Walter Becker, Co-Founder of Steely Dan, Dies at 67 Walter Becker, Co-Founder of Steely Dan, Dies at 67

Walter Becker, Co-Founder of Steely Dan, Dies at 67

Admin Sep 05,2017

Walter Becker, the guitarist and songwriter who made suavely subversive pop hits out of slippery jazz harmonies and verbal enigmas in Steely Dan, his partnership with Donald Fagen, died on Sunday. He was 67.

His death was announced on his official website, which gave no other details. He lived in Maui, Hawaii.

Mr. Becker was unable to perform with Steely Dan this summer at Classic West and Classic East in Los Angeles and New York City, two stadium-size festivals of 1970s bands. Last month, Mr. Fagen told Billboard, “Walter’s recovering from a procedure and hopefully he’ll be fine very soon.”

As Steely Dan, Mr. Becker and Mr. Fagen changed the vocabulary of pop in the 1970s with songs like “Do It Again,” “Reelin’ in the Years,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and “Peg.” Mr. Becker and Mr. Fagen were close collaborators on every element of a song: words, music, arrangement. “We think very much the same musically. I can start songs and Walter can finish them,” Mr. Fagen said in a 1977 interview.

Steely Dan’s musical surfaces were sleek and understated, smooth enough to almost be mistaken for easy-listening pop, and polished through countless takes that earned Mr. Becker and Mr. Fagen a daunting reputation as studio perfectionists.

Their songs were catchy and insinuating enough to infiltrate pop radio in the 1970s. “That’s sort of what we wanted to do, conquer from the margins,” Mr. Becker told Time Out New York in 2011. “Find our place in the middle based on the fact that we were creatures of the margin and of alienation.”
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Mr. Becker, left, and Mr. Fagen in Los Angeles in 1977. CreditNick Ut/Associated Press

Steely Dan’s lyrics were far from straightforward, depicting cryptic situations and sketching characters like addicts, suicidal fugitives and dirty old men. “You can infer certain things about the lives of people who would write these songs. This we cannot and do not deny,” Mr. Becker deadpanned in an online interview with the BBC in 2000.

Meanwhile, the music used richly ambiguous harmonies rooted in Debussy, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins, giving the songs a sophisticated core that would be widely influential across jazz and pop.

Although Steely Dan arrived as a full band on its 1972 debut album, “Can’t Buy a Thrill,” it soon recast itself as the Becker-Fagen songwriting team, backed by select session musicians. In its 1970s hitmaking heyday, Steely Dan rarely toured, preferring to work in the studio.

Steely Dan — named after a dildo in the William Burroughs novel “Naked Lunch” — dissolved after its 1980 album, “Gaucho,” though Mr. Becker and Mr. Fagen stayed in contact.

In 1993, Mr. Becker and Mr. Fagen re-emerged as Steely Dan, leading a band that would tour frequently well into 2017. Steely Dan’s songwriting and recording process remained painstaking; it released only two more studio albums, “Two Against Nature” in 2000 (which won the Grammy as Album of the Year) and “Everything Must Go” in 2003. But unlike its 1970s incarnation, Steely Dan thrived onstage.

In a statement released Sunday, Mr. Fagen wrote that Mr. Becker “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.”

Walter Becker was born in Forest Hills, Queens, on Feb. 20, 1950, and studied saxophone and guitar in his teens. Information on survivors was not immediately available.