There are times when news of someone dying hits us and hurts much more than others. The ironic part of it is that sometimes you have never met the person, but the death saddens you just the same. Last Friday would have been Whitney Houston’s fiftieth birthday, and there were various radio and television tributes throughout the day. The tributes were the correct decision because her performances touched a fan base in every corner of the world. However, last week Monday we lost another very successful and influential musician to death. Not as well-known as Whitney Houston, but definitely respected within the music industry and to my delightful surprise, musical fans outside the industry as well. I’m speaking of (genre less) musician and music producer George Duke.
On hearing the news of his death initially it hurt me because George Duke was a music producer I really admired and years ago emulated. Before I explain why I emulated him I must give more information about some of his accomplishments. George Duke’s musical work began back in the 1960’s with diverse musicians Jon Luc Ponty, Frank Zappa and Cannonball Adderley. In 1976 he co-led a jazz fusion group with drummer Billy Cobham.
With knowledge of all the different styles and genres of music he has performed and recorded, I felt the headlines that labeled George Duke a jazz musician were not clearly descriptive. Although, the jazz label does help us understand much more about his musical abilities. Why? As I have stated in earlier posts my father was a jazz musician, arranger and bandleader. From the time I started to listen to music, my father made sure I became aware of the fact that well-rounded musicians must read and write music. Jazz musicians normally are extremely versatile, and a talented jazz musician more than likely has the ability to perform any other musical style. When I grew a little older there was no doubt in anyone’s mind (especially my father’s mind) that I would eventually grow to write and arrange music. Or course, I went on to study music in high school and college and learned a great deal about music theory and composition.
Even before the news broke about George Duke’s death, I found myself reflecting upon an earlier studio project. I was a young musician not long removed from college and about to produce a demo for a promising vocalist. This was not my first project although my first in this particular studio. As I began to work with the engineer I reached into my bag and removed a full score sheet of what would be recorded. The engineer was startled and said, “You actually wrote everything out?” I answered “yes, doesn’t everyone? “ Here I was a young, college educated musical composer and arranger let loose on the musical world with this “different” way of doing things. However, for me it was not different from any other musicians I knew and grew up admiring. I’m sure it was no different for George Duke. As jazz musicians cross into the pop and R & B genres they find it very easy to adapt, because they are……musicians first and foremost.
The list of artists George Duke worked with and produced is long and equally diverse. For me though, one George Duke production project stands out as my favorite; Deniece Williams’ Let’s Hear it For the Boy. Of course the title song was from the motion picture Footloose and went on to become a major hit. Many may not think the song Let’s Hear it for the Boy stands out among the long list of songs produced by Duke, but the album was very special. In fact, the Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil song Black Butterfly is possibly my favorite song to date. George Duke left his signature on this and many more albums through the years.
Last Monday, I spent the entire day reflecting upon all the great music George Duke left for us to enjoy along with interesting stories about some of his productions. Speaking about two of the songs he produced, he told of how he cut corners at times to get the job done. “Many of Taste of Honey’s vocals were done right in this office,” he told Musician magazine in 1984. “We came in to save money, moved the couch out, set the microphone right here and recorded. For Jeff Osborne’s first record, we had to turn the refrigerator off, take the clock out for the ticking and put foam in the windows to keep the birds and dogs from coming through.” It’s refreshing sometimes to hear folks taking the same shortcuts that we have taken as well. I remember recording vocals in a bathroom once for that “certain live” sound. The loss of George Duke did hurt, but I was so happy to hear the wonderful words and acknowledgment of such an influential and talented musician. We all say goodbye but we do so with much love.