Becker met future songwriting partner Donald Fagen while studying at Bard College. After a brief period of activity in New York, the two relocated to California in 1971 and formed the nucleus of Steely Dan, who enjoyed a critically and commercially successful 10-year career. Following the group’s dissolution, Becker moved to Hawaii and reduced his musical activity, working primarily as a record producer. In 1985, he briefly became a member of the British sophisti-pop group China Crisis, producing and playing synthesizer on their record Flaunt the Imperfection.
Becker and Fagen reformed Steely Dan in 1993 and have remained active, most notably including their 2000 Two Against Nature album, which won four Grammy Awards. Becker has also released two solo albums, 1994’s 11 Tracks of Whack and 2008’s Circus Money.
Early life and career (1950–1971)
Becker was born in Queens, New York City and grew up in Westchester County and Forest Hills, Queens. He graduated from Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan in the class of 1967. After starting out on saxophone, he switched to guitar and received instruction in blues technique from neighbor Randy Wolfe.
Becker met his long-time musical partner, Donald Fagen, while attending Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. While at Bard, Becker and Fagen formed and played in a number of groups, including The Leather Canary, which also included fellow student Chevy Chase on drums. At the time, Chase called the group “a bad jazz band.” Becker left the school in 1969 prior to completing his degree and moved with Fagen to Brooklyn, where the two began to build a career as a songwriting duo. This period included a stint with Jay and the Americans under pseudonyms and the composition of the soundtrack to You’ve Got to Walk It Like You Talk It or You’ll Lose That Beat, a Richard Pryor film released in 1971.
With Steely Dan (1971–1981)
Later in 1971, the duo moved to California and formed Steely Dan, which was initially formed as a full group. Their initial lineup was completed by guitarists Denny Dias, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, and drummer Jim Hodder, all of whom the two had met prior to their relocation. With Becker acting initially as bassist, the group spent the following three years touring and recording before becoming a studio-centered project in 1974 anchored around Becker and Fagen’s songwriting. In addition to co-writing all of the band’s material, Becker played bass and/or guitar on many of the band’s tracks, as well as providing occasional backing vocals and arrangements.
Despite the group’s success, particularly surrounding Aja in 1977, Becker suffered from numerous personal setbacks during this period, including addiction to narcotics. After the duo returned to New York in 1978, Becker’s girlfriend, Karen Roberta Stanley, died of a drug overdose in his apartment on January 30, resulting in a wrongful death lawsuit against him. Soon thereafter, Becker was hit by a Manhattan taxi while crossing the street and forced to walk with crutches. His personal exhaustion was exacerbated by commercial pressures and the complicated recording process surrounding the final release of Steely Dan’s initial career, 1980’s Gaucho, leading the duo to suspend their partnership in June 1981.
Work in record production (1981–1993)
Following Steely Dan’s breakup, Becker moved to the Hawaiian island of Maui and ceased using drugs. Shortly thereafter, he began a career as a record producer, overseeing records by Rickie Lee Jones, Michael Franks, and Fra Lippo Lippi, including the latter’s 1987 Norwegian single, “Angel”.
Some of Becker’s most involved activity from this period came with the group China Crisis. He is credited as one of five official members of the band on the sleeve of their 1985 album Flaunt the Imperfection, which he produced. With longtime Steely Dan collaborator Roger Nichols as engineer, Becker also produced tracks on the 1989 China Crisis album Diary of a Hollow Horse, although he is not credited as a band member on that release.
Becker reunited with Fagen briefly to collaborate on the debut album of singer Rosie Vela, 1986’s Zazu. This led to several low-key and non-professional collaborations, including several aborted songwriting sessions and Becker’s stint in 1991 with Fagen’s New York Rock and Soul Revue, that would ultimately lead to their proper reunion two years later.
Steely Dan reformation; subsequent activity (1993–present)
Their partnership properly resumed in 1993 when they undertook a new tour as Steely Dan, their first in 19 years. Becker also produced Fagen’s album Kamakiriad in 1993. In turn, Fagen co-produced Becker’s solo debut album 11 Tracks of Whack in 1994.
Steely Dan continued touring, and their work on new material resulted in their first studio album in two decades, Two Against Nature, released in 2000. The album won four Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year. In 2001 the duo was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and also received Honorary Doctor of Music degrees from Berklee College of Music, which they accepted in person. The next Steely Dan record, Everything Must Go followed in 2003, featuring Becker’s bass and electric guitar work, as well as the first studio Steely Dan track with a lead vocal by Becker, “Slang of Ages”. The band spent the following years touring behind their back catalog.
In 2005, Becker co-produced and played bass on the Krishna Das album All One, and played solo guitar on the title track of Rebecca Pidgeon’s album Tough on Crime from this same year. Madeleine Peyroux’s 2006 album Half the Perfect World featured the single “I’m All Right”, co-written by Becker, Peyroux and producer Larry Klein. Peyroux’s 2009 album Bare Bones also contains two songs co-written by Becker, “You Can’t Do Me” and the title-track “Bare Bones”. Becker was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame in 2008.
His second solo album, Circus Money, was released on June 10, 2008, 14 years after its predecessor. The album prominently featured Becker’s bass playing, performances by much of the Steely Dan backing band, and work by producer Larry Klein, who received co-composition credits on all but one song. The songs were heavily inspired by reggae and other Jamaican music.
11 Tracks of Whack (1994)
Circus Money (2008)
On September 3, 2017, Becker died of esophageal cancer at his home in Manhattan, New York. At the time of his death, no cause or other details were announced, but a statement released in November by Becker’s widow detailed his struggle with the disease.
Musicians such as Julian Lennon, Steve Lukather, and John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats made public statements mourning Becker’s death. Rickie Lee Jones, whose album Flying Cowboys was produced by Becker, recalled her long friendship with him in an editorial she wrote for Rolling Stone.
In a statement released to the media the day of Becker’s death, Fagen recalled his long-time friend and musical partner as “Smart as a whip, an excellent guitarist and a great songwriter,” and closed by stating that he intended to “Keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band.”