Walter Becker, great musician, zero ego

By Sergio Ariza

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen must be two of the most unusual rock stars of all time, because despite fronting Steely Dan - one of the most famous bands of the 70s, with millions of copies sold - both always put their music and songwriting ahead of their egos as musicians. It is perhaps even more evident in the case of Becker, who didn't sing like Fagen, and who was capable of stepping back and leaving the six and four strings to whoever he wanted if the song called for it, going so far as to declare "I don't care if I play or not on our records if someone else can give us the sound we're looking for".   

And it's not that he was a bad guitarist by any means, but rather that he knew what was best for each song, and among them were some legendary with some of the most legendary guitar solos of his time, such as Elliott Randall's on Reeling In The Years,
Jeff 'Skunk' Baxter's on Rikki Don't Lose That Number, Larry Carlton's on Kid Charlemagne, Jay Graydon's on Peg or Becker's own on Bad Sneakers. Despite having some of the best session guitarists of all time, such as the aforementioned and others like Rick Derringer, Denny Dias, Hugh McCracken and Mark Knopfler, Becker also allowed himself some moments of brilliance, like on the aforementioned song, or the wonderful Black Friday, Pretzel Logic, Home At Last or Josie, without forgetting his ability as a rhythm player or his work as bass player on the band's early records.

The fact is that Becker was born in the New York borough of Queens on 20 February 1950 and his interest in music emerged early, first opting for the saxophone and then moving on to the guitar, an instrument that would help him master his neighbour, Randy California, who would end up playing with Hendrix and forming the band Spirit. It was the beginning of his fascination with the six strings, a lifelong hobby that would lead him to coin the term G.A.S., which stood for Guitar Acquisition Syndrome, which is something that many of the people who read this site (and work on it) know perfectly well.


Becker, who also ended up being a millionaire, had no problem in fattening his collection, which would end up being sold for several million dollars after his death, something that is understandable if we take into account that he has owned, and played, almost everything. To give a few examples, a '57 Fender Duo-Sonic, a '61 Stratocaster, a '28 Martin 00, a '57 Gibson Les Paul Special and even his own model, a Sadowsky Walter Becker Signature.   

But long before he acquired most of those models came the most important meeting of his life when he met Donald Fagen in 1967. Becker was practising on his guitar when the singer and keyboardist walked past him and started listening to him. His recollection says a lot about both of them: "I heard this guy practising, and he sounded very professional and contemporary. He sounded like, you know, like a black person, really". They were both children of rock and soul music, but their not-so-secret passion was jazz music. The first thing Fagen said to him as soon as he finished was, "Do you want to start a band?” Any Steely Dan fan knows the answer.

They formed several bands during their time at university, one of them even featuring the comedian Chevy Chase on drums, but they didn't manage to become professional until they left school and moved to Brooklyn to offer their songs at the legendary Brill Building. It was 1969 and things didn't go as they thought they would, they got a job to do the soundtrack for a Richard Pryor film and they even recorded an album with Linda Hoover, with several songs by the duo, but the result would not see the light of day until this year. In the end they ended up accepting Jay and the Americans' offer to go on tour with them as touring musicians. Their beatnik habits and their constant marijuana intake led the band's singer to nickname them "the Charles Manson and Charles Starkweather of rock & roll".

Everything changed when they moved to Los Angeles and producer Gary Katz decided to take a chance on them. Their songs were too complex for other artists, so Katz allowed them to record them themselves. Becker and Fagen, who had been in the industry for a while, recruited a big band with musicians like Denny Dias and Jeff "Skunk" Baxter on guitars, Jim Hodder on drums and singer David Palmer, mainly hired because the shy Fagen didn't like to sing live. With Fagen as lead singer and handling keyboards and Becker taking over on bass, by this time a Gibson Thunderbird IV, Steely Dan began recording their debut album, Can't Buy a Thrill.


Despite having two exceptional guitarists in Baxter and Dias, Becker and Fagen began to show that they were not married to anyone by giving the solo on the album's best song, the explosive Reelin' In the Years, to a session player, Elliott Randall, who delivered
Jimmy Page's all-time favourite solo.

The album was a huge success, supported mainly by two hit singles, Do It Again and Reelin' In the Years itself. The following year Countdown to Ecstasy appeared, with Palmer out after Katz and Becker convinced Fagen that his voice was much better suited to the project. Dias and Baxter shine on the splendid Bodhisattva, but Becker and Fagen again prefer another guitarist, in this case the great Rick Derringer, to show off on slide on Show Biz Kids.

Their sophisticated mix of rock, jazz and pop, with a bit of blues once again proved to be a winning formula but not everyone was happy in the band. The members who did not contribute compositions, all except Becker and Fagen, wanted to tour more, while the two leaders were not in the mood. All this culminated in the departure of all of them, but not before recording the best album to date by the band, Pretzel Logic, in which; while containing jazz influences, with that introduction taken from Horace Silver's Song For My Father, the version of Duke Ellington or the tribute to Charlie Parker; it also delves into their more pop-oriented approach and shorter, more accessible songs, like the big hit Rikki Don't Lose That Number or the marvellous Any Major Dude Will Tell You.

It is also the album on which Becker makes his debut as a solo guitarist with the title track, after the addition of Chuck Rainey as a session bassist made him decide that Rainey brought much more to the table than he did. The number of session musicians expanded with the likes of Rainey, Jim Gordon, Jeff Porcaro, Timothy B. Schmit, Dean Parks and Michael Omartian. Steely Dan, from now on, would be just a two-man band, albeit with the invaluable help of great musicians and the work of Katz and the fundamental engineer Roger Nichols, one of those responsible, together with the perfectionism of the titular duo, for the fact that Steely Dan records are considered almost perfect in terms of sound.


On 1975's Katy Lied, we find two of Becker's finest moments as a solo guitarist. The first two songs, Black Friday and the essential Bad Sneakers, are a perfect sample of his style, neither flashy nor bombastic but incredibly skilful, restrained and surprising. It was also the album on which the fundamental Larry Carlton made his first appearance, with the solo on Daddy Don't Live in That New York City No More. His mark would be much more noticeable on the following album, The Royal Scam, where he would leave the mythical solo on the incredible Kid Charlemagne, one of the best songs in his catalogue.

And so we arrive at 1977 where they recorded their absolute masterpiece, the essential Aja. Fagen and Becker came up with seven of the best songs of their career, among them the irresistible Peg, the majestic title track, the intricate Deacon Blues and Josie, another of Becker's great moments on guitar, as well as achieving a practically perfect production, with a truly incredible list of guest musicians, people like Steve Gadd, Larry Carlton, Wayne Shorter, Michael McDonald and Chuck Rainey, who together with the duo achieved the most perfect and sophisticated union between pop/rock music and jazz. If there is anyone with a vocation for sound engineering, this is the album they should learn from top to bottom.

There was still the remarkable Gaucho, which came out in 1980, but by this time personal problems had caught up with them and their relationship was no longer the same. Becker was hooked on various drugs and his girlfriend died of an overdose, shortly after which he was run over and ended up in hospital for several weeks.

Steely Dan split up in 1981 and although there was a second get together before Becker's death on 3 September 2017, an adventure that left a couple of interesting albums, the most important of their careers comes together in those first seven albums that remain for many connoisseurs the pinnacle of musicality and sophistication in pop and rock music, although for this their two main protagonists had to leave their ego as musicians aside and take a step back.       


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