids our age were very alienated. To this day when I read some text that somebody writes about alienation, I always think to myself, ‘Gee, they make it sound like it’s a bad thing!’ So yeah, I think that’s great. Naturally that’s very satisfying to us to hear that something has slipped through the cracks.”
In 2001, Steely Dan were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “The musical tradition that Steely Dan represent is certainly one that’s more cerebral and intellectual and beautiful as well,” Moby said in his induction speech for the duo. “Although they always seemed to approach popular culture with a certain sense of irony and distaste, they also clearly have a love for beauty and beautiful music.”
In keeping with the band’s legacy of going against the grain, Becker and Fagen used their Rock Hall acceptance speech to take questions from the crowd: