Photo of Steely Dan, Walter Becker pictured left
Walter Becker, guitarist, bassist, and co-founder of Steely Dan, has died. He was 67 years old.
A cause of death was not immediately known. In July, Becker had surgery for an undisclosed ailment, causing him to miss the band’s appearance at the Classic East and West concerts.
Update – November 15th: According to a statement released by Becker’s wife, Delia, the musician died from “an extremely aggressive form of esophageal cancer. The cancer was detected during one of his annual medical checkups and its presence came as a grim surprise to Walter, his doctors and to me. It seemed to have come out of nowhere and had spread with terrifying speed,” she added.
“Walter chose an intense regimen of chemotherapy at Sloan Kettering though, between the cancer’s aggressiveness and the overwhelming toxicity resulting from the chemotherapy treatments, Walter died less than four months after the cancer was detected.”
Born in Queens, New York City on February 20th 1950, Becker attended Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, where he started out on the saxophone before switching to guitar and learning blues techniques from neighbor Randy Wolfe.
It was while attending Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson where Becker would meet longtime Steely Dan partner Donald Fagen. Together, the two formed a number of groups, including Leather Canary, which featured comedian Chevy Chase on drums.
In 1969, prior to completing a degree, Becker quit school and moved with Fagen to Brooklyn, where they began to focus writing songs together, recording alongside Jay and the Americans under various pseudonyms.
But it wasn’t until 1971 when both Becker and Fagen moved to California to start Steely Dan. The initial lineup comprised of the two leaders alongside guitarists Denny Dias, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, and drummer Jim Hodder.
In 1972, the group released their debut studio album, Can’t Buy a Thrill, which featured hit singles “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ In the Years”. Their follow-up, 1973’s Countdown to Ecstasy, was not as successful, but the group rebounded the following year with Pretzel Logic, which included their big hit “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and was the first to feature Becker on guitar.
Around this time, however, Steely Dan began to experience some conflict between Becker-Fagen and the other members, particularly Baxter and Hodder, who expressed disappointment in the two co-founder’s unwillingness to tour. Because of this, most of them would leave, though Dias would remain with the group until 1980’s Gaucho alongside new vocal replacement Michael McDonald.
Both 1976’s guitar-oriented The Royal Scam and 1977’s jazz-fueled Aja were major hits, though Becker was suffering from personal issues during this time, specifically an addiction to narcotics. When the duo returned to New York in 1978, Becker’s girlfriend, Karen Roberta Stanley, died of a drug overdose in his apartment, which resulted in a wrongful death lawsuit against him.
Not too long after this, Becker was struck by a taxi in Manhattan and was forced to walk with crutches as a result. This contributed to his personal exhaustion, which had already been exacerbated by his own commercial pressures and the harsh recording process surrounding Gaucho, which led to their initial dissolution.
Following this, Becker moved back to the West Coast to Maui, where he stopped using drugs and began to work as a record producer, overseeing greats like Rickie Lee Jones, Michael Franks, and Fra Lippo Lippi. He also worked with the group China Crisis, producing their 1985 album, Flaunt the Imperfection, and later 1989’s Diary of a Hollow Horse.
Even though Steely Dan had ceased existence, Becker was still collaborating with Fagen, as the two worked on the debut album of Rosie Vela, 1986’s Zazu, and later a stint with Fagen’s New York Rock and Soul Revue, a gig that eventually led to their proper reunion two years later.
In 1993, Steely Dan embarked on their first tour in 19 years. Fagen and Becker were back in good spirits; in fact, Becker produced Fagen’s solo album, Kamakiriad, that year, while Fagen produced Becker’s solo debut the following year, 11 Tracks of Whack.
Throughout the decade, the two continued to tour and work on new material, resulting in their first studio album in two decades, 2000’s Two Against Nature, which nabbed four Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year.
The following year, the two were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and also received the Honorary Doctor of Music degrees from Berklee College of Music. By 2003, the two had already finished their next record, Everything Must Go, which was the first Steely Dan record to feature lead vocals by Becker, who sang on “Slang of Ages”.
Throughout the aughts, Becker would continue to tour as Steely Dan while also collaborate with various artists. In 2008, he was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame, which he would follow with his second solo album, Circus Money, featured Becker’s bass work in addition to performances by most of the Steely Dan backing band.
More recently, Steely Dan had staged a number of blockbuster tours, including a stop at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in 2015.