Steely Dan
Steely Dan

Donald Fagen is born in Passaic, New Jersey on January 10, 1948. Walter Becker is born in New York City on February 20, 1950. They both grew up as disaffected suburban youths, going to school in the daytime and listening to the music of their idols Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane at night. They both feel an affinity with the "Jazz Life."

Donald Fagen meets Walter Becker at Bard College in Annandale-On Hudson, New York in 1967. Fagen, a piano player, hears someone playing blues guitar in a student lounge and decides he must introduce himself. He discovers Becker playing a red Epiphone guitar and finds that they share the same interests in music and ironic senses of humor. A partnership is born.

They form several college bands including "The Leather Canary" (which fellow Bard student Chevy Chase sat in with a couple of times) and "The Don Fagen Trio." Fagen and Becker also start to write songs together.

Fagen graduates Bard in 1969 with an English degree. Becker also leaves Annandale. The two of them move to Brooklyn, New York and decide to peddle their songs at the famous Brill Building in Manhattan. They don't meet with much success, but they make an important early connection with Kenny Vance of Jay and the Americans. Vance helps them record some demos of their early material and gets them some odd jobs including doing the soundtrack for the low-budget Richard Pryor film "You Gotta Walk It Like You Talk It." Vance also gets Becker and Fagen gigs as back-up musicians on Jay and the Americans' 1970-71 tour. Jay Black disaffectionately labels Donald and Walter as "Starkweather and Manson."

Fagen and Becker also meet another aspiring producer, Gary Katz, in New York. Shortly afterwards, Katz gets a job as staff producer at ABC Records in Los Angeles and also secures two staff songwriter positions for Fagen and Becker. With the hopes of making it big as songwriters, Donald and Walter move to L. A. in November 1971.

 After realizing that the songs they were writing were too sophisticated for the other artists on the ABC roster (Three Dog Night, Dusty Springfield), Donald and Walter secretly begin to put together their own band with Gary Katz as their producer. They enlist Denny Dias as a guitarist, whom Becker and Fagen had met earlier in New York through an advertisement Dias placed in "The Village Voice" newspaper, reading "Looking for keyboardist and bassist. Must have jazz chops!" Dias flies out to the west coast to help the boys put together the band.

With Fagen on keyboards and vocals and Becker on bass, they decide to sign up guitarist Jeff "Skunk" Baxter and drummer Jim Hodder. With the core band recruited, Donald and Walter need a name for their group. Since both of them were avid readers of 1950's "Beat" literature, they decided to name the band "Steely Dan" after a dildo in William Burroughs' "Naked Lunch."

The band begins rehearsing after work in a cramped, abandoned office in the ABC building and begins recording with Roger (The Immortal) Nichols, a former nuclear engineer, as their recording engineer, a relationship that continues to this day. Since Fagen was uncomfortable as the lead singer, they also decided to sign up vocalist David Palmer as the front man. Since Palmer's vocal style didn't convey the attitude that Becker and Fagen wanted for most of the songs, and they also needed to finish the album, Donald reluctantly sang lead vocals on all but three songs on their debut album, which they named "Can't Buy A Thrill." An interesting portent of things to come, however, is the credited use of outside studio musicians such as Elliot Randall and Jerome Richardson on several solos.

The album is released in October 1972 without much fanfare, but surprises everyone by spawning a runaway hit "Do It Again" which reaches #6 on the charts. ABC pressures the band to do a quick tour and Becker and Fagen reluctantly acquiesce. A second hit "Reelin' In The Years" emerges and reaches #11 on the charts. "Can't Buy A Thrill" becomes a gold record and peaks at #17 on the charts. As the band begins to record their next album, Fagen takes over on all lead vocals and David Palmer leaves the group.

Following the surprising commercial success of "Can't Buy a Thrill", Steely Dan come under tremendous pressure from ABC Records to continue touring to promote the album, while at the same time recording a new one. Consequently, the songs for their second album are hurriedly recorded in between tour stops during 1973. Fagen and Becker later said this gave the recorded songs a live kind of feel, since they were in the studio with basically their touring band. The songs that become the "Countdown to Ecstasy" album, released in July 1973, thus are more stretched-out, as they are in the live settings of the time. "Showbiz Kids" is the first single to be released, and despite Rick Derringer's amazing slide guitar work, it only reaches #61 on the charts. It was speculated later that the expletive used in the song did not popularize it with radio program directors. "My Old School", an homage to their days at Bard, also does not fare well as a single and peaks at #63. Despite the lack of a hit single, "Countdown" receives excellent reviews and spawns such radio favorites as "Bodhisattva" and "My Old School", with the latter becoming a classic encore sing-along for their live shows in the 90's.

Under ABC's pressure to produce more hit singles, Fagen and Becker write some shorter songs for their next album "Pretzel Logic." This album is released in March, 1974 and spawns their biggest hit, "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" which reaches #3 in March 1974. Becker and Fagen are expanding on their practice of bringing in other studio musicians as they increasingly find the core band unable to achieve the sound they want on all of their songs. One of the session men is Jeff Porcaro and a long and fruitful relationship with Fagen and Becker begins. A second tour is arranged including Porcaro as second drummer, a new Katz discovery Michael McDonald on back-up vocals and keyboards, and another vocalist Royce Jones (Ambrosia).

While this band was musically superior to the one on the first tour, the rigors of tour travel and opening for heavy metal bands is not to Fagen and Becker's liking. After a July 4, 1974 show at the Santa Monica Civic Center in California, they swear off touring for the immediate future and decide to focus on writing and recording. This prompts Baxter, who loves the road life, to leave and join the Doobie Brothers. Jim Hodder also quits as "Pretzel Logic" goes gold and reaches #8 on the charts.

Happily reborn as a strictly-studio unit, Fagen and Becker begin work on a new album with the help of Porcaro and McDonald. With Baxter gone, Becker begins to add more guitar work to his bass playing. Other contributors to the new album are more from the jazz world than the rock world and include alto saxophonist Phil Woods and guitarist Larry Carlton (Crusaders). "Katy Lied" is released in March 1975 to critical raves, but the closest thing to a hit single is "Black Friday" which reaches the #37. Unlike ABC, this doesn't faze Donald and Walter who could care less about the chart status of their singles. However, Gary Katz later regrets that he didn't suggest "Bad Sneakers" as a single.

Despite the success of "Katy Lied" (Gold sales status, Chart peak at #13), Fagen and Becker are anguished by the sound fidelity of the album due to the faulty tape machine that they had used during recording. They refuse to listen to the album in its final form.

Another major change in the structure of the band occurs when Michael McDonald follows Baxter to join the Doobie Brothers as the lead vocalist, prompting Gary Katz to comment, "Michael's role as a backup singer is the ultimate waste of talent." McDonald would, however, continue to surface on later Steely Dan albums.

Becker and Fagen return to the studio to work on their next album, the first in which Steely Dan is officially billed as a duo. "The Royal Scam" is released in May 1976 and turns out to be known as their best "guitar album," mostly due to the terrific work of Larry Carlton. The highlights for most fans and album rock radio stations are "Kid Charlemagne" and "Don't Take Me Alive." But again, there is no big hit single, although "Haitian Divorce" becomes a hit in England. With the ability to attract session men like Carlton on guitar and Chuck Rainey on bass, Becker scales back his own performance on the albums. "The Royal Scam" also features "The Fez," the only Steely Dan song with a third credited writer, Paul Griffin, who also plays organ on the song. "The Royal Scam" also goes gold and peaks at #25 on the charts.

ABC Records, consistent in their pressure for hit singles and a tour, drive Becker and Fagen back into the studio. The end result, "Aja", is released in September 1977 and features their longest and jazziest compositions to date. Fagen and Becker drafted even more giants of the jazz world including Joe Sample, Wayne Shorter and Tom Scott to execute their increasingly complex songs. "Aja" becomes their first platinum album and reaches #3 on the album chart, trailing only mega-sellers Fleetwood Mac's "Rumors" and Billy Joel's "The Stranger." "Peg" hits #11, "Deacon Blues" hits #19 and "Josie" hits #26 on the singles charts.

Fagen and Becker also agree to tour again, but it is quickly aborted after the first rehearsal when members of the backup band started comparing pay scales and started griping over who was making more money. In February 1978 "Aja" wins a Grammy award for Best Engineered Non-Classical Recording. In July 1978, Fagen and Becker release the title track to the movie "FM" and it reaches #22 on the singles charts.

