George Duke: Facing the Music

Jeff Winbush By

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AAJ: You rebounded with follow-ups George Duke (Elektra, 1986) and Night After Night (Elektra, 1989).

GD: Night After Night is one I sell on my website now because I got so many requests for it after it went out of print. With that record, Bob really left me alone. With the first two albums, I was trying to make a hit record and I was trying too hard. I thought we had a "We Are the World"-type record with "Good Friend," with Jeffrey Osbourne, Stephanie Mills, Kenny Loggins, and Denice Williams among the singers, but it never really made it. With the third record, I didn't worry about making a hit. There's a lot of vocals on it, but I just focused on making something that would make me feel good.

After I left Elektra, I had a year off where I wasn't recording for anyone until I signed with Warner Brothers to record Snapshot (Warner Brothers, 1993). I just happened to get lucky with "No Rhyme, No Reason" which was a R&B smash.

AAJ:: That was a staple for the late-night, "Quiet Storm" format.

GD: I can't leave the stage without doing that, "Reach For It" and "Dukey Stick."

AAJ: You mention on your website that as popular as funk has been for you here in America, it hasn't always traveled as well overseas with the audiences over there.

GD: I took my funk band with Sheila E. over to the Berlin Jazz Festival, and they threw stuff at us! We were two numbers in, and we had to leave the stage. I'd never been on stage and had them throw stuff as us because they didn't like what we were playing.

Now I play a tour in Europe, and I can't leave the stage without playing some funk. I get emails from overseas where they say, "I hope you'll play some funk." It's like they've caught up with America. Funk was considered a "black thing," then. When you're playing funk or The Clarke/Duke Project, it's still a pretty mixed audience, but in Europe when you're playing jazz, it's predominantly white. When we hit with "Sweet Baby," my lord, all of a sudden we had a female audience. With "Reach For It" and "Dukey Stick," it was like Afro Nation.

Funk is universal. It just took the Germans some time to catch up. I play "Dukey Stick" over there now, and it's like the Mothership landed. It's very interesting to see.

AAJ: What changed for you when you signed with Epic Records and cut your first two albums for them, From Me To You (1977) and Reach For It (1977)?

GD: I had come from MPS, where I had a lot of freedom but not a lot of money. When I went to Epic, where I had what I considered a big budget, I said, "Man, I've got money to make a real record with real strings," so I went crazy. I wanted strings. I wanted horns. I wanted singers. And the record was kind of a hodgepodge of stuff. It didn't really work as well as it should have. On the next album, I had a band that had been traveling awhile. We developed a personality as musicians. "Reach For It" began in Washington, D.C., as a drum solo played live, and I started playing the bass line and people started yelling and screaming. I looked at Byron Miller, the bassist, and told him to play a solo, and it worked.

We went in the studio and I said, "Man, you remember what we did?"

They said, "Yeah," and we recorded a whole roll of tape on it. That became the hit off that record, but there was really nothing else on there like it. We were still a jazz group. We played a lot of Latin and fusion, so that was the transition between those two records because they were very different attitudes.

AAJ: How did the record company react to "Reach For It?"

GD: I was in Europe, where we were playing a tour, and the record company called. There were no cell phones or text messages at this time. They said, "You gotta get back to the States right away! We got a hit record here!"

I said, "What are you talking about?"

"You must come back now," they insisted. The record was breaking out of the D.C., Baltimore and Detroit area, and permeated the rest of the country.

We came back from jazz clubs and festivals in front of mixed audiences, to playing concerts in front of 98-percent black audiences because black radio broke that record. We went from playing clubs that held a few hundred, to drawing 8,000 to 10,000 people a night. For me, after working in small clubs, this was like, "Oh, my God." And we still only had one funk song.

AAJ: Was it difficult making the switch from playing to a jazz fusion audience to doing shows where all they knew was "Reach For It?"

GD: It was very tough. That's why I did the Don't Let Go (Epic, 1978) album to try and solidify the audience I had gained, but still try to bring them with me. I could do funk, but for some of them, that's all they knew. They didn't know any of that other material I had done. I didn't want to lose the audience, but I tried to bring some of them with me to open their minds to other kinds of music. It was not easy.

The audiences were looking at us, wondering what the heck we were about. I also realized I had to become more visual. Most of the stuff we were playing, I was walled behind a bunch of keyboards. We were essentially a jazz group that played one funky tune. By Don't Let Go, I had encased my keyboards with Plexiglas, and I wanted to get something to wear around my neck. I searched for a keyboard I could put around my neck like a guitarist so I could come out front and work the audience. That developed to what some call the "Dukey Stick" now.

