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George Duke: Facing the Music

Jeff Winbush By

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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.

AAJ: When you were wearing your producer's hat, you still tapped into your jazz background. Nobody had heard a song like "Sukiyaki" with a Japanese instrument like the koto in it.



GD: I had worked with a group called Hiroshima and I knew June Kuramoto, who is an extraordinary koto player and could play in a pop concept. I asked her to come in and do something on the song, but it was Janice Johnson, the band's bassist, that brought the song to me. I was, like, "Man, what am I going to do with 'Sukiyaki'?" I thought she was crazy, but I said, "If that's what she wants to do, I'll do it." We did the song and had Claire Fisher do the string arrangement and brought June in to give it a Japanese flavor. We added a R&B section, and that was it. It was a simple tune I never thought would become a hit. To this day, I can't believe it was as big a record as it was.

AAJ: Does having the kind of success as a producer of big hits like "Sukiyaki" and "Let's Hear It For the Boy" begin to pull you away from your solo career?

GD: It did turn into that. The offers came in, and it was very tough to turn them down. During the '80s and '90s, I would go out in the summer to something like the Montreux Festival with a band I'd put together. Otherwise, I was in the studio producing records until the bottom fell out of the industry. Those were my golden years in terms of producing because the money was there and artists were willing to try something with a "jazz artist" like me.

It was tough, though, for the record labels to accept that black artists could sell those kind of numbers of records. With Jeffrey Osbourne and "Stay With Me" and "On the Wings of Love," or even "Sukiyaki"—Janice had to force Capitol to put that record out as a single. When Stanley Clarke and I made "Sweet Baby" we believed in it, but we had to get behind it with our own money. We had to hire an independent publicist to support that record, but once it started selling, only then did Epic Records put their full weight behind it. The pop music department said, "You guys are jazz artists."

The R&B department said, "Nothing we can do with this."

The jazz department said, "It's not a jazz record."

We had no choice but to step outside the system.

AAJ: Many people portray record labels as being full of people who were bold thinkers trying to find and promote new and exciting music, but it seems like there were actually a lot of guys who stood in the way of creativity.

GD: I think some of the best visionaries of that time were the ones that stayed out of the way and let the artists do what they do, especially if they weren't drugged out or crazy. That's changed now. A lot of it is done by committee, with the A&R department saying, "You'll record this song and work with that producer," and that kind of stuff.

All the records I did with Jeffrey, Denice or Barry Manilow—I dealt directly with the artist. My relationship with the record company was strictly a legal and business one, not creative. I was the voice between the label and the artist, and I translated back and forth. We'd keep them abreast of what was going on, but they weren't telling us what to do.

AAJ: You seem to have mastered both the artistic and the business aspects of the musical industry. How did you learn to handle matters not just in the recording studio but in the suites of record companies as well?

GD: I guess I was blessed. There's nobody that was teaching me this. To a degree, it was working with Frank Zappa that had an influence on me. Watching him and how he seemed to control his own destiny influenced me quite a bit. He was the only musician I met that was that self-contained. Zappa knew as much as the engineer about the recording studio, had the business aspect together, and he had to be able to play the crazy music he made. It was always interesting to me to play that kind of stuff that wasn't on the radio except from midnight to 5:00 a.m. on some obscure station. He had this huge audience, and we could sell out places most pop artists couldn't.

I took something from that. Something told me I should not give up my publishing rights. I've been asked many times to give up my songwriting rights. I've been told, "We want your song for Michael Jackson, but you have to give up your publishing rights," and I said, "No. Uh-uh. It ain't gonna happen." They would say, "But your song won't go on the record," and I'd reply, "Well then, it ain't going." It takes some chutzpah to do this because I know I'm giving up money. But something told me to hold onto my rights, and that extends into recording where I have my own label and control my own product.

AAJ: The four-CD box set My Soul: The Complete MPS Fusion Recordings (MPS/Universal, 2008) should be required listening for anyone wanting to know where the roots of George Duke and a good part of fusion first came into bloom. What are your memories of that time?

GD: It was a wonderful, experimental time because MPS gave me freedom to do whatever I wanted to do without any interference whatsoever. MPS was what Saba Records folded into, and it was owned by a German named Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer. He's dead now—passed away in an auto accident. There were no holds barred then. I don't think I could have done that in America. Those records were me trying to find out who I was.

AAJ: What is the difference between who you were as an artist then and who you are now?

GD: I was very young then. I was in my early twenties. At this point, my interests are elsewhere. Before I check out, I'd like to do another fusion record and a second Brazilian Love Affair. I want to work with African and Indian musicians, or do something that is strictly conceptually based—not necessarily a pop record, but with musicians who don't know an A from a B-flat.

Maybe a little bit of My Soul can be found on Déjà Vu and Dukey Treats, but that was another person.

AAJ: You are one of the pioneers of the usage of electric keyboards in jazz, along with Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul. What did electric keyboards and synthesizers bring to jazz that was previously missing?

GD: I would no more want to get rid of my synthesizers than my television or refrigerator. Technology doesn't bother me. Synthesizers, televisions and refrigerators are great inventions and innovations. I think technology is an amazing thing in the hands of someone who knows what to do with it. Synthesizers allowed a keyboard player to orchestrate and be a one-man band. In the hands of someone who doesn't, it can be awful.

I did a date at Carnegie Hall with Herbie Hancock and Stanley Clarke, and Herbie shows up with a drum machine, and I said, "What's that?"

He said, "Oh man, it's a drum machine. We're going to play with it tonight."

He plugged it in and it went doo-doo-bop, doo-doo-bop, and I said, "Is that it?"

I love synthesizers, but they have their place. It shouldn't replace real musicians and their interaction. What drew me into synthesizers is because I wanted to bend a note. On the piano, you're stuck. I wanted to play like a Yusef Lateef, who played flute, and I thought, "If I can get a sound like that, I'm done." When I did, I said, "That's my voice. This is my spoke in the wheel." I can play blues on the synthesizer. Nobody else is doing that. Every musician, if they're going to be successful, has to figure out where they fit, and for me that was it.

I'll admit I did some pretty awful thing with drum machines. I regret doing Jeffery Osbourne's second album with them. We would let the Linn go with one beat for eight bars, and it really bothers me. It would have been a much better record with a real drummer. The problem is, musicians can become enamored with sound rather than song construction. You can get lost in the vibe.

AAJ: You've been pretty candid on your website in your critique of Thief In the Night (1985), your first album for Elektra Records after you left Epic. What went wrong?

GD: Bob Krasnow (chairman and CEO of Elektra) was probably more controlling than anyone at Epic was, but that was the biggest contract I ever had. I had never seen money like that. Unfortunately, the Elektra recordings didn't live to it. They didn't sell in the numbers we had hoped for.

I don't know what I was trying to do on that record. I guess I was trying to find myself vocally. I don't know what to say about that record.

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