Steely Dan guitarist and cofounder Walter Becker dies at 67
Walter Becker, the guitarist, bassist, and cofounder of the jazz-inflected rock band Steely Dan, died Sunday at age 67.
The news was announced on his personal website. A cause of death was not disclosed.
Becker had missed Steely Dan’s appearances at the Classic West and Classic East concerts in July due to an unspecified ailment.
A native of Queens, New York, Becker started making music with singer-keyboardist Donald Fagen, his Steely Dan cofounder, when they met as students at Bard College.
In a lengthy and heartfelt statement Sunday, 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.”
Fagen added, “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.”
After a brief period in New York working as songwriters and backing musicians, the two relocated to California in 1971 and formed Steely Dan, taking their band name from a sex toy in William S. Burroughs’ novel Naked Lunch.
Their debut album, 1972’s Can’t Buy a Thrill, birthed the radio hit “Do It Again” and the follow-up single “Reelin’ in the Years,” thus introducing the world to their darkly witty, musically sophisticated sound.
“I’m not interested in a rock/jazz fusion,” Becker told Rolling Stone in a 1974 interview. “That kind of marriage has so far only come up with ponderous results. We play rock ’n’ roll, but we swing when we play. We want that ongoing flow, that lightness, that forward rush of jazz.”
Becker and Fagen remained the band’s core members as they constantly rotated musicians, and their output in the ’70s included Pretzel Logic (“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”), Katy Lied (“Black Friday”), The Royal Scam (“Kid Charlemagne”), and Aja (“Peg,” “Deacon Blues,” “Josie”).
Steely Dan disbanded in 1981 and reunited in 1993. Since then they released the albums Two Against Nature (which won four Grammys, including album of the year) and Everything Must Go and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In his statement Sunday, Fagen said, “I intend to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band.”
Read Fagen’s full statement below:
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, 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.