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George Duke: Facing the Music

Jeff Winbush By

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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.

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.
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