RIP: Walter Becker

Posted September 3, 2017 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

Steely Dan co-founder, lyricist and guitarist dies at the age of 67

Walter Becker, guitarist, bassist and co-creator of rock/jazz band Steely Dan, died at the age of 67 on Sunday. There is no official word on what resulted in his untimely death, but bandmate Donald Fagen penned a moving tribute to Becker, published moments after Becker’s official website announced his passing: “Walter Becker was my friend, my writing partner and my bandmate since we met as students at Bard College in 1967, he wrote on Facebook. “I intend to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band.”

Becker was born in Queens, New York and raised on a diet of jazz and rock. After picking up the saxophone, he later fell in love with the guitar and started learning blues technique. It was at Bard College when he stumbled upon Donald Fagen and began what would be the nucleus of Steely Dan. After dropping out of school, he and Fagen moved to Brooklyn, did a few gigs behind-the-scenes gigs for Jay and the Americans while working under aliases. Some of their earliest published work included compositional layouts on the Zalman King/Richard Pryor-starring 1971 film You’ve Got to Walk It Like You Talk It or You’ll Lose That Beat.

With Denny Dias by their side (who collaborated on You’ve Got to Walk It…), the duo later set out to California and organized Steely Dan. The group was completed with the inclusions of Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and drummer Jim Hodder. A year later, the group signed with MCA and dropped Can’t Buy a Thrill, the only disc to feature David Palmer as a lead vocalist. The album would span two radio hits with “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years,” exposing AM radio to the growing tide of jazz-rock that would define the Steely Dan blueprint. All the material from the album, and mostly every album since (excluding covers), was penned by Becker and Fagen. The roster also changed continuously with each release, with Fagen and Becker being the only constants.

showbiz-kids-hifiAnd with an unprecedented eleven-year reign, Steely Dan was the quintessential rock/jazz fusion band, creating the standard for creative ingenuity, sophisticated IQ and complex chord structures. After Can’t Buy a Thrill came 1973’s Countdown to Ecstasy, now with Fagen as lead vocalist, then 1974’s Pretzel Logic and Katy Lied the following year. By the mid-70’s Steely Dan had reached their discovered a new muse as being locked down as a studio act, leaving touring life behind them. This only escalated their majestic legend, as seasoned musicians and singers like The Doobies’ Michael McDonald, singer Valerie Simpson, guitarist Larry Carlton, jazz legend Joe Sample, “Peg” guitar soloist Jay Graydon, drummer pro Bernard Purdie and collaborated on their next features. Aja would be that disc, when Steely Dan discovered musical perfection by creating one of the finest golden albums of all time. It stands today as one of the greatest albums ever assembled, a FM opus, with treats like “Peg,” “Black Cow,” “Deacon Blues” and the expansive title cut. It would sell upwards of five million copies, go platinum twice and soar to number three on the Billboard 200. After MCA purchased ABC and signed them and contributing to the musical soundtrack of FM (“FM (No Static at All)”), the group released Gaucho – a disc that exceeded the label’s financial obligations and monetary advance given to them – and later split in June 1981.

During the ‘80’s, both Becker and Fagen released solo albums. Fagen’s works were well-received (particularly The Nightfly) while Becker’s work remained below the radar. He managed to produce a top 40 hit for Rickie Lee Jones with “Satellites.” He also dropped his manic drug use after stumbling over a few setbacks, one being a wrong death lawsuit surrounding his girlfriend who died of a drug overdose.

After a twenty year hiatus, Steely Dan re-emerged with Becker back on board, this time touring the country and also including studio work. Two Against Nature, a four-time Grammy winner, was born during that process. After its release in 2000, the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Another Steely Dan album was also dropped, 2003’s Everything Must Go. To date, it is the only time we hear Becker providing lead vocals on a track (“Slang of Ages”) and the last official album released from Steely Dan.

Prior to his passing, Becker missed the July concert dates for one of the most talked about outdoor festival events of 2017, Classic East and West. The events brought together legacy acts like the Eagles, Earth, Wind & Fire, Chicago, the Doobie Brothers, Fleetwood Mac, Journey and Hall & Oates. Fagen spoke to Billboard on Becker’s behalf during that time, saying that “Walter’s recovering from a procedure and hopefully he’ll be fine very soon.”

Ironically, Becker and Fagen were originally viewed as misfits to the rock elite. Slowly but surely, they worked their way into the hearts of millions, all thanks to their crafty musicianship. When approached by Time Out in 2008 about how “Deacon Blues” made its way into the hallways of classic rock fame, Becker responded by saying “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.”

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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