For over four decades, George Duke has been an anomalous musical mainstay. It’s safe to say that his prolific and vast output has effectively helped generously expand the parameters of the art form into the stratosphere. Evidenced in his exemplary work with a diverse array of artists such as Dee Dee Bridgewater, A Taste Of Honey, Jeffrey Osborne, Rachelle Ferrell, and Anita Baker, his ability to connect the dots and play with the changes between jazz, soul, funk, and beyond is unparalleled. Between recording sessions at his California studio, George Duke discussed Parliament-Funkadelic’s influence on his first excursion into funk, how his pop hit “Sweet Baby” almost never was, and his thoughts on the new generation of artists.
Phone interview conducted October 13, 2011
What’s going on people! This is your man Rico, a.k.a Superbizzee, for SoulMusic.com, and I'm on the line with none other than the legendary Mr. George Duke. How you doing, Mr. Duke?
George Duke: I'm all right; I'm all right.
Rico: Good, good, good. So I hear that you are in the studio. Are you cooking up something fresh for us?
GD: [Laughs] Well, I am actually doing several different things. I am actually working with a singer from Indonesia; I am finishing up an album for that. And it's kind of an interesting thing--a mix of styles, and I got a lot of different stars and stuff on it, from singers to musicians. Matter of fact, I got Marcus Miller coming in here on Monday to play … so David Sandborn’s playing on the record - you would love … a whole bunch of people that are good friends of mine.
R: That sounds like a plan, man; I can't wait to hear it.
R: So, I guess we can get started with your history. You’re from San Rafael [California], right?
GD: San Rafael, yeah.
R: Ok. So tell us a little bit about the first forays into music for a young Mr. Duke.
GD: Well, you know, the interesting thing is there was always music around my house. I mean my mom used to play music. She could play a little piano, and my aunt lived with us for a while--her name was Grace; I call her aunt Grace, and she played and sang so there was always something going on. And what really kind of messed me up is that my uncle had a bunch of 78 rpm; those young folks probably won't even know what that is. Those old, thick records … what you call “acetate,” or what … and we used to play … I used to play old Woody Herman records--whatever he had, you know, Duke Ellington, all kinds of stuff. And I was like, man, I'm not hearing this kind of music on the radio, so that’s kind of what happened to me. And then, of course, every Sunday, there would be just this wave of gospel music in my house from morning ‘til night. Whether it be Mahalia Jackson … whoever, they were all in there, and then I go to church and spend three hours. And I used to listen to the organ player who was very soulful, and so that was my earliest recollection of music, other than the mind blowing thing that happened to me when my mom took me to see Duke Ellington; that’s what really kind of sealed the deal.
R: Wow! Ok, how old were you around that time?
GD: I was four and a half. Yeah she took me to see Duke, and I thought he was a relative.
GD: You know his name was Duke. (Laughs) you know … but seriously, that’s what they called him. And I just thought it was an amazing thing, man, because all these people were clapping and having a good time. The music was over my head; I didn’t understand it. But it made me feel good, and it was nice, at my age, to see a black man doing something positive. He was dressed well; he spoke eloquently, but at the same time, he was kind of like the guys around the neighborhood. He had an interesting mix of dialects, you know, interesting mix of music. I mean when he put his hands down, I found out later, he was playing the piano, and when he'd wave his hands I thought he was waving, but like magic these other guys on the stage would start playing. So later I found out he was conducting. So it was just an amazing thing, and I told my mom. I said," I don’t know what he is doing but I want to do that; I want to be him."
R: Wow. So that was your first instruction on what it's actually like to be a concertmaster, or a producer, or an arranger.
GD: Yeah, I mean it was just … it just was positive, and people seemed to like it. They were smiling, and I said, " I don’t know what this is, but I want to do it." It made me feel good, and I would be dancing in the aisles, and my mom told me I was just running all around the back of the auditorium, just [Laughs] dancing, and all that. I don’t remember that part of it, but she told me that’s what I was doing, and eventually, a few years later, when I was seven years old, she got me a piano and I started studying privately.