With the phenomenal success of "Aja," Donald and Walter are under considerably less pressure to release new material quickly. ABC releases a Greatest Hits package in November 1978 which includes one unreleased track "Here At The Western World." This collection also goes platinum and reaches #30 on the charts. Tiring of the L. A. scene, Becker and Fagen move back to New York to start recording their new album.

While recording "Gaucho", Becker and Fagen had to endure various misfortunes which delay the release date: Becker is hit by a car, one of their favorite new tracks "The Second Arrangement" is accidentally erased by an assistant recording engineer, and there is a dispute over which record company has the rights to their forthcoming album.

Becker and Fagen had already signed a new contract with Warner Brothers, but ABC (now owned by MCA) claims that they are still owed one more album. MCA wins the contract dispute and then decides to increase the album's list price to $9.98, one dollar more than all the other albums. Donald and Walter continue to hold back the album while they unsuccessfully fight the price increase. Finally, "Gaucho" is released in November, 1980.

"Gaucho" follows in the footsteps of "Aja" stylistically and continues to use even more jazz session men. The album hits #9 on the charts and also goes platinum. "Hey Nineteen" hits #10 and "Time Out Of Mind" hits #22 on the singles charts.

 After the release of "Gaucho" Fagen and Becker felt exhausted both musically and personally. In their minds, they reached their creative peak with "Aja" which made the recording of "Gaucho" an arduous challenge. In June, 1981, not long after Warner Bros. announced it would be releasing the next Steely Dan album, Fagen and Becker called it quits. Becker retreats to Hawaii, Fagen continued to work with Katz and Nichols and released his critically acclaimed solo album, "The Nightfly" in October, 1982. While "The Nightfly" also achieved gold sales status and peaked at #11 on the charts, Fagen quietly moved into semi-retirement in New York City.

In the mid-1980's Becker reappeared, this time producing albums for acts like China Crisis, Michael Franks, and Rickie Lee Jones with Roger Nichols as engineer. Rumors of a Steely Dan reunion flew across the country in 1987 as he and Fagen played on model Rosie Vela's debut album, "Zazu," a Gary Katz production. Afterwards, they also attempted to write (sometimes by satellite telephone linking Maui and New York) songs for a new Steely Dan album, but they didn't come up with anything they really liked. Giving up on reforming Steely Dan, Walter then focused on producing jazz albums in the late '80s and early '90s for artists on the Triloka and Windham Hill record labels.

After attempting and scrapping some songs for a follow-up to "The Nightfly" in the early '80s, Fagen also resurfaced from time-to-time, working on some movie and literary projects. He did a song "True Companion" in 1981 for the animated feature "Heavy Metal" and "Century's End" in 1988 for the sound track of "Bright Lights, Big City." Donald also contributed a semi-regular movie music column to the entertainment magazine, "Premiere." [Some of DF's columns can be found here. Ed. ]

In the late 80's and early 90's, Fagen, also having given up the idea of reforming Steely Dan, started exploring other musical styles, most notably soul music. He started making low-profile live appearances at some small New York clubs to sit in and play 60's soul music with a couple of bar bands. At the same time, he started participating in some soul music songwriter tributes called New York Soul. As these songwriter showcases became more popular and Fagen became more comfortable with performing live again, he founded the New York Rock&Soul Review, and recruited Michael McDonald, Phoebe Snow, and Boz Scaggs as well as soul legends Charles Brown and Chuck Jackson to play the music they grew up with and bring it to a new audience. Since each of the Review artists realized that they also had a constituency for their own music, they started peppering up the show with a few of their own hits. And that meant that Donald Fagen would start performing some of the Old Steely Dan songs again.

While taking part in the low-key, New York area club gigs, Fagen also started work on "Kamakiriad" his solo album follow-up to "The Nightfly" and asked Walter Becker to be his producer. The two of them started working together on and off at Walter's studio in Maui and various studios in New York City. The album was specifically a Donald Fagen solo project and not a Steely Dan project, but Dan fans started getting more excited as they learned of Walter's growing role in the project. Becker was not only serving as producer but also co-wrote one of the tracks "Snowbound." It was also learned that Walter would be playing all of the bass parts and guitar solos.

At the same time, it was learned that Walter Becker would be doing his first solo album and that he asked Donald Fagen to produce it. As more stories started to be revealed, it was discovered that Donald had also co-written a couple of the songs. With the two of them working together again and having a good time with it, the kindling for the rebirth of Steely Dan was there and ready for ignition. The fire ignited on October 25, 1991 at the Lone Star Roadhouse in New York City at a Libby Titus's "New York Nights" songwriter showcase. Donald Fagen was going to be making an unadvertised appearance and performing a couple of Steely Dan oldies. Walter Becker was in town working on Fagen's album, but emphatically stated he would not join Donald on stage. Walter just wanted to watch. But when the crowd discovered Walter's attendance they showed their tremendous appreciation and Walter relented, strapped on a guitar, and joined Donald on "Black Friday," "Josie'" and "Chain Lightning." A while after the Lone Star show, Fagen joked to Becker about whether he'd like to join the New York Rock&Soul Review on their first tour outside New York City. Becker, to Fagen's surprise, said "sure." Apparently they both had a great time too.

In the late summer of 1993, Fagen and Becker resurrected the Steely Dan name for the first tour in 19 years. They put together an all-star band dubbed the "Steely Dan Orchestra", including lead guitarist Drew Zingg, pianist Warren Bernhardt, drummer Peter Erskine, bass player Tom Barney, three sax players, and three female backup singers. Donald played keyboards and Walter played guitar. All the shows sold out quickly and were applauded by critics as one of the top shows of the year. Some of the tunes played at the shows were: "Babylon Sisters", "Peg", "Hey Nineteen", "Green Earrings", "Chain Lightning", "FM", and "Home at Last". Donald played some of his solo tunes like "True Companion" and "I. G.Y.", and promoted his "Kamakiriad" album with "Countermoon" and "Tomorrow's Girls". To the surprise of many Dan fans, Walter also performed a couple of solo tunes, singing lead on "Book of Liars" and "Fall of '92", the latter of which he co-wrote with Donald. Most hadn't ever been performed live before, but some, like "Reelin' in the Years", were rearranged (with saxes replacing the opening guitar solo) for the tour.

The 1993 tour was such a resounding success, and such fun for everyone in the Steely Dan camp, that Donald and Walter made plans to tour again in 1994, while they were putting the finishing touches on Walter's solo album. In April 1994, the band performed on a 2-week tour of Japan, with pretty much the same set list of songs as they performed on the 1993 tour. One change was in the 3-song instrumental overture, where they inserted "Parker's Band" in place of "Bad Sneakers". Again, the band had a great time and enjoyed an enthusiastic sellout crowd everywhere.

For their 1994 US summer tour, Donald and Walter made a couple of changes to the band's lineup. Georg Wadenius, who had worked on Fagen's "Kamakiriad" album, was hired to replace Drew Zingg on lead guitar, and Dennis Chambers, a well-known jazz drummer who recently played with the Brecker Brothers, took over for Peter Erskine. The band also elected to play, for the most part, in cities they hadn't reached on the 1993 tour. Wadenius and Chambers brought a fresh sound to the Dan songs with their unique styles. And some changes were made to the set list for this tour as well. Added to the mix were "Sign in Stranger", "Aja", and "Kid Charlemagne". "The Fez" was added to the instrumental overture to replace "Aja", and the warmup for the second set was a funked-up instrumental version of "Chain Lightning".

In addition, Walter performed two different songs -- "Down at the Bottom" and "Hard Up Case" -- from his solo album which was released at the end of September 1994. Becker's "11 Tracks Of Whack" caught many Steely Dan fans by surprise, hearing Walter sing lead vocals on songs for the first time, with stripped-down instrumentation that almost amounted to a release of demo tapes [thanks, Pete, I'm going to hand-pick your seats for the shows this year myself -- Ed. ] , and recognizing much of the Dan's lyric style in his songs. The album was well received by [ most ] critics and Dan fans.

