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George Duke: Facing the Music

Jeff Winbush By

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AAJ: It's impressive how you pay homage to the Mahavishnu Orchestra, but without using a guitarist. You played the guitar riff on a synthesizer.

GD: Right. There was no guitar on that song. I may have played it on a Nord ES8, but I've always played synth like that. I wanted to close my eyes and play synth like I used to. It's kind of tough to play it on the road because I don't carry a second keyboard player, so there's no chord structure, and a song like that needs someone to stay home. I wanted the solo to be daring but melodic.

It's been very interesting reading the reviews of this record which have been 95 percent positive. The other five percent have said it's not daring enough or it's a smooth jazz record. I grew up listening to Miles Davis in the '50s—that's smooth jazz to me. It's not Boney James and those guys. I love Boney, but that's not what the attitude of this record is.

AAJ: I'll use the cliché and say the old school is in full effect on this record. How far did you go back in the George Duke archives for some of the songs?

GD: "Stupid Is As Stupid Does" is a new song. That's something I wrote because I wanted a song with a horn front like we used to do back in the old days. In this case, the horn players weren't around when we cut it. Everyone's schedule did not permit this, but the majority of the songs were all done at the same time. The rhythm section played solos. We went in and tracked and then brought in Hubert Laws, Nicholas Payton and Bob Sheppard separately. It was basically the way we used to do it where everybody has a solo spot, except for the bassist in this case. It was almost like a old CTI record.

AAJ: Regarding "Ripple In Time," the trumpet playing by Oscar Brashear is a shout-out to Miles Davis. You played with Miles in his final years, and nobody comes away from working with Miles without some impression: good, bad or otherwise.

GD: He could be extremely intimidating. Matter of fact, I was playing with Cannonball Adderley at the Beacon Theater in New York. We had finished our show and I was out front listening to John McLaughlin, and Miles came to the show.

He said [slips into gravelly Miles Davis voice], "Hey man, what you doin' in this band?"

I was, like, "Damn, did I just get dissed?" I didn't know if he was saying I wasn't good enough to be in Cannonball's band. I didn't know how to take that comment.

Years later, Miles would come to my shows in New York but he wouldn't say anything to me. A murmur would go through the audience: "Miles is in the room!"

As time went by, he'd call me on the phone and tell me he wanted me to write a tune for him. He actually asked me to join his band at one point. We were never close friends and I wasn't in his band, but we had this weird kind of relationship especially when he was with Cicely Tyson. I'd see him all the time. He said, "George, I want you to write me a tune."

I wrote "Backyard Ritual" and sent it over to him as a demo thinking he'd go in and re-record it live with his guys. But he said, "I like it because it sounds funny."

I said, "Miles, that's a demo. We're going to come in and re-cut it."

Miles said, "Naw, man. I like it the way it is."

And that's the way it came out. "Backyard Ritual" is a demo Miles played over. I never saw him in the studio.

The original song I wrote for Miles had a French-Cuban atmosphere to it. Dianne Reeves came in the studio and heard me working on it. She said, "What's that?"

I said, "This is for Miles."

She said, 'Wait a minute. We're family. I want that tune for my record."

I told her, "Well, you can't have it."

Dianne said, "We're family. You got to tell Miles he can't have it. Write him something else."

I said, "He's already heard it. You call Miles and tell him he can't have it!" She said she was already writing a lyric for it. I told her, "You gotta stop!" Well, Dianne is my cousin so I had to call Miles tell him. I said, "Hey Miles?"


"You know that I tune I wrote for you?"


"You know my cousin, Dianne Reeves?"


"Uh, can I write you another tune? She wants it for her album."

Miles cussed me up and down. It took him about 15 minutes of swearing at me and her. "Tell that blankety-blank to get her own song!"

The song that came out of it for Dianne's album was "Fumilayo," and it was nominated for a Grammy. It didn't win, but it started out as a song for Miles Davis.

AAJ: You hear these amazing stories about how intimidating Miles was and you think no way could it be true, but maybe it is.

GD: Miles was quite a character and much funnier than most people realize, especially if you were with him one-on-one—very interesting dude.

AAJ: Speaking of Dianne Reeves, she is among the many artists you've produced, along with Rachelle Ferrell, Everette Harp, Jeffrey Osbourne, Marilyn Scott, Denice Williams and so on. How did you get into the production end of the business?

GD: I began producing a vocal act many years ago, called Third Wave—three Filipino sisters—for Saba Records, which became MPS, which became BASF. My initial records The Aura Will Prevail (1976) and Feel (1974) were on that label. The Third Wave record only sold in Europe, but I got a call from Larkin Arnold at Capitol Records, and he asked me to produce Raul D'Souza. I knew Raul. He was from Brazil, played trombone, and I played trombone too.

At that time, the disco scene was getting strong, and I needed to find an alternative way to make a living. I thought, because I had done the funk stuff with "Reach For It" and "Dukey Stick," I had a history of selling records, but I needed to move into another area and expand.

I did two albums with Raul and got an offer from Don Mizelle at Elektra to work with Dee Dee Bridgewater. She's doing jazz records now, but back then she was kind of Earth, Wind and Fire-ized. It was not a great record, but it got my chops wet so to speak. I got another call from Bobby Colomby at Capitol to coproduce with him a record by A Taste of Honey. That was something because they had a hit with "Boogie Oogie Oogie." They were a platinum-selling group, and I had never dealt with that. I played jazz and didn't worry about sales; I only made music. Producing A Taste of Honey was another challenge.

The first day we were in the studio, Bobby told me, "You don't need me for this. You produce it." That was completely scary. I had never done a record like this, but I took on the challenge. Fortunately, the third single, "Sukiyaki," sold two million records. Once you have a record like that, that sells those kinds of numbers, the phone starts ringing. I got a call from Jeffrey Osbourne, that led to Deniece Williams, that led to Sister Sledge, Barry Manilow, Anita Baker, and on and on. So then I had the R&B thing, plus the jazz thing. I stayed in the studio for the next 15 to 20 years, and that's what I did.


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