Queensline: Founding member of iconic rock group hails from Forest Hills

In conjunction with the Greater Astoria Historical Society, TimesLedger Newspapers presents noteworthy events in the borough’s history.

Born in Forest Hills on Feb, 20, 1950, Walter Carl Becker was a musician, songwriter and record producer best known as a founding member of the rock group Steely Dan.

Active across six decades, his greatest works include the Steely Dan hits “Do It Again,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and “Reelin’ in the Years.” After reuniting in the 1990s, Becker and co-founder Donald Fagen toured until shortly before Becker’s death in 2017. While a student at Bard College, the guitarist from Queens also performed in a band with future comedy movie star Chevy Chase playing drums.

The Steely Dan co-founder was raised in Queens and Scarsdale, N.Y., by his father and grandmother after his parents separated. After graduating from Stuyvesant High School in 1967, he met future bandmate Fagen while playing at a café and they soon formed their first band, Leather Canary.

Becker dropped out of college and moved to New York City with Fagen, where they joined the Queens-based pop rock group Jay and the Americans. In 1971, the musical duo then moved to Los Angeles, where they wrote songs for ABC Records that were recorded by stars including Barbara Streisand. Soon after moving out west, they formed Steely Dan, which included Becker on bass guitar.

The band’s catchy tunes, sometimes depicting cryptic situations with desperate characters from the margins of society, soon earned the group fame on pop radio in the early 1970s. The group’s commercial success peaked with the 1977 album Aja, which sold over 1 million copies. Much of Steely Dan’s music was characterized by a rich, jazz rooted harmony whose easy- listening feel belied a great musical and lyrical sophistication.

Steely Dan broke up in 1981, after the bassist from Forest Hills developed a drug and alcohol problem. Becker and his family dropped out of the music scene for a while in the 1980s after they moved to Hawaii to operate an avocado farm. By the middle of the decade, he began producing albums for new wave style groups. In the early 1990s, the original Steely Dan co-founders reunited and began touring again in 1993. The band was back together.

With the classic rock group touring for the first time since 1974, their first live album, Alive in America, won four Grammy Awards including Album of the Year. In 2001, the band was  inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and even received honorary doctorates from the Berklee College of Music. On the 2003 album Everything Must Go, the versatile guitarist Becker sang lead vocals on “Slang of Ages.”

Walter Becker toured regularly with Steely Dan well into 2017, and the band even had residencies at venues like the Beacon Theatre in Becker’s home city. The rock star from Queens passed away that September after a battle with cancer, and is survived by his wife and two children.

Reflecting on decades spent making music together, Donald Fagen memorialized his friend’s contribution to their musical expression. “(He) was cynical about human nature, including his own, and hysterically funny,” Fagen wrote. “Like a lot of kids from fractured families, he had the knack of creative mimicry, reading people’s hidden psychology and transforming what he saw into bubbly, incisive art.”

Compiled by Dan McDonald for the Greater Astoria Historical Society. For more information, contact the Society at 718-278-0700 or visit www.astorialic.org.

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