By Larry Katz
Walter Becker is no longer Steely Dan’s silent partner. “My inner child is screaming like a banshee,” he says.
That’s because his adult self is singing onstage with Steely Dan and on a first solo album, “11 Tracks of Whack,” which lands in stores Sept. 27.
The seldom-heard-from Becker’s emergence as a vocalist comes as the biggest surprise in the surprising rebirth of Steely Dan, a group whose mix of quirky lyrics and polished jazz-rock made them one of the most offbeat ’70s pop successes. Becker, 43, co-founded Steely Dan with a Bard College classmate, keyboardist Donald Fagen, in 1972. They wrote all the band’s songs together, but Fagen alone did the singing. The group developed an aura of mystery after it stopped touring in 1974. Steely Dan existed only in recording studios, where Becker and Fagen could fully indulge their perfectionism. Becker’s preference for staying behind the scenes seemed confirmed when he emerged from his home in Hawaii as a pop and jazz producer several years after Steely Dan’s 1981 breakup.
In 1992, ex-partner Fagen returned to action as ringmaster of the “New York Rock and Soul Revue,” an album of oldies sung by famous friends such as Phoebe Snow and Boz Scaggs. When the Revue toured that summer, Becker joined as bass player.
To his amazement, he enjoyed the road.
“The difference between when we stopped touring in 1974 and now is immense,” Becker says before a New York rehearsal for the current Steely Dan tour. “In the ’70s, touring was a very disorganized, hit-or-miss kind of business involving young, possibly intoxicated performers knocking out what they could remember of some tunes.
“Now touring has been transformed to an operation of near-military precision in which a group of clear-minded professionals deliver high-quality performances every night. It all works smoothly. It’s very comfortable for us.”
Their aversion to live shows conquered, Becker and Fagen decided to do a Steely Dan tour last year, an undertaking that coincided with the release of “Kamakiriad,” a Fagen solo album produced by Becker.
Now Steely Dan is on the road again. They play Wednesday at Great Woods. The group has a new drummer, Dennis Chambers, and a new guitarist, George Wadenius. And this time, Becker is the one with the solo album. Its producer? You got it – Donald Fagen. “It worked the same for both of us,” Becker says. “We made the obvious choice of getting the person with the most insight into what we were doing.”
What makes a middle-aged musician risk a first solo venture?
“After producing a number of albums,” Becker explains, “I started to think it would be more amusing and satisfying to record one of my own.
“When I first got the craving to be in a recording studio again,” he says, “I thought it would be fun to produce. I did an album with (English pop band) China Crisis in 1985. Then I did one with Rickie Lee Jones (1989’s “Flying Cowboys”). I met a number of very good jazz musicians while working on that.
“I thought it would be a nice change of pace to produce jazz albums with these guys, because I could get them done quickly. That left me time to start brooding and scheming on my own album that would not get done so quickly.”
Becker first planned to do an instrumental album, but soon decided he could express far more with lyrics. There was one problem. He hadn’t sung since his days playing in garage bands while growing up in Queens, N.Y.
“With Steely Dan,” Becker says, “the fact that Donald sounded so much better made me defer to him. Besides, I didn’t like the sound of my voice at the time. I was concentrating on smoking cigarettes. Now I’ve stopped smoking. I just needed to take the time to figure out how to optimize the vocal ability I have.” Becker poses no threat to Fagen’s vocal supremacy in Steely Dan. But he delivers the darkly humorous lyrics of “11 Tracks of Whack” effectively in a slightly frayed voice. His songs are more impressive. Accompanied by several of the jazz artists he’s produced, such as Lost Tribe, saxophonist Bob Sheppard and pianist John Beasley, Becker strips down the Steely Dan sound and tilts it away from keyboards toward guitars.
“Having experienced studio burnout in the past,” Becker says, “I didn’t want to get involved in making an immensely time-consuming, perfect, layered studio thing. These days, things like that tend to sound bland anyway. I wanted the emphasis on the songs and the groove.”
Now the stage seems set for the next step in the renewal of the Fagen-Becker partnership a new Steely Dan album. But Becker is non-commital.
“We recorded a bunch of shows last year for a live album,” he says, “but we didn’t feel we had enough for an album. We’re going to record this tour and we’ll see what we get. “As far as a studio album goes, I’ve found that making predictions about what Donald and I are going to do is a thankless task. I’m just amazed at the level of interest in Steely Dan music that persists to this day. So we’ll see.”
Be assured, with or without Steely Dan, Becker will be — back.
“I’ve discovered the satisfaction involved in playing music is very great,” he says. “Playing those guitars is so much fun, music wins out over any possible alternative. I don’t know what I’ll be doing, but I’ll be doing something.”