But there was a lot of good stuff on the [Reach For It] album. We were playing some hot Latin, Santana-style stuff. We had some other funk on there with Stanley, but there was nothing else like "Reach For It."

AAJ: You pulled a left turn with A Brazilian Love Affair. What was the impetus for that album?

GD: I don't think a musician should sit still. I'd gone to Brazil with Cannonball Adderley in 1971 and promised myself one day I'd come back and record with Brazilians. I started listening to Brazilian music when I was 19. I'd go see Sergio Mendes and Brazil '65 and listen to bossa nova records. But when I went to Brazil, I got introduced to another kind of music like Milton Nascimento. I got a suitcase, stuffed it with LPs and came home to listen to them one after another. With "Reach For It" and "Dukey Stick" doing as well as they did, I went to Epic and said, "Guys, I wanna go to Brazil and do an album," and they said okay and gave me a budget. They hooked me up with a lady in the international department who spoke fluent Portuguese. I took my band with to play with the Brazilian musicians to get a true melding of styles. It was a wonderful thing, and I want to do another one, no doubt about it. It's been one of my most enjoyable experiences.

AAJ: There seemed to be some turnover going on in your band after A Brazilian Love Affair.

GD: The band had changed by the time of Master of the Game (Epic, 1979). Ricky Lawson had replaced Leon "Ndugu" Chancler on drums and we had a different guitarist, so the personality of the band had changed. That was the end of an era. It's a Star Trek philosophy: we've conquered this; what's on that star to the left? Funk had kind of died out. The radio stations weren't playing it. That's why I started producing at that point.

The disco thing had become very strong, and I wanted to see if there was a way to incorporate that into what I do. I like chord changes and all that, but I wanted to see if I could use that beat, and consequently I came up with a song called "I Want You For Myself." That actually did pretty well, but its still had a lot of improvisation and music in it.

Once that band was done, I disbanded it and stayed in the studio. The result of that was Dream On (Epic, 1982), and fortunately I had a song, "Shine On," that—outside of this country, in Japan and France—became a huge hit. The odd part was when "Shine On" became a disco hit. I wrote it as a ballad. At the time, Epic sent me a letter saying they weren't going to release my records in Japan for lack of sales. When this hit and I went back over there, I had little schoolgirls following me around giggling and chasing me into stores. Well, fortunately, that's over [laughs]. I was trying to incorporate that disco thing into my music without bastardizing it. Whether or not I was successful is for somebody else to decide.

AAJ: Had you become more comfortable as a vocalist to step out take the lead as a singer?

GD: I've never been comfortable with my vocals, and I don't consider myself a singer. I'm a pianist who sings a little bit. The only reason I started singing was to sell records. I admit that. Vocals seem to connect in a way instrumentals do not, and I thought that was okay in spots, not for an entire record. I still do the same thing now. Déjà Vu has a lot of vocals.

George Duke Band, Performing at JazzKaar 2010

I think I'm a better vocalist now than I've ever been, but I don't have as much voice. The falsetto is pretty much on its way out. What did Al Jarreau call it—"Mutiny On the Body"?

AAJ: How did the Muir Woods Suite (Warner Bros., 1993) come to pass?

GD: I had been writing stuff since college. My thesis was to write an opera. I began to write some orchestral things, and I was a music composition major. In between tours and records, I was writing the Muir Woods Suite (Warner Bros., 1993). I had the movements done, and I put them in my synthesizer and played all the parts just so I could hear it. I figured I never would do it with a real orchestra.

I took the three movements to give to Claude Nobs of the Montreux Festival. I was going to give it to Claude at a party Quincy Jones was throwing. It was on a cassette, and Claude took it and started playing it at the party. I was having a drink and suddenly it was like, "Hey, what is that coming over Quincy's stereo?" It got real quiet, and people started crowding around it. I was, like, "Oh man, I gave it to Claude to take back to his hotel room. What's he doing playing it here?" I was kind of embarrassed and walked out on the terrace. Quincy came up to me and said, "Dukey"—he calls me "Dukey." "We need to do at the festival this year.

I said, "You mean next year."

He said, "No, I mean this year." That only gave me three months to finish it. I came back and cleared out my schedule to finish the four movements. Whooo! It was a lot of work to do in three weeks.



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