The late George Duke is interviewed in 2012 by DiscoMusic.com member Kelly Hughes.
George Duke on Disco and Jazz
George Duke is a multi-Grammy award winning legend. So when I called him to get a few quick quotes for my France Joli interview—he produced her album, Witch Of Love—I quickly realized I needed to milk this conversation for all it was worth. George Duke is a musician's musician with a career spanning over forty years. And even though he's not primarily known as a Disco artist, Duke's produced some great Dance tracks, such as Stephanie Mills' Edge Of The Razor, Deniece Williams' breakout Dance-Pop hit from Footloose, Let's Hear It For The Boy, and his own feel-good hit from 1982, Shine On. He also created Adult Contemporary staples for A Taste of Honey and Jeffrey Osborne. And in the Jazz world, he's worked with everyone from Nancy Wilson to Dianne Reeves to Al Jarreau. So I decided to break the ice by talking about a time when Jazz merged with Disco.
Kelly Hughes: Back in the Disco Era, Jazz artists like Marlena Shaw and Herbie Mann put out Disco songs. What did you think of those?
Herbie Mann did disco?
Yeah. The Super Mann album?
I didn't even know.
The one with the cover where he looked like Superman coming out of a phone booth. He had a special Superman logo with a flute going through it.
He worked with Patrick Adams who did Musique's Keep On Jumpin'.
My favorite Dance records from that era would have been material by Earth Wind & Fire, and material by Shalamar. Because I thought they were the most musical. And also Cameo. But they were a little more in the Funk thing. But in terms of the Dance stuff, I really liked what Shalamar was doing. The vocals were intricate. The chord structure was interesting. The music was interesting. And of course with Earth, Wind & Fire there was a lot of Jazz in it. I used to go to discos and dance to all those Earth, Wind & Fire songs. The ones where The Emotions were singing.
Those were the grooves that I liked. Almost anything they put out.
Sure. Well tell me what you think about this. Even though Chic was known as a Disco group, Nile Rodgers has said that he primarily thought of himself as a Jazz artist.
He hit a nerve. Actually, when you start thinking of the whole Dance thing, and the whole Jazz thing, that's part of the problem that happened with Jazz per se. A lot of the Jazz musicians, in their quest to be taken seriously, and have their music played in Carnegie Hall and other venues, to be considered Good Music, the problem is, they took Dance out of it. They took the Dance element out of it, and that affected the popularity of it. When Jazz was at its most popular you could dance to it.
A respected Jazz artist, Donald Byrd, found a way to stay true to both Jazz and Dance when he recorded Love Has Come Around. That was a big club hit in 1981.
Well I can see that. He always had his fingers on both sides of the fence.
He retained the Jazz element.
That's what I'm talking about. That's the element I try to keep in, to keep it so musical.
The one who did it so successfully, with such crossover success, was George Benson. Did your record label ever try to get you to mimic his success back then?
Not really. You mean like what Quincy did with him? Give Me The Night and all that?
Right. Weren't they saying, "George Benson's crossing over and selling millions of records. Why can't you do that?"
George was a real singer, for one thing. And I'm not. I was a little more of a crazy funkster than George. You know, George was always more Pop. Danceable. Even though he could play his butt off, he still leaned more toward the Pop song area. And I leaned more toward the Jazz Fusion stuff.
Speaking of other Jazz, during that transitional time in 1980, the cutting edge of Dance music was Tom Browne and his song Funkin' For Jamaica.
That was fun to dance to, but it still had musical integrity.
That's what I'm saying. There's a way to do that where you can keep the Dance element in the music. That'll keep Jazz viable in the future as long as people can dance to it. And I'm not saying don't do music that's strictly for the mind and the soul, and not for the feet, you know, but somewhere along the line, you gotta get 'em movin' [laughs].
What do you think of music today? Pop music? Dance? Jazz?
I never thought I would see the music business change as much as it has. But I think, on the Jazz side, there are a lot of great young artists out there. I met a lot of teenagers, and college age kids, while I was in Europe who may not have even known who I was, and they just showed up because they saw me on YouTube. And they said I inspired them to pursue this in a different way. And it's very heartening. I think the glass is half full, and not half empty. It just doesn't get the exposure. I would love to see some young musicians who will dig a little deeper. That like, some of the guys from the neighborhood, for example, who learn how to rap, and use other people's material in terms of sampling. And I'm okay with that. But samples are gonna run out. They need to learn to make this music from scratch. They need to learn to dig deeper and find out what works from scratch.
Sampling George Duke's Work
Have you heard any of your songs being sampled?
Absolutely. And I'm happy with it. The rapper Common used my stuff. And a bunch of those guys. I'm okay with it. I get paid. And Ice Cube from back in the day. They used my stuff. More power to 'em. I'm happy.
Back in the day did you ever cross paths with Herbie Hancock?
Oh, absolutely. We're friends.
He had a Dance breakout in the 1980s with that robot video, Rock It.
Herbie's very open musically.
George Duke and Quincy Jones
Let's talk more about Quincy Jones. You worked with him on Michael Jackson's Off The Wall album. Which songs did you play on?
Oh Lord! Who would know?
Did Quincy Jones have a unique way of recording that?