R: Ok, so did you actually go to school and have formal music instruction or education?
GD: Absolutely, absolutely. Besides the training that I got at school, which was very important, I mean, that was like the back up for what I was learning privately. Yeah, I studied from the time I was seven years old, probably ‘til the time I was twenty years old in college, studying piano. So definitely, I had formal education. I studied at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where I received my Bachelors, and went on to be a composition major at California State University in San Francisco.
R: All right, so I guess let’s fast forward a little bit, and into your early 20s, because it looks like that’s when you really got started, in terms of recording. You started out with Jean Luc Ponty.
GD: Yeah, Jean Luc … kind of gave me a shot in the arm, because I found out he was coming to America, and I had heard his records on this station called K-Jazz up in San Francisco, and I just knew that I was the guy to play with him. So when I found out that he was coming to Los Angeles I did everything I could to try to let him know that I was around and existed, so I sent tapes … I sent …I made phone calls, and I found out who the guy was bringing him over. His name was Dick Bach; he worked at a record company called World Pacific Jazz Records, which is part of the United Artist family, and eventually, I guess Jean Luc heard the tape and said, "Okay, lets give the kid a shot." And that really is … about what it was. I didn't have any expectations … I didn’t know him, and no contacts to recommend me or anything, and Jean Luc just decided to give me a shot … I told him that … not just me, but I was actually working for my group, which was the entire trio.
R: Ok, so you mean the George Duke trio.
GD: Yeah. Right, the trio, because we had been a working aggregation before, a working band, for about two or three years … up in the bay area … we had a sound, and I just figured we knew what to do with Jean Luc, and it proved to be true.
R: Alright so, going from there, its seems like you ended up, what most people would see or deem as one of the most unlikely places, with the very eclectic Mr. Frank Zappa and his Mother's of Invention. How did that come about?
GD: [Laughs] Well, Frank actually came to see Jean Luc at this club in L.A., and I just happened to be there. Now, he wasn’t the only one there … Quincy Jones, showed up. There were a whole bunch of people that showed up at this place to see this violinist, and I just happened to be the keyboard player, and so I knew that this was a moment that I had to shine. And, we were working at a rock club, kind of deep. This rock club didn’t have a piano, so I was only playing electric piano, and one of my first experiences with playing that thing, and I really didn’t want to play it, but I had to. That was all that was there. And Jean Luc eventually … what happened is it wound up working into an album called "King Kong," and Jean Luc said the only way he was going to do this record was with Frank, doing Franks music was if he brought his keyboard player, who was me! And so, Frank got a chance to hear me, and months later, called and asked me to join the Mothers. That is really how it happened.
R: Tell me a little bit about the working process with Frank Zappa, because he is seen as a very quirky character who uses a lot of unconventional methods to his madness, so to speak.
GD: Yeah, Well. [Laughs] Yeah, he was a taskmaster. He demanded profession in his music, in terms of the way it was executed. You had to be a great player; you had to know your instrument, and it helped to know how to read music, because a lot of his stuff was written--though a lot of it was not--still it definitely helped if you could. You had to be a good musician, but at the same time, besides being a great musician, you had to have a sense of humor, which, at the time, I kind of didn’t have on stage. Maybe that was funny in itself. I don’t know; I was kind of a straight-laced jazz player, but yeah … we rehearsed all the time. If we weren’t on the road we were rehearsing … hours upon hours, I mean, all day long, into the evening. We would take a lunch break, and go back at it again. Same thing happened in the studio, as well. It was just all day and all night. I would be in there sometime, just me and Frank, you know. But he taught me a lot; he is the first one to get me to really, seriously think about singing. First one to get me to think about playing synthesizers to allow a certain amount of … comedic aspects to come out in the music, and it just opened me up musically … and life-wise really, you know, just become more comprehensive.
GD: And not so serious … he told me one day, he said, "Man you take yourself … you are too serious."
GD: “You know, you need to lighten up you don’t have to be heavy to be heavy.” I was like, "whoa, whoa, alright." [Laughs] And then, I went back and checked out some people, like Fats Waller and Dizzy Gillespie, Les McCann people like that. They were all great musicians, but they were funny, you know, and … they had a lighthearted look at life. They were just some good guys, so I decided--you know what, that’s really who I am and I decided to let me out, so he really helped that along, him and Cannonball Adderley, both.
R: It looks like, right after you did the work with Jean Luc, you actually cut an album on Liberty called Save the Country; that was the first solo adventure you had, but then a couple of years later you signed your deal to MPS.
GD: Well actually, I was with MPS before that album … it went kind of the other way around. I actually did a couple of records for… I did one record for the FABA label, which will remain nameless, because it was not a great record. That was done in 1966. That was a long time ago, I actually it around ‘65 or something, while I was at the Half Note working with Al Jarreau. And I did several albums for them, and then they turned into MPS, which became BAFF, and so … I did a few albums for them before I did any of this other stuff. Eventually, I got signed to United Artists, did one album, and that was kind of it. So I had a couple of albums before that, fortunately.
R: Got you … Talk about the musical direction you were exploring at that period. I'm sure it was influenced by your jazz background, as well as your time with Frank Zappa.
GD: Yeah I was mixed up. You know, SAVE THE COUNTRY is not a great record. There's some nice moments in there, but I was really in a learning mode, and I had absorbed a lot, and I don’t think I was really quite ready to record yet in a cohesive manner. So I had a lot of stuff that was really all over the place, and SAVE THE COUNTRY is kind of like that. There's some straight ahead jazz; there's some pop material that I tried to deal with, so it was a foray into trying to figure out who I was. That’s really, really what it was. And to tell you the truth, my first album for Epic, which came some years later, actually turned out to be the same thing … because it was the first time I actually really had a budget. That was FROM ME TO YOU album; It was the first time that I really had a good budget to make a record, and I just went all “wow.”
R: Ok. So tell me a little bit about the creation of that record, because I guess most people will see that as the beginning of your pop career.
GD: Which one?
R: FROM ME TO YOU.
GD: Yeah. Well, like I said, I had a decent budget, so I used horn players; I had a bunch of singers. I didn’t have a band, at that time. I didn’t have a band that was actually working out on the road to develop a sound, so I had all kinds of things going on. I had my cousin Dianne Reeves, who was, I think, eighteen at the time. She came and sang a duet with me, and my buddy Stanley Clarke helped me play some stuff. So, there was a lot of different looks, and it's still me trying to find out who I was, or who I am, and trying to bring that force, and to say, ”Who am I?” Because I am doing a whole lot of different things, and then eventually, I decided, “You know what, I'm really all of that.” But I needed to find a way to bring it together, some kind of way to make glue, or some kind of bridges between all those styles, and I didn’t really figure it out until I did the REACH FOR IT album. I think the reason for that is because I had a band that was on the road. We went out there, and actually solidified it on the road. I said, “Okay this is working.” I added in some great musicians, and we went out there, and I finally figured out, “Okay, this is how you do it.” And lot of those kinds of records followed and they were very successful.
GD: But it took me a few. That’s when you had artist development … when a record company is after your first record, if it didn’t happen they wouldn’t drop you.
So … they gave me to develop and I needed it. Otherwise, I might right now be working down at McDonald's.
GD: Not saying that there’s anything wrong with that, but ... hey, you know, little quirks of fate.
R: Absolutely. And the world would have missed out on the genius of George Duke. [Laughs]
GD: [Laughs] Maybe.
R: Since you brought up REACH FOR IT, let’s talk about … your epic period, like I said, is just one of your most brilliant periods, for most people. You are talking about you just kind of fleshing out all these different ideas, and also, all these different themes from different parts of the world just kind of come in on this album. Go ahead; you can talk about that.