Following the tours, the band took a well-deserved rest, and then began to go through two years' worth of live tapes to come up with some material for a live album. Selection and mixing were done in the spring of 1995, and the live album, Steely Dan's first, was released on October 17, 1995. Engineer Roger Nichols cracked that the album was titled "Alive in America" partly due to the fact that some of the songs were "patched" in the studio, so they wanted to get away from calling it a "live" album. No matter, it came out sounding great, with selections from both the '93 and '94 tours. The band put together a mini-promotional tour for the album, doing a live radio broadcast, playing the David Letterman Show ("Josie"), and a 2-day stint at New York's Roseland ballroom. The Roseland shows, both quick sellouts, were highlighted by some new additions to the set list like "East St. Louis Toodle-oo", "Bad Sneakers", "On the Dunes" and "Do It Again". Most of the '93 lineup was back; the exception was John Beasley replacing Warren Bernhardt on piano. Beasley's more aggressive style added some nice touches to the tunes. In a sign that they were opening up to promotional ideas, Becker and Fagen consented to a VH-1 special on "Alive in America", where they returned to their old Brooklyn apartment building and were interviewed. Donald and Walter also tried their hand at doing online interviews for the first time, appearing on Prodigy, Compuserve and The Microsoft Network for live "chats" with fans. They apparently liked the experience since soon afterwards work began on their own official website, steelydan.com, which went live on March 19, 1996.

Donald and Walter had been writing new songs together on and off beginning in the mid-80's, and serious discussions regarding a new studio album began in February 1996. Around this time, word began to get out that the Dan were going on the road again in the summer of 1996, this time hitting both the U. S. and Europe. The 1996 tour was eagerly anticipated by Dan fans since they were expecting to hear some of the new studio material Donald and Walter were working on, and they were not disappointed; "Jack of Speed", "Cash Only Island" and "Wet Side Story" were played at various venues during the tour, and were very warmly received. Some fans were shocked to hear Walter taking the lead vocals on the very first new song played, "Jack of Speed", and wondered what that may mean for the overall lead-vocals situation in Steely Dan. During the tour Walter also traded lead vocals with Donald on "Everyone's Gone to the Movies", performed "Midnight Cruiser" solo (and in the process making everyone forget Jim Hodder's original lead vocal on the tune), and also performed "My Waterloo" from "11 Tracks of Whack". Changes to the touring lineup for the '96 tour included Michael Leonhart on (yes) trumpet, Ari Ambrose on tenor sax, Wayne Krantz on lead guitar, the great Ricky Lawson on drums, Beasley once again on piano, and Carolyn Leonhart and Michelle Wiley on backup vocals. Other highlights included the first live performances of "Black Cow", "Ruby Baby", "Glamour Profession" -- and "Don't Take Me Alive", which debuted as an encore at the Hartford show. "Any Major Dude" and "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" were also performed live for the first time since 1974.

Following the '96 tour, Fagen and Becker dove headlong into the songwriting process for their new Steely Dan album. They began recording in November 1997 at Clinton Studios in New York. Recording continued at Fagen's River Sound Studio in New York and Becker's Hyperbolic Sound in Hawai'i, with Roger Nichols, Elliot Scheiner, Phil Burnett, and Dave Russell as engineers. They recruited a slew of top studio musicians for the effort: drummers Vinnie Colaiuta, Michael White (from Frankie Beverly's Maze) and Sonny Emory (from Earth, Wind & Fire) ; guitarists Jon Herington, Paul Jackson Jr. and Dean Parks; and keyboard player Ted Baker (from the orchestra of the Broadway show The Lion King), among others.

Continuing to shun touring in favor of recording the album, they went through the rest of '98 and most of '99 putting on the finishing touches, which included many fantastic lead guitar solos by Walter, horn parts by Chris Potter, Michael Leonhart and Lou Marini, percussion from Gordon Gottlieb and Steve Shapiro, and backup vocals from Michael's sister Carolyn Leonhart, Cynthia Calhoun, and Michael Harvey. As it turned out Donald had once again assumed all the lead-vocal duties; he said he asked Walter if he wanted to do "Jack of Speed" but Walter declined. Michael Leonhart played a large role in the recording process by contributing to some of the horn arrangements, while Gary Blu was once again entrusted with writing out the charts. Potter also left a major impression by coming up with the incredible 3.5-minute sax solo that formed the last half of "West of Hollywood", the last song on the album. Becker and Fagen had originally intended that part of the tune to be a guitar solo, but Potter asked if he could take it home for a couple of days and work on it, and when he came back in and started blowing -- well, the results speak for themselves. The tune thus became an epic in the manner of "Deacon Blues" and "Aja" -- ironic since it began as a reggae piece when Donald and Walter first came up with the idea in 1986. The rest of the songs all came together during this period. Others, like the various rumored outtakes and the previously played "Cash Only Island" and "Wet Side Story", were shelved, hopefully to be resurrected for future albums someday.

Donald and Walter took a short break from the recording process in January of '99 to record "The Making of Aja" for the Classic Albums series. They brought "Aja" musicians Bernard Purdie, Chuck Rainey and the late Paul Griffin to River Sound where they joined in reminiscing about the recording of the '77 album. Interviews were also done with Larry Carlton, Dean Parks, Wayne Shorter, Rick Marotta, Michael McDonald and Gary Katz. New guys Herington and Barney joined the vets on instrumental jams of some of the tunes, and the resulting video was released to TV, DVD and video later that year.

During '98 and '99, various sources (including Nichols, who poked fun at the shroud of secrecy surrounding the project) began to report the name of the upcoming album as "Two Against Nature" and to float various tentative release dates. Finally, in November of '99, the first reviewer (Roger Friedman of Fox News) reported he had gotten an advance copy of the CD and disclosed the titles of the 9 tunes, in the process spoiling the "Match the Tracks" contest Steely Dan had put up on the official site. Then it was made official: the release date was to be Feb. 29, 2000. Being a once-in-4-years leap date, it somehow seemed entirely appropriate.

In January of 2000, Donald and Walter began the promotional process for "Two Against Nature" by recording two shows at the Sony Studios in New York. They performed several of the songs from the new CD as well as some older favorites, and they never sounded better. They introduced their new band -- Lawson, Barney, Herington, Baker, Leonhart and Leonhart, Calhoun, Victoria Cave, Potter (who unfortunately could not tour later in '00 and was replaced by Bob Shepard), Bumpus, and Jim Pugh on (yes) trombone. The DVD from these shows is the finest recorded live music from Steely Dan. They also taped an episode of VH1's "Storytellers" where Donald and Walter took questions from the audience, and they performed "Cousin Dupree" on a "Late Show" appearance with David Letterman.

When the CD was released on Feb. 29, it immediately shot to #6 on the albums chart, ending speculation on whether they could still sell successfully after 20 years, and was widely praised by critics and fans alike. To some, it seemed like they had never left, while for others, it was like being reunited with an old, dear friend.

A successful tour of North America, Japan and Europe followed in the summer of '00, with some older tunes getting a nice revival: "Boston Rag", "Night by Night", "Daddy Don't Live in That New York City" (with Walter on lead vocals), "Monkey in Your Soul" (also sung by Walter), and the show-stopping revamped version of "Dirty Work", with the girls taking turns on lead vocals. "Almost Gothic" from "Two Against Nature" was played only once, in Albuquerque (!), while a few other new tunes got called regularly: "Cousin Dupree", "Gaslighting Abbie", "West of Hollywood", "Jack of Speed" and "Janie Runaway".

After the tour ended, the thrills continued for Steely Dan and their fans. In December '00 it was announced that they were finally getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with the ceremonies scheduled for March '01. In February '01 they stunned many (though not most fans) by winning 4 Grammy awards for "Two Against Nature" -- including the top honor for "Album of the Year".

Many fans found this a fitting end to The New Steely Dan Era. So some were surprised when a "mere" three years later, Steely Dan released a new studio album "Everything Must Go" in 2003, followed by North American tours in 2003 and 2006, and a world tour in 2007. In 2006, Donald released and toured behind his third solo CD "Morph The Cat", and released a solo boxed set in 2007.

In 2008, Walter released "Circus Money", his second solo CD, and summer '08 Live shows were announced. They did it again in the summer of '09 with The Left Bank Holiday Tour (Europe) and The Rent Party '09 Tour (U. S.) -- with the latter including special setlist shows in selected metropolitan markets.

In 2011, Donald and Walter conduct some Shuffle Diplomacy with 'The Miles High Big Band' and featuring 'The Embassy Brats'. A hot and historic double-bill is built when the legendary Steve Winwood joins The Dan in Australia and New Zealand.