Walter Becker, the guitarist, bassist and co-founder with Donald Fagen, of the rock duo Steely Dan, died on Sunday, September 3, in Maui, Hawaii. He was 67.
Becker’s death was noted on his official website but there was no cause of death listed, although he had missed several Steely Dan tour dates due to recovery from what was said to be a medical procedure.
In a statement released on Sunday, Donald Fagen said: “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 ‘20s through the mid-’60s), 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. I intend to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band.”
Named after a sex toy in William Burroughs’s novel The Naked Lunch, Steely Dan released seven albums between 1972 and 1980 which teamed them with a pool of session musicians and produced hits such as ‘Reelin’ in the Years’, ‘Do it Again’, ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’ and ‘Deacon Blues’ (from the 1977 album Aja which sold more than 5 million copies). The band sold 40m albums.
Fagen and Becker split the band after 1980’s Gaucho LP but reformed 20 years later to make the Grammy-winning Two Against Nature. They toured Australia several times in the past decade, the last time being with Steve Winwood. An earlier tour teamed them with World Party.
Last October Steely Dan had an extended run at the Beacon Theater in New York, during which each evening concentrated on a particular classic Steely Dan album.
Many musicians have commented on Becker’s death. Ryan Adams posted: “RIP Walter Becker. Travel Safe back home to the stars of which your soul arose. We love and miss you. XO.” Paul Stanley said, “RIP Walter Becker. A major force in a band whose music has defied comparisons and categories. You’re music lives on.” Joe Bonamassa noted: “Rest In Peace Walter Becker. I met him several times in New York. He was always a gentleman and one of the greats of Jazz & Rock guitar.” Bette Midler posted: “So sorry to hear that the great Walter Becker of Steely Dan has died, much too soon. Thanks for the brilliant music and rest now, rest.”
Becker was born on February 20, 1950 in Queen’s, New York and grew up in Scarsdale, Westchester County and Forest Hills. After playing saxophone he switched to guitar. He met future songwriting partner Donald Fagen while studying at Bard College in New York. The two played in a number of bands and even had a stint with Jay & The Americans. relocated to California in 1971 and formed Steely Dan with Becker initially playing bass while Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter played lead guitar.
Steely Dan released a series of acclaimed albums – starting with Can’t Buy A Thrill in 1972 and ending with Gaucho in 1980 – before breaking up. Becker then moved to Hawaii and worked primarily as a record producer but in 1985, he briefly became a member of the British group China Crisis, producing and playing synth on the album Flaunt the Imperfection. Rickie Lee Jones enlisted him to produce 1989’s Flying Cowboys.
Becker and Fagen reformed Steely Dan in 1993 and remained active on the touring front and releasing two more albums. Two Against Nature (2000) won four Grammy Awards. Becker also released two solo albums, 1994’s 11 Tracks of Whack and 2008’s Circus Money.
Becker was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001 with Fagen and they also received Honorary Doctor of Music degrees from Berklee College of Music.