Walter Becker, Steely Dan Guitarist, Dies at 67

Walter Becker Dead
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Walter Becker, guitarist, bassist and co-writer for the sophisticated, dark-humored band Steely Dan, has died. He was 67.

The news was confirmed by a post on Becker’s personal website. No cause of death was announced.

Becker had cancelled his appearances at the recent Classic West and Classic East concerts due to illness.

His bandmate Donald Fagen released a statement describing their long partnership and said, “I intend to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band.”

The more retiring full-term member of the group, Becker was partnered with singer-keyboardist and co-writer Fagen on a string of jazzy, sleekly produced singles and albums that ruled the charts during the ‘70s. After a protracted hiatus, “the Dan” returned to popularity in the ‘90s; their 2000 album “Two Against Nature” collected four Grammys, including one for album of the year.

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The pair’s gimlet-eyed, covertly perverse music, garbed in gleaming pop melodies, bebop-derived harmonies and shimmering production, was variously performed with a core working band in the group’s initial heyday; those players were ultimately, and permanently, supplanted by a rotating cast of mostly jazz-schooled studio sidemen.

Becker was largely absent from the musical stage during Steely Dan’s extended separation from 1981-93. It was only after the group’s reunion that he undertook solo recording: His albums “11 Tracks of Whack” (produced by Fagen in 1994) and “Circus Money” (2008) failed to duplicate the band’s success.

He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with Fagen in 2001; with typical dry humor, the pair tersely solicited questions from the star-filled audience during one of the shortest acceptance speeches on record.

Becker was born Feb. 20, 1950 in Queens, N.Y., and was raised in the borough community. Initially a saxophonist, he took up the guitar as a teen.

He encountered his future partner Fagen as a student at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, while playing a gig at the local club the Red Balloon. In his 2013 memoir “Eminent Hipsters,” Fagen – who studied music and English at the school — recalled, “His amp was tweaked to produce a fat, mellow sound, and turned up loud enough to generate a healthy Albert King-like sustain.”

The musicians bonded over their love of jazz and blues and the writing of such novelists as Vladimir Nabokov and humorists Bruce Jay Friedman and Terry Southern. They performed together in a number of campus bands, including one, the Leather Canary, which included classmate and future “Saturday Night Live” star Chevy Chase on drums.

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Becker withdrew from Bard without a diploma; after Fagen graduated in 1969, the musicians moved to Brooklyn to find work in the professional music business. They served as studio members of the pop act Jay and the Americans. In 1971, the duo decamped to Los Angeles to serve as house songwriters for ABC/Dunhill, the publishing firm operated by the Americans’ record label.

Impressed by Fagen and Becker’s songwriting, label president Jay Lasker offered the pair a contract with the label. They organized a working group with New York guitarist Denny Dias, guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and drummer Jimmy Hodder; on early recordings with this lineup, Becker usually served as bassist.

Dubbed Steely Dan after a like-named sex toy in William S. Burroughs’ black-hearted novel “Naked Lunch,” the unit debuted in 1972 with the LP “Can’t Buy a Thrill.” Produced by Gary Katz (who shepherded all the act’s ‘70s releases), it spawned the massive radio hit “Do It Again,” which climbed to No. 6; the follow-up single “Reeling in the Years” peaked at No. 11.

The sophomore set “Countdown to Ecstasy” (1973) – which included “My Old School,” a backhanded tribute to Fagen and Becker’s alma mater Bard – was perhaps too bitter for most listeners and failed to produce any hits.

However, album rockers lofted the 1974 collection “Pretzel Logic” to No. 8. Driven mainly by the work of such jazz-bred sidemen as saxophonists Jerome Richardson and Ernie Watts and bassist Wilton Felder of the Crusaders, the album included the No. 4 single “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” which baldly lifted the keyboard hook of jazz keyboardist Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father.”

Growing tension within the band and Fagen and Becker’s antipathy for touring led to the dissolution of the touring Steely Dan configuration in 1974, and the duo would thereafter perform with a succession of studio musicians. Becker increasingly took on lead guitar chores, though such players as Lee Ritenour, Rick Derringer, Dean Parks, Elliott Randall, Larry Carlton and Mark Knopfler also contributed.

The albums “Katy Lied” (No. 13, 1975) and “The Royal Scam” (No. 15, 1976) bore no hit singles, but were lofted by FM radio play. The group’s biggest early hit came with “Aja,” a shimmering No. 3 set that included the top-20 singles “Peg” and “Deacon Blues.”

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A confluence of difficulties led to the band’s 1981 dissolution. The prolonged making of “Gaucho,” which contained Steely Dan’s final top-10 hit “Hey Nineteen,” witnessed burgeoning antipathy between the two long-running partners.

