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Members include DonaldFagen (born on January 10, 1948, in Passaic, NJ; son of Joseph and Eleanor Fagen; married Libby Titus.); Walter Becker (born on February 20, 1950 in New York City, NY; married; divorced; one son, Kawai; one daughter, Sa). Addresses: Record company--Giant Records, 3500 W. Olive Ave., Suite 600, Burbank, CA 91505.
As the split personality of rock and roll, duo Steely Dan defied classification. With the help of studio musicians and assorted others, the two released a modest one dozen albums over a 30-year period from 1970-2000. The nebulous recording group is anchored solidly by the independent song-writing pair of Walter Becker on melodies and Donald Fagen on lyrics. Yet the mystique of Steely Dan persists in that vocalist Fagen rarely took the microphone; likewise Becker, an accomplished guitarist, was heard rarely on tape.
Individually, Becker and Fagen grew up not too far apart, Fagen hailed from Passaic, New Jersey, and Becker from New York City. The two came together over their mutual love of music, and the relationship congealed over time and became firmly cemented by their equally mutual dislike for performance. They collaborated intensely for approximately one decade before moving their separate ways, only to reunite in the mid-1990s and resume their musical relationship, seemingly without missing a beat.
Fagen, the son of an accountant and a former cabaret singer was born on January 10, 1948. He took guitar lessons briefly at age seven, on a rented guitar that was in grave disrepair. At age 11 he became enamored by jazz while he was simultaneously engrossed in learning to play an old piano, that his parents had purchased. He became virtually obsessed with the piano as he had been with music all along, and often played into the night, taking respites only to listen to jazz radio. Despite his fixation with music, he refused to take formal piano lessons. He was annoyed by the structured environment of formal training, and learned instead to play by ear. Outside of music and a casual interest in stamp collecting Fagen's interests were limited. He was quiet overall and very introverted as a child.
A brief foray into Little League ended abruptly when he became aware of the political machinery that controlled the sport; his membership in the Boy Scouts was equally short-lived because he developed a severe allergy to poison plants. Instead he spent his summers swimming in the family pool and reading books. As he entered adolescence, his obsession with music lured him into weekend outings in New York City where he gravitated to the shows at the Village Vanguard. As his visits to the Vanguard increased in regularity, he developed friendships among the club staff members and even, on occasion, with the musicians. In his enthusiasm at the Vanguard he sometimes lost track of the time on those boyhood excursions. On more than one occasion, having missed the last bus, he found himself stranded at the bus station where he slept contentedly on a bench until the early bus arrived the following morning.
In 1965 Fagan moved to Annandale-on-Hudson in upstate New York where he attended Bard College, initially with plans to major in the theatre arts. He soon abandoned that goal, realizing that he disliked the intrinsically exhibitionist nature of the discipline. Instead he turned to the local music scene for amusement. In 1966 he met Walter Becker, and it seemed to Becker that Fagen was a member of virtually every local band on the campus of Bard.
Becker, whose German father was in the business of importing heavy machinery from Europe, was born on February 20, 1950, and was the product of a broken home. He was raised mostly by his father and grandmother, living alternately in Queens and in Scarsdale, and back in Queens. Becker was only 16 when his father died suddenly from a heart problem while away from home on a business trip. Becker, who was very close with his father, took the loss very hard.
Shortly before his father's death, when Becker was 14, he began to learn blues guitar from a neighborhood friend. Becker went on to Bard College in 1966 where he met Fagen and a friendship gelled. Becker and Fagen bonded readily, given their mutual fascination with music and extreme affinity for jazz and blues styles. The friendship solidified as they played together in amateur bands. They also spent time writing their own music. Becker, who completed his studies under an accelerated program, finished his curriculum before Fagen, who had started one year earlier, and by 1969 both musicians had completed college. Afterward the pair moved into a Brooklyn apartment, where they began writing songs in earnest.
Eventually they secured a position writing material for a 1960s rock band called Jay and the Americans (JATA). The creative efforts of Becker and Fagen resulted in few compositions of note during those early years, although they penned one song in particular, "I Mean to Shine," that attracted some attention from Barbra Streisand. She included the song on one of her albums, and thus brought a modicum of legitimacy to the two songwriters. As for their background work with JATA, they were eventually hired as performing musicians with the band. The future Steely Dan cohorts learned quickly however that they were essentially expendable to the group, and they found themselves discarded as quickly as they were hired. It was their unique and independent approach to music that created a wedge between JATA--which subscribed to the formula-based musical contingency that governed 1960s rock and roll--and the rebellious inclinations of Becker and Fagen. Some of Becker and Fagen's nascent songwriting efforts, written mostly during their JATA years, were later released on compact disc as retrospectives called Android Warehouseand Becker and Fagen, the Early Years.
The duo next joined a band led by Denny Dias. Dias had advertised for band members in the Village Voice,and he, like Fagen and Becker, was a musical non-conformist in the pending tradition of Steely Dan. The Dias band rarely performed, yet they collaborated incessantly, wrote songs, developed styles, and practiced new sounds.
Becker and Fagen moved to Los Angeles, California, in 1972 at the urging of producer Gary Katz of ABC Records. Katz hired the pair to perform studio rewrites and to create song arrangements. As always, Becker and Fagen spent their free time developing their own original creations. Soon Dias joined them in California, and once again the three musicians fused. They added new band members and performed in quartet, although performances were not the focus of their efforts. After the release of their first album--with guitarists Jeff Baxter and Denny Dias, Jim Hodder on drums, and David Palmer on vocals--the group went on tour, only under pressure from their record producer, ABC, which insisted that they tour to promote the new record.
They performed with big-name stars including Frank Zappa, the Beach Boys, and Chuck Berry, but always as the opening act and never as a headline attraction. Becker and Fagen in particular disliked the tour circuit because it was demanding, exhausting, and usurped precious time from their writing interests. Their fellow band members, in contrast, embraced performance and eventually became anxious and unsettled in the shadow of Becker and Fagen's reticence. Ultimately the Steely Dan members disbanded, leaving only Becker and Fagen, and on occasion Dias, to guide the group through its evolutionary journey.
All together between 1972-80, Steely Dan released seven albums; each displayed a high degree of professionalism and polished performances on every track. The group earned respect among aficionados of every musical taste, both for the intellectual lyrics of their tunes and for the intriguing post-boogie rhythm styles. By the release of their third album, a recording called Pretzel Logic,Becker and Fagen had settled into a pattern of working primarily as a production duo and hiring studio musicians to perform on the recordings, a situation that suited the taste of the Steely Dan duo conveniently. The lack of a formal assemblage of musicians precluded the possibility of persistent touring, and Becker and Fagen were gratified. Each on occasion contributed guitar or vocals to the Steely Dan records, but only on an as-needed basis whenever the studio band sound failed to meet with expectations. Indeed on the 1975 release, Katy Lied, neither Becker nor Fagen contributed a single note to the final tape. Steely Dan's 1978 album, Aja,was the first of the group's albums to break into a top five position on the music charts. The memorable recording featured performances by some of the jazz world's well-honed artists, including Wayne Shorter, Victor Feldman, Bernard Purdie, and Lee Ritenour; it sold over one million copies.
In 1980 Steely Dan released what would be its final album for over a decade. Unaffected by the success, Becker and Fagen went each their separate ways, and the unique jazz/rock band ceased to exist for over a decade. As Steely Dan dissolved into temporary retirement, the duo left a legacy as a precursor to rock and roll classicists such as Sade and Sting. Their final recording, Gaucho,marked the end of their ongoing contract with ABC Records (MCA by that time) and earned a slot among the top 20.
As Gaucho went into the editing stages, a series of tragedies beset Walter Becker, beginning with the suicide of his girlfriend and followed by a debilitating car accident that left him with a substance dependency. Fagen, as a result, single-handedly prepared Gauchofor release, then undertook a series of musical projects on his own. He recorded a well-received solo album, called Nightfly,and then wrote an off-Broadway score called Gospel at Colonus.He also wrote movie soundtracks and contributed articles to Premiere.Becker, who abandoned virtually all vestiges of his musical career, moved to Hawaii to recuperate. He was married for a time while in Hawaii and has two children, a son named Kawai and a daughter named Sa. In 1994 he released a solo vocal recording, 11 Tracks of Whack, including a track dedicated to his son, called "Little Kawai."
Fagen eventually married singer and songwriter Libby Titus, also a Bard College alumnus, and together the couple collaborated and produced their own musical review. In the early 1990s Fagen and Titus successfully lured Becker from his self-imposed seclusion and back to New York City and into the studio where he assisted in the production of Fagen's 1992 album, Kamakiriad.The reunited Steely Dan members recommenced their collaboration, and Becker and Fagen became cognizant that Steely Dan might have taken an hiatus, but the spirit never died. In 1993 and 1994, the pair toured with a backup band as the Citizen Steely Dan Orchestra, and in 2000 they released a comeback album, Two Against Nature, filled with classic Steely Dan nonconformity. Rolling Stone's David Wild said of the Giant Records release, "As always in Steely Dan's ... world, we often don't know what ... people in the songs are actually doing, but we're pretty damn certain that they shouldn't be doing it at all."
Wild went on to christen Becker a "reluctant guitar god" and likewise praised Fagen, along with the studio musicians including session drummer Vinnie Caliuto, Rickey Lawson, and Sonny Emory. Longtime Steely Dan cohort Dias said of the pair that, "Walter and Donald are one person with two brains;" Dias was quoted by Alec Wilkinson, who went on to characterize Fagen as, "[A] cross between Abraham Lincoln and Al Capone." Descriptively, critics concur that the two are highly intelligent perfectionists--an impressive tribute to a duo that named itself after a literary illusion to a dildo.
by Gloria Cooksey
Steely Dan's Career
Recorded for ABC Records (later MCA Records), 1972-1980; release Can't Buy a Thrill, ABC Records, 1972; Countdown to Ecstasy,ABC, 1973; Pretzel Logic, ABC, 1974, (included "Rikki Don't Lose That Number;" Katy Lied, ABC, 1975; The Royal Scam, ABC, 1976; Aja, ABC, 1977; Gaucho, MCA, 1980; signed to Giant Records, 2000; released Two Against Nature, Giant Records, 2000.
Steely Dan's Awards
Founder's Award, American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, May 22, 2000.
- Selected discography
- "Do It Again," ABC, 1972.
- "Reelin' in the Years," ABC, 1972.
- "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," ABC, 1974.
- "Hey Nineteen."
- Can't Buy a Thrill ABC, October 1972.
- Countdown to Ecstasy , ABC, July 1973.
- Pretzel Logic (includes "Rikki Don't Lose That Number) ABC, 1974.
- Katy Lied ABC, 1975.
- The Royal Scam , ABC, 1976.
- Aja ABC, 1977.
- Greatest Hits , ABC, 1978.
- Gaucho MCA, 1980.
- Two Against Nature Giant Records, 2000.
- Solo releases
- Nightfly (Fagen), 1982.
- Kamakiriad (Fagen), 1993.
- 11 Tracks of Whack (Becker), 1994.
- Contemporary Musicians,volume 5, Gale Research, 1991.
- Rolling Stone,March 16, 2000, p. 72; March 30, 2000, pp. 33-38.
- "The History of Steely Dan," FAQ, http://www.steelydan.com/faq.html (May 29, 2000).
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