Steely Dan never fit the mold that formed most big bands in the ’70s. Usually the bands worked hard through the club circuit, established themselves in their region, then went national. Steely Dan did none of that. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, with the assistance of producer Gary Katz, shaped their accessible mix of melodic hooks, complex harmonies and time signatures in the studio. While they did initially work as a performing band, it was in the studio that their popular sound was crafted, supported by a cast of top flight studio musicians.
Donald Fagen and the late Walter Becker were the core of the band, formed after their meeting at Bard College. After playing in a variety of different jazz and rock bands, the pair began composing songs together with the idea of going into songwriting. Next they played in the backing band for Jay and the Americans.
Finally in 1972 they formed Steely Dan with four additional musicians, including guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter. The first album was a success with two top 10 singles, but the supporting tour was not, mainly due to the poor preparation of the band.
Almost all of the Steely Dan albums in the ’70s featured a different cast of supporting musicians recruited to record and perform a single album. The members included Michael McDonald and for the jazzier records, notable jazz musicians including Wayne Shorter, Lee Ritenour and the Crusaders.
Their still was no working band, but the records were all big sellers. 1977’s Aja hit the top 5 within three weeks of its release and featured three hit singles. The album won a Grammy and has won praise as an outstanding example of a jazz-rock album.
In 1981 Becker and Fagen announced they were splitting up. Each artist released their own solo albums, and it was not until 1993 that the pair reformed for another Steely Dan album. From 2003 thru 2017, the band prepared more effectively for touring and launched several successful tours.
Walter Becker died of cancer in 2017, and Donald Fagen has been true to his statement after his death that he would keep their music alive by continuing to tour.