The rule of thumb with most great alliances is that there is usually a member of equal, if not higher ranking than the other participants known as the silent partner. The others may serve as the face of the operation, but the silent partner is often the architect, the bank roller or the engine driver. Or all three.
In the great jazz-pop enterprise known as Steely Dan, Walter Becker was the silent partner. Donald Fagen may have been the face of this popular but immensely aloof band. He served as its vocalist, keyboardist and, when the operation went live (which it didn’t for much of its lifespan), frontman. Becker would remain purposely out of the spotlight on guitar or bass knowing his contribution to the music at hand was already complete.
Becker, whose death at age 67 was announced this morning without details or fanfare on his website, was largely viewed as a 50-50 associate with Fagen in the music Steely Dan conjured. Its songs were always credited to the two players, giving the assumption that everything — the askew hipster lyrics, the generous pop slant and an even more devout jazz sensibility that increased with every album the band made between 1972 and 1980 — was a product of mutual consent. We’ll never know to what degree who designed what in the mix. Steely Dan was as always as much a band of mystery as it was a purveyor of jazz-pop expression. That it ceased to be a touring quintet in the mid ’70s and rode out the rest of the decade as a revolving studio collective of which Becker and Fagen were the chieftains only adds to the mystique. But it will forever be part of Steely Dan’s fortune that Becker’s role, as deceptively passive as it might have seemed, was touted as prominently as Fagen’s. It was the essence of a classic partnership, and in the pop world, the Steely Dan alliance was as championed as they came.
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I freely admit that I went many years where I simply couldn’t listen to the band’s records anymore. Steely Dan had become such an overexposed fixture on rock radio (and sometimes beyond), that listener burnout had set in. But earlier this summer, for whatever reason, I dug out the seven initial records Becker and Fagen cut as Steely Dan. Their music sounded beautifully new — and, in many instances, exquisitely weird — all over again. Of course, Becker, wasn’t an obvious presence on the songs themselves. He may have contributed bass or an occasional guitar solo (or, in the case of the title tune to 1980’s “Gaucho” album, both), but his input came in the composition and arrangement process, the assimilation of all those rich jazz references (the wildly dynamic tenor sax and drum battle between Wayne Shorter and Steve Gadd on “Aja,” the more tender-hearted alto solo from Phil Woods on “Doctor Wu” and the masterfully crafted guitar solos Larry Carlton contributed to “Kid Charlemagne” and my very favorite Steely Dan work, “Third World Man”) and the often darkly opaque narratives that would have killed off any lesser pop force.
In Steely Dan, Becker was in the cockpit right alongside Fagen, flying some of the most glorious genre-bending missions the pop world has ever experienced. Happy trails, gaucho.