George Duke was the Master of the Game – a creative force that applied an academic and theoretical knowledge of music composition to pop music and a wide array of dance music’s foundations.
DEL’s Foundations series searches through the roots of modern dance music in print every month.
We’ve explored jazz’s influence on the dance floor with previous FOUNDATION columns on Quincy Jones, Patrice Rushen, and to a lesser extent Vince Montana, Jr. So many jazz greats really play in that realm that requires mastery of the music without the VOX: instrumentals. For these masters, words – singing – are almost an afterthought and a necessary evil.
However jazz greats, like this month’s artist, find ways to incorporate words. They put the vocals on the pedestal. In fact, in this case, he gained confidence after being “forced” to sing with Frank Zappa, of all people. He was quoted: “I don’t consider myself a singer. I always used singing as a means of communicating with my audience… I felt the voice could be used to bridge the gap in a fusion of jazz, funk, Latin and pop music sources.” This quote is the perfect set-up for our exploration of a master, GEORGE DUKE!
Master of the Game was the title of the album with one of my all-time favorite songs but it is an apt name for our master, Duke, as he truly was both a student and teacher of music.
Solidly on my list of songs to play at my funeral party, I play 1979’s “I Want You For Myself” as much today as I did when it first came out. Lynn Davis’ vocals, T H E piano solo of all solos, and the percussion-for-days break make this song virtually PERFECT! Tons of great edits like (Crazy P) Ron’s Re-edit, Keep Schtum’s Rework, Ramsey Hercules’ Edit, and Chicago’s own Cajmere & Gene Farris’ interpretation w/ “Edge of the Looking Glass” are worth a listen.
Here’s some reinforcement. Hailing from the Left Coast, California that is, he actually received an undergraduate degree in music composition and trombone! Not only that, he minored in contrabass (think of real, low-pitched sounds)… Who has that kind of knowledge?! George does. He actually got more later in career when he earned a master’s degree in composition. Duke, however, was NOT one of these “career students” who loved learning as a kind of mental masturbation… No, he APPLIED his knowledge as a composer, writer, producer, keyboard trailblazer, arranger, and yes… even a professor of music!
Duke really had cool, prominent, and eclectic “knowledge application” too. Frank Zappa and Cannonball Adderley heard George playing with a band Duke had with Jean-Luc Ponty (Google him – always loved his work) and both invited him to join their bands… which he did, on separate occasions. By the way, this was while he was in college! The list of jazz, R&B and pop heroes that he worked with is numbing. Duke produced and composed for Miles Davis and played similar and varying roles with Gladys Knight, Smokey Robinson, the Pointer Sisters, Howard Hewett, Barry Manilow, Chante Moore, Anita Baker, Johnny Gil and so many more. Jeffrey Osborne’s “Stay with Me Tonight” and “On the Wings of Love” along with Deniece Williams “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” were also George Duke hits.
1977’s “Reach For It” was George’s biggest seller. It is essentially an instrumental that meets a fun improv with riffs and the repetitive “dance” shout-out. Duke once proclaimed that “the singers were icing to an already slammin’ cake.” The formula and the song worked, as it became THE sampled track of his entire repertoire. For example, Ice Cube used it liberally on “True to the Game”.
Some of you regular FOUNDATIONS’ readers might say, “Yeah – another ’70-’80s guy…” You’d be WRONG as Duke was continuously in the game… and winning at it up till a year ago. Close to my Philly heart, via Jill Scott, he not only worked on her third album but sang on it. His songs have been heavily sampled and “Brazilian Sugar” was part of the Dead or Alive Xtreme 2 video game. George stayed active via roles such as music director for the Nelson Mandela tribute concert in England and as recently as 2011, he led a twenty stop, sold-out tour with a trio that included David Sanborn. He also produced an album for Osborne in 2012 called Time for Love.
I’ve really learned that George Duke was incredibly self-aware, as you’ll read in some of his quotes that I used in the discography. Music is often very analogous to poetry for me. There is a symmetry and at times, poetic justice. Such is the case in this story. You see, while the aforementioned work on Jeffrey Osborne’s album was in progress, George’s wife Corine died. They had been together for forty years. The introspective Duke took a break from music to reflect. Not long after, he was back and produced “Dreamweaver” which was released in July 2013. A month later, at 67 years young, George Duke died.
Yet the term “died” seems too final especially since this Master of the Game’s work and legacy will continue to impress and shape the next generation of dancers, musicians, and students for a long time.
DEL’s Foundations column is published each month with alarming consistency in 5 Magazine. This article originally appeared in our July 2014 print issue.