Donald Fagen and Walter Becker – the core of Steely Dan
Donald Fagen and Walter Becker first met while attending the same college in New York. The duo struck up a musical partnership as they both loved jazz. They eventually played together first for the jazz/rock outfit The Bad Rock Group who renamed themselves as The Leather Canary. It featured future comedian Chevy Chase who played drums. Then Fagen and Becker started writing their own songs together.
In 1969, Fagen and Becker moved to Brooklyn, New York. They hoped that they would become professional songwriters in the famed Brill Building, which later took interest in their material. In 1970, Fagen and Becker joined the backing band for Jay & The Americans where they also created the soundtrack for a low-budget Richard Pryor motion picture You’ve Got to Walk It like You Talk It or You’ll Lose That Beat. Kenny Vance, who was an employee of Brill Building, also produced the film.
The duo had little success after attempting to start their own group, although Barbra Streisand recorded one of their songs “I Mean to Shine” on her 1971 album. Then Vance’s acquaintance Gary Katz invited the pair to move to Los Angeles, California to work for him as songwriters as Katz moved to ABC Records as staff producer.
The formation of Steely Dan, and a successful debut album
Katz later suggested to the pair that they should better form a band to showcase their rather complex songs. So Becker and Fagen formed their own act which they named Steely Dan, which is mentioned in William S. Boroughs novel Naked Lunch.
Steely Dan later recruited other musicians — guitarists Denny Dias and Skunk Baxter, keyboardist/vocalist David Palmer, and drummer/percussionist Jim Hodder. Signed to ABC Records, in 1972 Steely Dan released their debut album Can’t Buy a Thrill. As it turned out, Can’t Buy a Thrill did very well, critically and commercially, as it peaked at #17 on the Billboard 200. Its single “Do It Again” was a Top 10 hit at #6. The next single “Reelin In the Years” just missed the Top 10 at #11. However despite the success of the album, the supporting tour was far from a success. It was otherwise a disaster (in part because of Fagen’s reluctance to sing live, so it was Palmer instead who took the singing part most of the time). Palmer left after the tour.
Focusing away from touring and more towards studio work
Steely Dan released their second album Countdown to Ecstasy which went to #35 on the pop album chart, going gold, but it wasn’t as successful as their debut album. Hodder left the band, to be replaced by new drummer Jeff Porcaro and Michael McDonald joined as an additional keyboardist.
The newly revamped band was ready to record their third album Pretzel Logic. It was then released in 1974 to astounding critical and commercial success. Pretzel Logic peaked at #8, and its single “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” went to #4 on the pop charts. The band then embarked on a tour to support the album despite the arguments among the two men and the other band members, who still preferred touring. Becker and Fagen wanted Steely Dan to concentrate more on studio work and following the tour, they did just that despite the internal rift.
Katy Lied was released in 1975, and went to #13 on both the US and UK album charts, going gold at that time. The single “Black Friday” landed at #37 on the pop charts. The follow-up to Katy Lied, 1976’s The Royal Scam became another hit (#15 US, #11 UK), going platinum in the process.
Steely Dan recorded their next album, which would decidedly have smoother, jazzier fusion. The album would feature a number of jazz fusion artists like Wayne Shorter, Lee Ritenour and the Crusaders. The album, titled Aja, was released in 1977 and would become Steely Dan’s most successful album to date, chart-wise. It went to peak position at #3 and #5 on the US and UK album charts, and made the Top Ten dents on other global charts such as in New Zealand, Australia, Netherlands and Norway. It singles “Peg,” “Deacon Blues,” and “Josie” all charted on the Top 40. In 1978, Steely Dan also got involved in recording the original motion soundtrack of the filmFM. The film was a box office flop, but the soundtrack otherwise was a success — the title track “FM (No Static At All)” went to #22 on the Top 40 pop chart.
Steely Dan released the follow-up to Aja with 1980’s Gaucho, which reached topped off at #9 on the Billboard 200. The album yielded the band’s last Top 10 pop hit, “Hey Nineteen.”
Split, reunion and solo careers
In the summer of 1981, Steely Dan disbanded. Becker went to his domestic life of sorts, while Fagen released his first solo album The Nightfly in 1982. It was a critical and commercial hit. In 1993 Fagen and Becker reunited to support the former’s second solo album Kamakiriad. It was a commercial flop despite its nomination for the Grammy’s Best Album award.
The core of Steely Dan began to stage a series of successful concerts, while Becker released his first solo album 11 Tracks of Whack in 1994. In 2000, Steely Dan released their first studio album in 20 years, Two Against Nature which did well on the album charts (#6 US, #11 UK) and was given a platinum disc. Two Against Nature eventually won Album of The Year, even upsetting Eminem’s controversial album The Marshall Mathers LP which had been heavily favored to win the top prize. Three years later Steely Dan released their final studio album to date Everything Must Go, which peaked at #9 on the Billboard 200.
On top of Steely Dan’s 40-plus million albums sold and several Grammy wins and nominations, they were also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.