As one of the co-leaders of Steely Dan, Donald Fagen developed a smooth, sophisticated blend of jazz, R&B, pop, and rock, a fusion that relied on lyrical wit, technical acumen, and smooth groove. Along with his partner Walter Becker, Fagen honed this style over the course of the 1970s, a journey culminating with 1980′s Gaucho. The pair parted ways after its release and while they’d reunite a decade later — first on each other’s solo records, then on-stage, and then ultimately in the studio with 2000′s Grammy-winning Two Against Nature — their 1980s hiatus gave Fagen the opportunity to establish himself as a solo artist with The Nightfly, a 1982 album that generated the hits “I.G.Y.” and “New Frontier” on its way to platinum status and a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year. Instead of delivering a sequel, Fagen spent the 1980s writing a column for Premiere magazine, stepping away from this task to compose the score for the 1988 film adaptation of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City. Not long afterward, he delivered his second solo album Kamakiriad in 1993, Steely Dan returned to active duty. While the band remained on the road over the years, Fagen would step away from the group to release such solo albums as 2006′s Morph the Cat and 2012′s Sunken Condos, as well as teaming with Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs in the touring revue the Dukes of September. After Becker’s death in 2017, Fagen continued to tour with Steely Dan, unofficially dubbing this incarnation the Steely Dan Band.
The son of an accountant and homemaker, Donald Fagen was born on January 10, 1948 in Passaic, New Jersey. His family settled in the suburb of Kendall Park, a move that made the young Fagen bristle. He soothed himself with records and radio, eventually gravitating from rock & roll to jazz, spending his adolescence making the trek into Greenwich Village to attend gigs at the Village Vanguard. Fagen began to expand his musical palette in his late teens, captivated by soul, R&B, and funk, obsessions that dovetailed with his love of beat poetry.
Upon his high school graduation in 1965, he attended Bard College. A few years later, he happened to hear Walter Becker playing guitar at a local cafe. Impressed with what he heard, Fagen struck up a friendship with Becker that soon turned collaborative. They wrote songs together and launched bands, including the Bad Rock Group, which featured the future Saturday Night Live breakout star Chevy Chase on drums. Once Fagen graduated from Bard, he and Becker moved to New York with the intention of becoming Brill Building songwriters. They amassed demos, composed the soundtrack of the low-budget film You’ve Got to Walk It Like You Talk It or You’ll Lose That Beat, were an integral part of a touring incarnation of Jay and the Americans, then had several of their songs cut on I Mean to Shine, an album produced by Gary Katz for Linda Hoover.
Katz became a staff producer for ABC Records, signing Becker and Fagen as staff songwriters. Once these songs proved too idiosyncratic for other artists, Katz encouraged Fagen and Becker to form their own group. Taking their name from a dildo in William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, the duo formed Steely Dan along with guitarists Denny Dias, Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, drummer Jim Hodder and singer David Palmer. Their first single, “Dallas” — which featured Fagen singing its flipside “Sail the Waterway” — didn’t go anywhere in June 1972, but “Do It Again,” which followed that November, climbed into Billboard’s Top Ten, with “Reelin’ in the Years” nearly matching that achievement in 1973. Both songs were pulled from Can't Buy a Thrill, the full-length debut that established Steely Dan as a dextrous, clever rock band.
For a while, Steely Dan attempted to act as a normal rock band, recording the flinty Countdown to Ecstasy and supporting it with an extensive tour in 1973, moves that shored up their support in the FM-oriented album rock scene. Pretzel Logic consolidated their status as hitmakers once “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” went to number four in 1974 but during the album’s supporting tour, Fagen and Becker found themselves exhausted with live performance, so they decided to retreat to the studio for 1975′s Katy Lied. With that record, the duo began to rely on skilled session players, a trait they’d emphasize on 1976′s The Royal Scam and Aja, the 1977 album that became their best-seller on the back of the singles “Peg” and “Deacon Blues.”
Gaucho found Fagen and Becker slide into a gilded groove but its smooth surface camouflaged its tumultuous creation. After its release in 1980, the pair separated, with Becker retreating to Maui to tend to personal problems, while Fagen launched a solo career of his own. Loosely based on his childhood and picking up the sonic threads left from Gaucho, The Nightfly was a smash upon its release in 1982, generating the Top 40 hit “I.G.Y. (What a Beautiful World) and earning a platinum certification from the RIAA along with a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year. The Nightfly also produced another minor hit in “New Frontier,” whose knowingly nostalgic video received some play during the early days of MTV.
Fagen seized opportunities provided by the success of The Nightfly, such as signing up to write a regular column for the movie magazine Premiere, yet he avoided making another collection of original material. During the rest of the 1980s, he released only one additional new composition: “Century’s End,” which appeared as part of the score he composed for James Bridges’ 1988 adaptation of the Jay McInerney novel Bright Lights, Big City, which starred Michael J. Fox. At the close of the decade, Fagen made an unexpected return to the stage with the New York Rock and Soul Revue, a collective that also featured his old Steely Dan cohort Michael McDonald, Boz Scaggs, Phoebe Snow, and Libby Titus, who would later marry Fagen. This ever-evolving band was captured on the 1991 live album The New York Rock and Soul Revue: Live at the Beacon.
During the mid-1980s, Fagen had a quiet reunion with Becker, with the pair both appearing on Zazu, a 1986 LP by Rosie Vela that was produced by Gary Katz. The two had a few tentative songwriting reunions before landing upon the idea of having their partner produce their own solo album. Becker helmed Fagen’s 1993 Kamakiriad, which earned a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year, while Fagen co-produced 11 Tracks of Whack, the 1994 solo debut by Becker. To support these two records, along with the comprehensive box set Citizen Steely Dan, they launched their first tour in twenty years, a jaunt documented on the 1995 album Alive in America.
This reunion reached its fruition with the 2000 release of Two Against Nature, Steely Dan’s first album in twenty years. Winning four Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year, Two Against Nature helped turn Steely Dan into an active band again. Although they’d release only one additional album–Everything Must Go, which appeared in 2003–they’d stay on the road through Becker’s death in 2017. Between these tours, Fagen occasionally stepped away from the band, releasing Morph the Cat in 2006, then Sunken Condos in 2012, the same year that the keyboardist launched the Dukes of September, a revue featuring Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs. Fagen published his memoir, Eminent Hipsters, in 2013, then returned to the road with Steely Dan, The band played shows with Elvis Costello in 2015, the same year they played the Coachella festival, and Steve Winwood in 2016.
Following Becker’s death on September 3, 2017, Fagen honored several previous Steely Dan concert commitments. By the end of the year, he claimed that he would’ve retired the Steely Dan name but promoters convinced him that the group’s name remained a bigger concert draw, so he continued to tour as Steely Dan into the 2020s, unofficially calling the new lineup “The Steely Dan Band.” ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine