Walter Becker, co-founder, guitarist, bassist and co-songwriter of Steely Dan, died this morning according his official website. No cause or other information was given, though he’s been battling illness this summer.
The Queens, N.Y., native met his bandmate Donald Fagen at Bard College. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen first crossed paths in 1967, when both were students at Bard College in upstate New York. Discovering they had common musical and literary interests, in addition to a shared dark sense of humor, they became fast friends. Forming a song writing partnership, they would hone their craft over the next 5 years, first by landing a small publishing deal in New York, which then led to work as session and touring musicians with the pop group Jay And The Americans. By 1971, upon the recommendation of ABC/Dunhill producer Gary Katz, they had signed on as staff songwriters and relocated to Los Angeles. During these early years, Becker and Fagen had written a considerable amount of original material that nobody seemed too keen on recording, so they took the next logical step and formed a band to record it them selves.
For the initial Steely Dan lineup, they recruited East Coast friends Denny Dias and Jeff Baxter on guitars, along with drummer Jim Hodder and lead singer David Palmer. Combining a penchant for jazz, blues and R&B with the more commercial leanings of rock & roll and Brill Building-era pop, Becker and Fagen sculpted their songs from a wide-ranging musical palette. Their ability to combine beautiful melodies with lyrics of an often sarcastic and cynical nature would prove a winning formula over the course of the first several albums. Immaculate musicianship and a relentless pursuit of perfectionism in the studio would result in one of the most enduring musical legacies of the 1970s.
Taking their name from the steam-powered dildo in William Burroughs’ novel The Naked Lunch, Steely Dan set about recording their debut album, “Can’t Buy A Thrill,” which would spawn two unlikely hits with “Do It Again” and “Reelin’’ In The Years.” Unlike most New Yorkers striving for success in Los Angeles, Becker and Fagen did not adapt or cater to the West Coast culture in their songs. Instead they conveyed an ambivalence or open contempt for the wealthy Southern California culture now surrounding them. Their talent for creating deft melodies and harmonies within jazz-influenced song structures, combined with the sharp sarcastic wit of their lyrics, would continue to fuel the next two albums Countdown To Ecstasy and Pretzel Logic. The latter album, which drew more fully on Becker and Fagen’s love of jazz, would become their first Top 10 album.
The band would go on to sell more than 40 million albums, win a Grammy and be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Listen to Steely Dan live at the Rainbow Theatre in London on May 20, 1974.