*Late one summer afternoon in the late ‘90s, I was about to end a day’s hang at Le Gonks West, George Duke’s cozy, venerable recording studio that sits on the grounds of his Hollywood Hills home, when I requested of Duke a “doggie bag” to ride with—-in this case, please, man, make me a copy of “Do What Cha Wanna,” a funky track he recorded with legendary drummer Billy Cobham during their mid ‘70s collaboration, The Billy Cobham/George Duke Band, and the languid, hopeful “Someday,” from Duke’s 1975 album, “I Love The Blues, She Heard My Cry.”
“That’s the first one,” Duke quipped regarding the version of “Someday” I’d asked for. He recut the song again for his 1982 album, “Dream On.”
“Yeah, I know,” I answered. “That’s the version I want, the first one.”
“Really? That’s the one you want?” Duke seemed dismayed.
“Yep. Give me the original.”
“Awwww, man, you don’t want THAT one; that’s a LOUSY vocal.” He was joking in the way people josh when they’re serious. I told him I preferred the original version of “Someday” because it was earnest and charming in its simplicity, whereas the second version, with the keyboard solo, while great, sounded as if he’d sought to improve on perfection.
“And hey, Duke,” I said, “I’ve always dug your singing. Especially your harmonies.”
“Well, now, I can DO me some harmonies!” He was grinning at his own faux bluster as he rose from a swivel chair to find the tunes. “Don’t mess wit’ me and my harmonies.”
I’ve thought of that exchange ever since—I still own the cassette of those two songs he made for me–because I always found it fascinating that anyone as gifted as George Duke could consider a chink in his armor.
Fact is, Duke, who passed away on August 5 from chronic lymphocytic leukemia at age 67, was one of the most talented and accomplished creative artists to work in modern music.
To those only vaguely or not at all familiar with Duke’s name, that may sound like an exaggeration, but it’s true. As a keyboardist, synthesizer pioneer, recording artist, composer, arranger, band leader, musical director and performer, Duke was what the average Joe thinks Quincy Jones is.
Before you get bent out of shape over that one, understand that at the height of his success as a record producer, the brilliance of Jones (who, early in his career, was indeed a hands-on composer, arranger and musician) was in knowing intuitively who to call for a project—who to turn to for songs; what arrangers to recruit; what players and singers would jell during the recording of certain music (Duke was among the keyboardists Jones called to play on Michael Jackson’s “Off The Wall” album).
Duke, on the other hand, routinely did these things himself. He not only wrote, arranged, played and performed, but he did this for his recordings and those of other artists across musical genres that spanned jazz, funk, rock, soul and gospel. While other musicians might have been capable of these things, on most days Duke was somewhere–in a studio or on a stage–actually doing it.
If you are a jazz fan, you might be familiar with his work with violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, Don Ellis, Cannonball Adderly, Miles Davis, Stanley Clarke and Cobham, among a column of artists associated with groundbreaking ‘70s/’80s jazz/rock fusion, of which Duke was a torchbearer.
If you are a rock fan, you know he got one of his breaks in the ‘70s playing with the legendary Frank Zappa. If you are an old school funk fan, you remember Duke and drummer Leon “Ndugu” Chancler’s funky late ‘70s P-Funk/Bootsy Collins send up, “Reach For It” and “Dukey Stick.”
When Duke wasn’t making funk or exploring his love of Brazilian jazz, he was making pop records like “Sweet Baby” with Stanley Clarke (as the Clark/Duke Project) or working strictly as a producer, crafting for Deniece Williams the number one pop hit, “Let’s Hear It For The Boy,” or a series of R&B/pop chart records for his dear friend, Jeffrey Osborne. For singer Dianne Reeves, Duke’s cousin, he produced her 1987 breakthrough hit, “Better Days.”
However, while Duke was a successful musician/creator, he was an equally successful human being. I’m sure it must have happened, but I never saw the man in a bad mood. He always had a smile and a good word. He loved to laugh. His goodness and special way with people undoubtedly explains his ability to collaborate with so many different artists and performers with “big personalities.”
Duke’s light dimmed last July when he lost Corine, his wife and partner of more than 40 years, to cancer. If you spent any time with Duke, you met Corine. A quiet, kind and sweet woman with a tender smile, Corine was the gatekeeper of George Duke Enterprises. Unquestionably, they were the love of each other’s lives. She passed away upstairs at their home with George at her side, while Jeffrey Osborne and Chaka Khan were downstairs in the studio preparing to sing a duet that George was to produce.
Upon her departure, Duke issued a solemn, heart-rending official statement that pretty much said his life was over without his Corine. Graciously but firmly, he requested the media and the music industry at large allow him and sons Rashid and John to just be. We did. He credited working with Osborne on the singer’s current “A Time For Love” CD with getting him through the painful period during Corine’s illness. For months, he wasn’t moved to make music at all.
However, only Duke’s closest confidants knew he was ill, too. He lived long enough to record and see the July 16, 2013 release of his last CD, “Dreamweaver.” Out almost exactly a year after Corine’s passing, the collection features a tribute to her and performances by, among others, Teena Marie and master guitarist Jef Lee Johnson, who have both passed as well.
I got word of Duke’s own transition at about three AM August 6, via an email media man Ron Brewington forwarded from singer Scherrie Payne. I’ve been thinking of George–wondering if he’s come face to face with some of those surreal chords he once played–ever since.
There are those we expect to lose. Arrogantly, we prepare ourselves to hear about the passing of people whose time we believe is limited. For me, George Duke wasn’t one of those people. I just figured he’d be around forever.
No more taking life for granted for me. Thanks to Sir Duke, I believe I’m finally done with Somedays.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected].