Walter Becker, Founding Member of Steely Dan, Dead at 67. Fagen Vows to Keep the Music Alive

Walter Becker, bassist and guitarist for the highly successful rock duo Steely Dan died Sunday at the age of 67. His death was announced on his website with a simple diptych of Becker as a child and an adult with the caption, “walter becker feb. 20 1950 – sept. 03 2017.” No further details on the cause of death were provided.

Becker missed both July Steely Dan dates of the Classic West and Classic East shows due to a procedure, his performing partner Donald Fagen revealed in an August interview in Billboard. Fagen didn’t elaborate. The band also recently announced a fall tour with a scheduled stop at Shea’s Performing Arts Center in Buffalo Oct. 17.

Becker was born in Queens and graduated from Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan in 1967. He met Donald Fagen while both were students at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York that same year. A quick friendship was formed when both realized similar interests in music and the beat poets. They performed in various local groups, including the Leather Canary, which included comedian Chevy Chase on drums.

Upon Fagen’s graduation in 1969, the two moved to Brooklyn. Becker and Fagen became touring musicians for Jay and the Americans for a brief time before leaving due to a pay dispute. Their biggest success while still in New York was Barbra Streisand’s recording of their song “I Mean to Shine.” The duo recorded a series of demos and scored a soundtrack for an early Richard Pryor film before making tracks to Los Angeles.

The move to Los Angeles proved fruitful for the eventual Steely Dan. It was here that they connected with ABC Records producer Gary Katz. Katz hired Becker and Fagen as staff songwriters for the label and would go on to produce all of Steely Dan’s 1970s output.

Photo by Jim ‘JT’ Gilbert

It was in Los Angeles where the two musicians struck out on their own, recruiting guitarists Denny Dias and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, drummer Jim Hodder and singer David Palmer to form Steely Dan. The name was chosen as a nod to beat writer William S. Burroughs. The “Steely Dan” was a sex toy mentioned in Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.

What followed was one of the most unlikely string of successful albums put to tape. From Steely Dan’s debut,
Can’t Buy a Thrill in 1972 through the 1977 pinnacle album Aja to 1980’s Gaucho, the band’s penchant for obscure references, dark humor, quirky time changes and studio perfection landed them in an unlikely spot on the Billboard charts time and again.

The duo parted ways in 1981, with Becker taking his family to live in Maui, HI where he quit using drugs and, according to the Steely Dan Timeline, became “a gentleman avocado rancher and self styled critic of the contemporary scene.” During this time, Becker began producing in earnest as well as working with English pop band China Crisis.

Despite the inactivity of Steely Dan, Becker and Fagen still managed to work together formally and informally during their hiatus. Becker sat in with Fagen’s New York Rock and Soul Revue in 1991, which led to his producing Fagen’s 1993 solo album, Kamikiriad. Fagen returned the favor, producing Becker’s 1994 solo outing 11 Tracks of Whack. These collaborations renewed the Steely Dan spark and led to the band’s first tour in 19 years.

They continued to tour and in 2000 dropped an album of all new material, Two Against Nature that garnered Steely Dan four Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year. In 2001, Steely Dan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and was honored with an Honorary Doctor of Music degree from Berklee College of Music.

Another Steely Dan album followed in 2003, with Becker making his vocal debut on the track “Slang of Ages” and the band continued touring through the mid 2010s, including a headlining spot at 2015’s Coachella Festival in Indio, CA.

Becker’s work left an indelible mark on the music industry and musicians worldwide have been offering tribute to him since his death was announced. Josh Kroop, former manager for Connecticut jamband Kung Fu shared professionally shot video of the band’s The Royal Scam set from two years ago, featuring members of the Steely Dan band, Bernard Purdie on drums and Jon Herington on guitar. 

A couple of years ago We put together a tribute to Steely Dan and covered the The Royal Scam start to finish. We did…

Posted by Josh Kroop on Sunday, September 3, 2017

On Sunday, Fagen shared a note remembering his long-time friend and collaborator. The full text is below:

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.