GD: Yeah, REACH FOR IT was probably … it’s a nice album. It really represented who the band was, and it represented me at that time … there were some Latin elements in there. There was some funk elements … and it was never designed to be a hit record. You see, there was no awareness of saying, okay; we are going to cut a hit record. That had nothing to do with it … that was a by-product. That was just something that happened. The tune from REACH FOR IT came about out of a drum solo that happened at the Cellar Door. Which was a club that used to be in Washington DC, now in Georgetown, and we were playing a gig there. I think we were probably there for a week, and Ndugu [Chancler], my drummer at that time, came out with this drum solo and he started playing this beat, you know … head started bobbing, and so I just went into this bass line [mimicking instrumentation] “dho-dho-dho,” and then, soon as I hit those three notes, people started, you know, yelling. I was like, “Whoa!” I didn’t expect it … those guitar players started playing, and I looked at Byron, because I was already playing the bass part, and I said, "Well, play something." So Byron Miller, the bass player, started playing a solo and people went nuts. So months later, when we were in the studio after we got off the road, I asked the guys if they remember that groove, and they said, "Absolutely!" And we went in and put a reel of tape on, and we played ‘til it ran out.
GD: And that was REACH FOR IT, and that is how it was born, and for some reason, we went to Europe the record came out. Epic records called and said, “You got to get back to the States. We got a hit record here!” You know it was really blowing up out of DC and Detroit and Maryland, and all those areas, and that set the stage for the rest of the country.
R: Wow! So talk to me a little bit about the song, "Just For you." That was a wonderful ballad.
GD: Yeah, I wish I could do it now; probably could do it better. (Laughs) But yeah, it was just an idea. I mean, it was nothing, actually. I think that was the B-side to REACH FOR IT… I think. I am not sure … don’t remember. But it was just an idea I had for a song that just wasn’t two changes. At the time I didn’t want to just do simple things that were structurally just two cords or something. Not to say we didn’t do that, but in a ballad--I almost wrote it like it was a jazz ballad. I did a lot writing like that. A lot of tunes, even the up-tempo tunes on records that were later, were actually written as ballads. And then I just put a beat to it because I wanted it to really be a song, so the whole idea--I got this idea for this groove and I just started playing some changes and I said, “I kind of like that," and one change led to another. Its almost like you know. What's that song goes [Singing] "one thing led to another, oh, and another" it's the same thing, the same kind of thing. One groove, one cord led to another and it was just like water running down a hill. It came very easily and I put that little change up with the strings playing a little thing in the middle, and I wasn’t really concerned about radio. I was just making music.
R: Well it's funny that you say you weren’t concerned about radio, because I know, for a fact, that in the DC area, especially with WHUR, that was a “Quiet Storm” classic. They played that a lot.
GD: That just goes to show you, if you just do what you do, hopefully somebody will dig it, and maybe they will play it …I don’t know--I was just making music. I had the band, I was happy, I was young, and I was just having a good time and making music I wanted to make, and then, of course, on the B side, I had my buddy, Stanley Clarke, coming in there and played a little funk, some other stuff.
R: Ok. Alright.
GD: So it was … I liked that album. I like a lot of the albums I made. That is actually one of my favorites.
R: That speaks volumes. Well, talk to me a little bit about the next album, because I think, that’s one of the places where you hit the mother load with the infamous “DUKEY STICK.”
