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George Duke: Facing the Music

Jeff Winbush By

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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?"

"Yeah."

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

"Yeah."

"You know my cousin, Dianne Reeves?"

"Yeah."

"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.

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.
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