Happy Birthday to Walter Carl Becker – born February 20, 1950 to September 3, 2017!
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.