GD: Yeah, well I wanted to … I told the band--I said, “Okay, we did a lot of touring for REACH FOR IT. I mean we were not prepared for what happened with REACH FOR IT. I can remember when we played DC, and we would play Constitution Hall, sometimes two shows, sold out! And that’s a big place, and on the way back to the hotel, WHUR or some other station would be banging REACH FOR IT, on the way to the hotel! Two back-to-back, two or three times, and we'd be listening to it in the car on the way back to the hotel, just grooving! I was, like, this is really deep, so I told the band I said, "Look, this is interesting,” because we only really had one hit song, which was REACH FOR IT-- that was it! So the rest of the stuff we did was like what we were doing three-four years ago … with Jazz Fusion kind of stuff. And people would be waiting for us to get to REACH FOR IT, and we'd be playing all that other stuff. So I told the band, I said, "Look, we need to figure out a way to add some more of the REACH FOR IT type material into the show, so we can get the audience into it earlier, because I don’t want to play REACH FOR IT first. And so I came up with the idea of taking my name, and coming up with a magic wand, because “Stars Wars” was big at that time. So I said, okay, “Dukey Stick”--that’s a magic wand. And then, I came up with this little ideas that “Dukey Stick” being a magic wand that was guaranteed to make you come. You know all that, and so forth, and so on. And we developed this show around this magic wand, with the thing called the “Dukey Ball,” which had this instrument I wear around my neck … I started coming out from behind this wall of keyboards and coming to the front of the stage, you know, or having some keyboards that I could roll to the front of the stage sometimes … to get me out from just being … a standard jazz piano player who will sit on the piano, and he never moves, so he kind of sits there for the whole show. So I needed something else to happen, and so put all my keyboards in Plexiglas with lights in it--I wanted little more of a show. My manager told me that he figured that half of what people will hear is what they see, and because we were playing larger venues now, we had to become … we had to magnify who we were ... not necessarily change who we were, but we needed to get to that last person in the back of the auditorium. And so we needed to become more visual. That’s where the whole DON’T LET GO album--that’s where that came in--and I think it was a logical follow up to REACH FOR IT. At least I hope so. That's what it was intended it to be.
GD: and there it was.
GD: “Dukey Stick.” And then the instrument I wear around my neck--that’s what the people began calling it the “Dukey Stick,” but it's not the “Dukey Stick.” “Dukey Stick” was a magic wand, which was an older technology, had a bunch of batteries in it, and it would change about three or four colors. And it had some flash paper I could put in the front of the instrument, so if I hit this button … fire would go off! It would be like a magic show and people used to just--I used to put this cape on--I looked like ‘Blacula,’ You know!
R: [laughs] Oh, ok.
GD: and we had this [Laughs] whole scenario that we used to do to bring out this instrument, and I had some music that I preprogrammed, and we did this whole show. So we tried to make it more visual, but make it fun. It wasn’t like I was trying to play John Coltrane music, you know, or be that serious. This was just fun. I had been with Zappa you know--I was like, "Man, this stuff is too serious." You know, and fusion had gotten too serious for me … When I first joined Billy Cobham, I told him, "Man, first of all, we need to put more R&B, some more black grooves up in what we are playing here, you know. All this … [vocalizes notes], all those notes we’re playing, and all that … we need to do something else. Everybody is done all that, and it’s just like everybody is just playing a lot of notes, and so Billy agreed with me. And that made a change with what we did, as well, so it was a very creative time.
R: Now speaking, again, about the song--that song came out at a period where disco was at its zenith, and there were so many different things going on in music, but you seemed to have found your own niche. Were there any other influences at play there, with that song, especially like the Parliament Funkadelic, Bootsy Collins-thing?
GD: Absolutely, absolutely. With REACH FOR IT, the reason we got into that, in the first place, is that Ndugu had brought over MOTHERSHIP CONNECTION. And he said, "Man, you got to listen to this." And he brought it over to my house, and I put it on and I said, "Whoo!” I said, "Look, we got to do some of this." You know … not to try to emulate what they did, or duplicate what they did, but do what we do.” REACH FOR IT was interesting, because, in the final analysis, it was an instrumental song with a bass solo, which became a hit record. That is an amazing statistic. So it was just one of those things. It just hit the right spot at the right moment, and “Dukey Stick” - the same thing. It kind of followed in that same tradition, and did very well. But yeah, obviously, I was very much influenced by Sly and the Family Stone; they were like my heroes. You know Sly--that whole music-- "There's a Riot Going On" and all that kind of stuff that those records, FRESH, were really important to me, but when I heard MOTHERSHIP CONNECTION, that kind of put another spin on it, and I said, "I want to do some of that, too." And so that’s where that comes from.
R: I guess the rest of the ‘70s you were just sailing on this high, and you had really established your name within the, not just the jazz community, but also with the R&B and funk fans as well. But you mentioned a name before that I wanted to bring up again, because you guys actually did a collaborative series of albums together--Mr. Stanley Clarke--Tell me how that came about.
GD: Well, Stanley and I had been friends for a long time. When I was working with Cannonball Adderly, in his band, we became friends while he was working with Chick Corea in Return to Forever, and we [unintelligible] and been friends ever since. That was in the 1971. We met up, and then we started talking. I started playing on his records; he started playing on mine, and then, eventually, one of the record executives at Columbia Records suggested that, “Why don’t you guys get together and make an album together as a group, and so we said yes. They gave us a budget and we went in, and fortunately, we had a hit record with the song called "Sweet Baby," which was totally different than anything I was doing, or anything he was doing. It was just an idea I had to make up to my wife, and I just … nobody knew it, but I just wrote this song one day--real simple--up in Berkeley California--and I played it for Stanley, thinking he wouldn't like it, because it was such a simple … like a little pop song, and Stanley said, " I love it man. Let’s record it." So next day we went in the studio, and the rest is history.
R: Wow! So did you guys expect for it to take off the way it did?
GD: Not in the beginning, because Columbia fought us on it, actually … We thought that we had something with "Sweet Baby" after we finished it, and Stanley and I went to the record company, and their R&B department told us that " No, this is a Pop record; this not an R&B record … nothing we can do with it as a single." So then, we took it to the Pop department, and the Pop department, in essence, said, “We are working REO Speedwagon…” or whoever they were working, and they said, “We will get to it in three months from now.” And Stanley and I said, “We’re going on tour in a couple of weeks, you know. This is not going to work.” Especially--we were black artists--that was a whole other thing--that was really, what it was. Then, that obviously was not a jazz record, so you know the jazz department wasn’t going to do anything, so were stuck. So Stanley and I decided to go out and look for some independents, so we hired this company with a guy named Cliff Gorov, who now does a lot of Smooth Jazz kind of work, to actually work this at Pop and R&B radio. I said, "If we could turn this into a cross-over single for us, we could work." He started the ball rolling. We came out of our pockets, put some money into this thing, and once it started hitting then Epic looked around and said, "Hey, I think we got something here." Then they came in and pushed the ball down the street.
GD: You know, it never would have happened without them, but they had to be shown that something could happen with this.
R: And it turned out to be a big success.
GD: Yeah. Absolutely. That was probably the biggest record I ever had.
R: Ok. As another collaborative project … or, I guess, a side project that you did, was of interest to a lot of people, who you know loved Smooth Jazz, because that’s something that you eventually started to move into … which is the 101 NORTH album that came out in ‘88?
GD: [Laughs] Yeah. That’ s funny. I didn’t expect you to say that. 101 NORTH. Okay, here's the deal: this guy, a friend of mine, came up and asked me if I had any tapes in my closet, and I said, "Yeah …" and he says, “I got a deal over at Capital, and we can put it out, and you can make a little money.” So I put these tapes … I found all this stuff up in my closet, and I came out and had my second engineer mix it and put it out, and all of a sudden, one of these songs, which was a duet, became really big out of Chicago, so it was making some noise. I was, like, "Wow, look at this." It really was not trying to be in the Smooth Jazz market. I was really … what did they call it at the time? It was New Age, or New Wave … I just started doing some music with sounds and stuff, and that's what this was about … never knowing where it was going to end up. And so really 101 NORTH, the first album that they did really was … I shouldn’t tell nobody, but it was me. It was all me.
