In their official press bio timeline for their multiple Grammy winning 2000 comeback album Two Against Nature, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen mention an obscure Charlie Parker recording and say wry things like "Becker is born in a hospital steps away from a popular midtown Manhattan bar as war looms on the Korean peninsula." Outsiders to the Steely Dan experience might scratch their heads, but it's this blend of wry humor and deep jazz influences that led the duo to great critical and commercial acclaim in the 70s.
The duo first met at Bard College in 1967 and performed together in various small-time groups before moving to New York City in 1971 to become professional songwriters. Through their publishing house, they met producer Gary Katz, who suggested they form a band in order to have more of their songs recorded.
Calling themselves Steely Dan, the name of a dildo in William Burroughs' novel Naked Lunch, the duo recruited a cast of session musicians -- Denny Dias (guitar), Jeff "Skunk" Baxter (guitar), David Palmer (keyboards) and Jim Hodder (drummer) to record 1972's Can't Buy a Thrill for ABC Records. Their blend of rock, jazz, blues and soul was a unique presence on the pop charts, where "Do It Again" and "Reeling in the Years" hit the Top Ten. Palmer quit the band after a disastrous first tour, and the band's 1973 follow-up Countdown to Ecstacy was a commercial disappointment.
Changing drummers and permanently replacing Palmer with Michael McDonald, the group returned to the studio for their third album, 1974's Pretzel Logic, which featured the Top 10 hit "Rikki Don't Lose That Number." Voluntarily choosing to stop touring, Becker and Fagen gathered a new cast of studio cats for 1975's Katy Lied, which became a cult hit. Following the release of 1976's The Royal Scam, the duo hired a host of jazz fusion musicians (Wayne Shorter, Lee Ritenour, Larry Carlton, The Crusaders) to join their 1977 release the sophisticated Aja, which reached the Top 5 and became their first platinum record. Aja also gained the respect of many jazz musicians, as evidenced by Woody Herman recording an album of Becker/Fagen songs in 1978.
A few contractual snags upon MCA's acquisition of ABC delayed the release of Gaucho till late 1980, but the album quickly entered the Top Ten on the strength of the hit "Hey Nineteen." Fagen and Becker broke up in 1981, but Fagen continued on with the essential Dan sound with his solo debut The Nightfly (1982). Becker spent some of the '80s producing albums by China Crisis and Rickie Lee Jones.
In May 1990 the pair regrouped in New York's Hit Factory studio to collaborate on material for a forthcoming Fagen project. They stated emphatically that this was not the second coming of Steely Dan, however. Although it took a further three years, the partnership worked together on Fagen's Kamakiriad and played live shows as Steely Dan to delighted fans. Becker released his solo debut, the largely ignored 11 Tracks Of Whack, in 1994. Not all hungry fans were satisfied by their official comeback Two Against Nature in 2000, but it won the Grammy for best album and several other awards.
The duo was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, and released Everything Must Go in 2003.