Walter Becker dies at 67; formed Steely Dan with NJ’s Donald Fagen

WALTER BECKER, 1950-2017

Walter Becker, whose musical partnership with New Jersey’s Donald Fagen was at the heart of Steely Dan for the last 45 years, has died at the age of 67, it was announced on his web site, walterbecker.com, this morning.

While the cause of death has not been announced yet, Becker was not able to perform at Steely Dan’s July appearances at the Classic East and Classic West concerts in New York and Los Angeles. Fagen is currently on tour with his band The Nightflyers.

Fagen has released this statement: 

“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 Titus, 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.”

The initial Steely Dan, formed in 1972, was a more-or-less conventional rock sextet, and quickly scored a pair of big hit singles, “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years.” However, Becker and Fagen didn’t like touring, and by the middle of the ’70s, Steely Dan existed as those two, writing songs and working with highly skilled studio musicians in the studio. Fagen sang and played keyboards; Becker played guitar and bass.

Even with no “live” presence, Steely Dan continued to be one of the best-selling groups of the era. Their commercial peak — and, many would say, their artistic peak, too — was 1977’s Aja, which included the hits “Peg,” “Josie” and “Deacon Blues,” as well as the epic title track.

Steely Dan was dormant from 1981 to 1993, though Becker and Fagen continued to work together, occasionally, in the studio, in this era. And then they not only resurrected Steely Dan but, with concert technology having evolved to an acceptable level, they — quite surprisingly, to their ’70s fans — became a regular presence on the concert circuit.

They released two more Steely Dan albums in 2000 and 2003 — the first, Two Against Nature, won the Album of the Year Grammy — but their concerts continued to be dominated by their classic ’70s material. In recent years, they have often played some of their old albums in their entirety at shows.

While Becker tended to fill his interviews with tall tales and sardonic asides, he did get serious, for a moment, when accepting an honorary doctorate from the Berklee College of Music in Boston, in 2001.

“If I had any advice based on my career so far, that would be worth sharing with you, it would be two things,” he said. “No. 1: As you go into your musical careers, people will try to refocus you on their goals and their artistic aspirations. And it’s always best to stay focused on your own. It’s the only shortcut that really is available. And, No. 2: Play the blues. It works over everything.”

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