R: Ok. And you…
GD: I played everything. The only thing is, we had a couple of singers come in and sing on top of a couple of tracks. That was it. And then I had to put a group together. So after the record hit, I actually went and found Everette Harp, who is a friend of mine, and I got a few other people to come in, and Ray Fuller - guitar player who I worked with, and we put this band together to actually go out on the road and make a second album for Capital.
R: Now the single that you were talking about, that had made the first impact--you are talking about "So Easy," right.
GD: "So Easy". "So Easy," which was really originally recorded for my album, which I was gong to do a duet with Josie James … but on this 101 NORTH record I took my voice off and had Carl Carwell, who was singing with Earth, Wind and Fire, come in and do it, and that's what happened. But “So Easy” was a cut that we did during the REACH FOR IT album, but never went on the album. We ran out of space.
R: Ok. Essentially, you updated the production and put that out. Ok.
GD: Yeah, a little bit. Not much--it was basically all there. I just, essentially, took my voice off and just put Carl on, because Josie had already sung it; I had sung it. It was finished except for a mix.
GD: So I just took me off, and put Carl on and put it out, because I needed some song [Laughs] to be kind of a single for this record, and so that’s really what happened.
R: Ok. Now I wanted to talk to you a little bit more about something I mentioned earlier, in terms of world influences. You definitely have a penchant for Japanese culture, the "Sukiyaki" song that you produced for Taste of Honey. You did a song called "Sashimi" on the 101 NORTH album, and then, "Don’t Let Go," the whole Japanese motif on the cover. And then, also, on the 101 NORTH album, you also had a song called "Africa." So just tell me about how important, and not only that, but you also worked with a pretty underrated singer from Brazil called Flora Purim.
GD: [Laughs] Yeah.
R: So how would all of these world influences tie in with George Duke?
GD: Well, I'm like a sponge. Anything that I am hearing, that I am loving, I want to try and absorb it and see what happens when I wring the sponge and … or what new babies will come out of all of this, you know, if we mix some things together. When I recently did the "Brazilian Love Affair" record, my idea was not to do a straight Brazilian record. I wanted to … make a hybrid, and take my band down to Brazil--record in their environment with Brazilian musicians to see what would come out. It’s the same thing. Overall, it's to bring music and styles together which essentially, to me, is the same thing as bringing people together. And that’s an interesting thing to me; I like diversity, and, I guess, Frank Zappa and probably Cannonball Adderly, both are responsible for me feeling that way … is that I don’t look down on any music. I think Parliament Funkadelic, Mothership Connection is as important to me as “The Rite of Spring,” by Igor Stravinsky. They are just different … two different attitudes, two different ways of looking at music, but it doesn’t really mean that one is more relevant than the other… not to me, so that’s kind of the way I look at music. I am really open.
GD: And that’s why I love world music, and why I tend to … in the twilight of my career here, is to be doing more ethnic projects. Like where I would go to Africa, or go to India and work with indigenous musicians who might not necessarily be stars, but they would be people who make music because they have to, because they are led to, and see what kind of hybrid we can come up with.
R: Ok. That sounds pretty interesting.
R: So I guess we can talk a little bit about the ‘80s for you. You really start to flourish, especially in the latter part of the decade, and going on into the early ‘90s. The list of female artists that you've worked with is just kind of flawless. You got Denise Williams’, "Let's Hear It For the Boy," and various other things that she'd done. You have Rachelle Ferrell, your cousin Diane Reeves, Regina Bell, Stephanie Mills, Chante Moore, Anita Baker. How is it you got to work with all of these wonderful female artists?