“It was the ‘Gaucho’ album that finished us off,’ Becker said in a 1994 interview with England’s Independent. “We had pursued an idea beyond the point where it was practical. That album took about two years, and we were working on it all of that time – all these endless tracking sessions involving different musicians. It took forever and it was a very painful process.”

The personality clashes were exacerbated by a lawsuit engendered by the drug overdose death of Becker’s girlfriend Karen Stanley and a serious injury Becker sustained when he was struck by a New York cab.

Becker retreated to the Hawaiian island of Maui, where he grappled with drug abuse and laid low. “I spent a couple of years not doing any music or anything, just here in Hawaii trying to get healthy and adjust to the new regimen I was setting up for myself,” he told England’s Mojo magazine in 1995.

He crept back to work as a producer, helming albums by China Crisis (“Flaunt the Imperfection,” 1985), Rickie Lee Jones (“Flying Cowboys,” 1989) and Michael Franks (“Blue Pacific,” 1990).

His work on Rosie Vela’s 1986 collection “Zazu” marked his first work with Fagen since the breakup of Steely Dan; five years later, he gigged informally with Fagen’s group the New York Rock and Soul Revue, which harbingered the partnership’s touring reunion in 1993 in support of the comprehensive boxed set “Citizen Steely Dan.”

An extended period of studio work resulted in the self-produced “Two Against Nature,” which climbed to No. 6 and collected new kudos. The following year, Bard dropout Becker and partner Fagen received honorary music doctorates from the Berklee College of Music.

A second new Steely Dan release, the No. 9 set “Everything Must Go” (2003), included Becker’s first-ever lead vocal with the group, on the track “Slang of Ages.”

In later years, Becker also served as a writer for the jazzy vocalist Madeleine Peyroux’s “Half the Perfect World” (2006) and “Bare Bones” (2009).

Correction: An earlier version of this report listed Karen Stanley as Fagen’s girlfriend. She was Walter Becker’s girlfriend.

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    1. David says:

      Heartbroken..in the floods in Houston 2 weeks ago I missed this. I saw them together in Houston few years back. So Glad. An all time favorite of mine…such a loss…just crushed.

    2. Lou Ann Watson says:

      “when the dawn patrol has got to tell you twice, their gonna do it with a shotgun,
      well i’m trading in this ten cent life for another one”
      rest peacefully walter

    3. Jeff Bazell-Derby says:

      He wrote and played on Streisand’s 1971 disc, “Barbra Joan Streisand,” song, “I Mean To Shine.”

    4. Simon Fraser says:

      Through highschool in the 70’s and way beyond.What a trip….what a band….what a Walter Becker!
      Thanks!

    5. Nimrod Fernando says:

      Could’ve been bieber, why?!!!

    6. paully says:

      One of the best Rockers that America has ever produced..
      I will miss him.. This cuts to my core.. RIP Axman..

    7. Aj says:

      Wow…… :( This just sucks!

    8. The band Steely Dan of Becker & Fagan told NYC & LA stories spoken as if these were hip observers. Somehow this is incorrect and they were more involved and touched by these worlds. I am 64 and seeing another of our numbers near die gives me a true calibration of what is left to offer the Hip & the Beat. I can do nothing but offer my love for the music this man gave us. To his friend Garth I offer the same condolences I’d offer any friend whose mate had died. No one can be replaced is what it proved with the death of such a contributor to our mind’s journey.

    9. Gordon says:

      Loved Steeley Dan for many years… but could barely get through this article / obit as the writing is so bad.

    10. Sarah says:

      I’m so sad i have no words

    11. Bill says:

      I was 14 when my older brother played “The Royal Scam” album and I was instantly hooked.
      He saw them at the Palace Theater in Waterbury, CT in 1973. I saw them on several tours in the mid 1990’s and later with the predictable encores of “FM” and “My Old School”.

      May you Rest In Peace on the Wolverine up to Annandale…

      • Patricia Wright says:

        Exactly the same for me. My 1st album I brought was Aja! I was 15 yrs old. My older brothers had introduced me to MUSIC (1 is named BILL) I preceded to Turn-On all my highschool girlfriends to S.D., I finally got to see them 18 yrs. later! When I was married, & pregnant W/ my 1st child. Just so many memories I have of S.D. going along W/ my life! Their music was, & still is very special. I am really sorry to hear about Becker going so YOUNG? WHY? I mean my dad died at 100, & his mom 102! Walter, is gone too soon. I hope Fegan keepls the Music they made together going strong, for years to come. I would pay to see S.D. Again!

    12. David Russell Foley says:

      On the other hand, Becker, still coke-bloated from the ’70s, did little else but disappoint. He just couldn’t be bothered to do much more than absent-mindedly flick at his bottom two strings, playing through a barely-audible amp.

      If that weren’t insult enough, Salty Uncle Walty expended the most energy when he took the mic for a couple of minutes to insult all the barefoot Dixieland yokels (“when you go back to your Hondo town or gypsy caravan”) that paid serious bucks to see him play guitar, then made everyone sit through his vocals on “Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More,” Steely Dan’s most sub-Ringo song. Much side-eye was thrown by the audience, deservedly.

      • AmandaSue2 says:

        How disrespectful! If he “insulted” you THAT much, why did you see him perform? You’re a fool. RIP Walter

      • Dennis Joseph says:

        Did anyone twist your arm to go to these concerts? Did you ask for your money back? Did you ever write to Becker to let him know your tender feelings? Dixielanders could have booed or left. Thought them thar yokels had tough hides. Doesn’t give anyone the right to blast the man when he’s not here to respond.

    13. Beverly Williamson says:

      Ben my band since the 70’s, I feel like they were family. Saw them recently at the Palms Las Vegas and lastly at the Concord Pavilion. They were part of my youth. Thank you for the music, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, Rest in Love, Walter.

    14. Steve Nardo says:

      Great loss to the music world Rest In Peace Walter Becker

    15. Ed Lewis says:

      This is a sad day. The Dan’s music so whimsical, refined and hip will live on but Walter is gone. May Donald carry the torch for many years to come. As a musician I am still studying their genius even today. They have left us such a rich complex and compelling legacy of material that generation to come will surely emulate.

    16. Thomas Seering says:

      Saw Steely Dan at Alpine Valley in 1999 with my late wife Sue. I could have sworn I was listening to an album they were that good. RIP Walter.

    17. J. Hill says:

      A sharp reader points out the lazy errors in this piece. Worse, however, is the tone, which is extremely disrespectful and grossly inappropriate for the context. To base the value of Becker’s work with Steely Dan on which albums netted “hit” songs, and to assert plagiarism in an obituary is well beyond the pale. Ten minutes of research would have helped a great deal here.

      I expected more robust work from Variety.

      Godspeed, Walter, and thank you. We will miss you.

      • Glen says:

        Plagiarism? Do you mean the mention of Horace Silver’s “Song of My Father”? Technically, it’s a walking bass-hand piano line, but to my understanding the nod was done intentionally… Plagiarism only occurs if someone intentionally lifts the melody line or a suitable amount of lyrics from a piece. Maybe I’m misreading… but I wouldn’t call it an insinuation of plagiarism: it was the first solid note Walt&Don gave us, referring to their full intention to honor their jazz muse in pop music… an intention which was fulfilled as early as “Aja” in 1977.

        Just finished listening to “Countdown to Ecstacy” in full (the album I reached for on SACD when I finally had the means to play them), and followed it up with “Peg” (perhaps my favorite Steely Dan single ever). For the record, yes, “Countdown to Ecstacy” did not net any “hits” (which is usually attributed to longer track times too soon in the 1970’s, although I am still puzzled by the choice of “Show Biz Kids” as leadoff single… “Razor Boy”, “My Old School” and “King of the World” could easily have graced AM as well as the “Can’t Buy a Thrill” singles)… but it is one of my best-loved, most-listened-to, and I believe it netted itself some solid FM airplay.

        Walter, rest in peace: may your musical legacy live on. There is STILL a wealth of “unfinished songs” Don could polish up, if he felt the need/the desire/the courage to do so without Walt as his co-pilot. Somewhere between “The Second Arrangement” (at original tempo) and “The Roaring of the Lamb”, I’d say at least one more genius Steely Dan album awaits. Can I help arrange/produce? ;) (Although I would LOVE to, I am certain Donald is most likely chuckling at this request rather than indulging it.) I have my personal shortlist of songs that have yet to be fully recorded in the studio… but I’ll avoid being disrespectful, and I’ll wrap this up here. (Besides, I’m sure Don knows how to track me down, should he feel inclined to know more.) Thanks for all the music, and for musically accompanying this guy, once a kid, who often felt alone.

      • bill says:

        I don’t expect anything from VARIETY; they’ve devolved into what most of the miserable mass media has become.

    18. aitchee says:

      30 mins ago there were 5 comments and I added mine and now there are 3….. how does that work?

    19. aitchee says:

      is anybody home at Variety today or just the 19-year old intern from Pierce who really doesn’t give a rat’s…. it’s Becker’s gf, yes, and also, yes, Katy with a Y; how hard is any of that…..

    20. Brett says:

      Sad day for downer surrealism…I think Becker sang Book of Liars on the SD Alive In America album.Great catalog of work,great musician.

    21. Has anyone actually contacted the reps for Walter Becker and confirmed this?

      Don’t just go off a damn website!

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