GD: Well, one thing led to another. Essentially, when I started out, I was producing instrumental records with Raoul de Souza, the trombonist who I met through Flora Purim, who we just spoke about few minutes ago, and that led to working, eventually, with somebody who gave me a shot. Don Mizell, to be exact, gave me a shot to work with Dee Dee Bridgewater, who, at the time, was doing R&B kind of stuff. That was the first singer that I ever produced, really, here in the United States, and then once I did "Sukiyaki," and worked with A Taste of Honey--once you sell two million records, the phone’s going to start ringing. So that’s, essentially, what happened. I got a call from Jeffrey Osborne, and by working with Jeff, we did three albums, three gold records, together, and one - platinum. That set the stage, sale-wise, for me to get calls from a lot of different people. And my production career overshadowed my career as an artist. I stayed in the studio for twenty years. I didn’t even go on the road, except for maybe two or three weeks a year. I was stuck here in the studio working with everybody from Miles Davis to Barry Manilow, and loving it! And lovin’ it!
GD: But now I am doing more work on the road, you know. It's just cool. I'm loving it!
R: I have one more question for you, and it has to do with contemporary music from another generation. I am sure you've heard the rendition that Thundercat did of your song from ‘75, "For Love I Come."
R: What were your thoughts on that, when you first heard it? And did they contact you in advance before they actually did it?
GD: Yeah, actually, Steven is a friend of mine. Ronald Bruner, his brother was … we worked together for, I don’t know, four or five years. We’re not working together right now, because he is with Stevie Wonder. But Ron and I worked together for a long time, and he was trying to get Steven to play in my band. Steven was working with Erykah Badu. So about two months ago he came by here with Erykah Badu, saying he wanted to play me something, so I said ok--so I walked over to my desk, and he put it on I said, "Wait a minute." I said, "That’s my tune." So it was cool, you know. Stevens really, a great young musician; I like him a lot, and I think he's got a lot of promise and a bright future, and he loves music. He’s not afraid to explore, which I think is a great thing. I think, probably, Erykah brought a lot of that out of him, because she is the same way and no, I dug it. I liked what he did. I was surprised that he chose that song. But a lot of people--it's funny, you know, even Common, when he did my song, "Someday," I was, like, "What the heck is he going to do with that song?" Sometimes, rappers and young musicians find things in some unlikely places.
R: Absolutely. So do you feel like your influence is definitely being felt through these subsequent generations?
GD: Well, I say… I put out a sampling CD, where I play for hours, called SOUL TREASURES on Native Instruments--the software program for hip-hop producers, or anybody that uses a lot of samples. It’s just sold through the roof, and it’s just a--yeah, I think to a degree—I’ve been sampled by everybody from Ice Cube to all kinds of people. So it's just, I think it’s a tribute, a wonderful thing. I’ve got no problem with it, and it’s interesting to me to see what they are going to do with something I'm already finished with.
GD: Yeah, I'm, actually, absolutely cool with it. I wish that there was more of a handshake “live” between, say--me and them--Go in the studio and do something from scratch, and not just taking something I did thirty years ago. I think that would elevate the music, and take it to another level. But those kind of calls don’t come in here very often.
R: Why do you think that is?
GD: Well, you know, I’m from another generation. I think they've got … the young kids have got their own demeanor; they have their own way they look at doing things, and I think they like the sound of the stuff from that period, but that’s not that that couldn’t be duplicated. We could just take it to another level, because, eventually, they’re going to run out of material.
GD: And they are going to have to come up with something new, and then, who they going to go to?
R: [Laughs] Mr. Duke.
GD: Hopefully, we are still around.
R: Yeah. Absolutely. Ok, Mr. Duke, I think I've picked your brain enough for the day. I know you’ve got a session to get back to, so I thank you so much for your time, and I really appreciate all the music that you've given us over the years. Your genius is definitely resonating with this, and we will definitely carry that torch.
GD: All right man, appreciate it.
About the Writer
Rico "Superbizzee" Washington is a Washington, D.C. native and has served as music editor for Brooklyn-based Free Magazine and was a staff writer and columnist for XLR8R Magazine. His work can be found in Wax Poetics, Art Nouveau, and Okayplayer.com. He lives and works in New York City.