The way Quincy records is that you would go in, it would be nothing but me, his engineer Bruce Swedien, and him. This little studio in Westlake. And I would take my equipment down there. And he'd say, "Okay, we're gonna start recording." And he'd play the song, and he'd say, "Are you ready Dukie? What do you wanna play?" So I'd play a Fender Rhodes. And he'd say, "Wanna do it again? Anything else you wanna play?" And that's the way it went for each and every song. And not just me, but Greg Phillinganes, four or five other keyboard players. None of us ever knew who was playing on what. By the time it was over, there was maybe two bars of me, two bars of Greg. It was just all over the place.
Is that different than the way you were used to working?
Absolutely. I don't think I ever had a record where I had that kind of budget. Where I could go in and record a whole tape of just keyboard players. Quincy would do a reel with just drums, one with just bass, one with synth overdubs. And then he would compile them down to something that he thought would work. Basically he got the best out of his vision without telling people what to do. He let people do what they do naturally and it worked. So he was really an organizer, and a good one.
You and Quincy share a background in Jazz. How did it all start for you?
Back in 1965, 1966, I played at a little place called The Half Note Club. And on Sunday afternoons, Al Jarreau used to sit in with us. And he was so amazing, and so far above any other singer. And he started singing with us on the weekends. It was a wonderful exploratory time, musically. We were trying to figure out who we were as musicians. We sent out tapes to everybody, every record label.
George Duke and Frank Zappa
And then you met Frank Zappa.
Through Jean-Luc Ponty.
The violin player?
Yeah. Jean-Luc brought me to Europe on tour, back in the late 1960s. And the kind of Jazz that we played was very eclectic, very progressive. And I played on Jean-Luc's album King Kong, which featured the music of Frank Zappa. And it became an underground hit. And eventually Frank called me to tour with The Mothers of Invention.
How did you survive that?
It was like these guys were...out of their minds.
But even though they had an outrageous reputation, there was good musicianship there.
Absolutely. In order to play Frank's music you had to be an incredible musician. I mean these guys, besides being nuts, they were incredible musicians. To tell you the truth, I don't know why I was in that band. They saw something in me that I didn't see in myself. And Frank told me to keep playing, to keep sacrificing, that I needed to allow my humor to come out.
We can't talk about Frank Zappa without at least one wild story.
Frank was a control freak. And his guitar was like his baby. So after we played a gig one night, we went to an after party. This was around 1970. And apparently someone spiked the punch. I didn't drink it. But Frank did. So he was on an acid trip for two or three days. But that next day, he went onstage, and while he was tripping, he dropped his guitar. He picked it up and continued to play. But that guitar was like an extension of himself. And he was very depressed for the next few days.
So you survived that tour, then you re-joined them in 1973?
Yeah. I had joined Cannonball Adderley's band. That was a jazz group I had a lot of respect for. He was like a second father, actually. And I rejoined Frank in 1973, when Jean-Luc came back. There were more Jazz influences in the band at that time.
Was Frank influenced by Santana then?
I don't think so. Frank was his own kind of man.
What were your influences back then?
I began to meet a lot of Brazilian folks. Artists like Airto Moreira, Milton Nascimento, Flora Purim. We'd talk about music, listening and talking about it. Like where the music would go. It was really like an extended family. And I love that. I love that kind of extended family. Really discussing what music can be. What Jazz can be. To try things musically. Cannonball Adderley, in 1971, took me to Brazil, and I said, "One day I will go back there and create an album." And eventually I did, in 1979, to make Brazilian Love Affair.
You were expanding musically.
During the 1970s everybody was combining everything with everything else. Especially in San Francisco. Latin. Rock. Country Rock. You had The Steve Miller Blues Band. That kind of stuff. I remember after playing one night, Steve Miller said, "Hey man, could you come to my house. I want you to play on my album."
You mean the Steve Miller? The rock star?
Yup. They were a big local band back then.
So, which songs did you record on with Miller?
I have no idea. I was a teenager.
You eventually produced an album for Raoul De Souza from Brazil.
Yes, I did.
Was that your first time as producer?
Yeah, that was the first.
And then you produced A Taste of Honey's, Sukiyaki.
It launched my production career. I never thought Sukiyaki would be a big hit. But that sold a couple million records. And then the phone started ringing.
And then you worked with Jeffrey Osborne.
Yeah, it was really nice to work with Jeffrey. Amazing experience, and I learned a lot. I learned as much as I gave.
When Al Jarreau finally broke big in the late '70s and early '80s, did you produce any albums for him?
Well that's a long story. You know, the first album that he put out, I actually wrote and produced tracks on it. But Tommy LiPuma took the project away from me because they thought I was too young to do it.
They thought he should have the more experienced producer, and they were probably right. Though at that time I was totally pissed off.
Eventually you were very much in demand as a producer.
Sure. I've worked with everyone from Miles Davis to Barry Manilow to Natalie Cole, and eventually Al Jarreau. My production career really superseded my...umm... my artist career.
But you've had hit records of your own.
Sure. Shine On. Sweet Baby with Stanley Clark.
Sweet Baby still gets a lot of airplay.
Yes, it's kind of amazing. As a matter of fact, Stanley Clarke and I will be touring next year. We had a lot of requests to get back together.
Will you be working with Deniece Williams again? You've had some pretty major success with her.
Let's Hear It For The Boy? Yeah, that song was huge. But I didn't like it.
I mean, great writers. Excellent people there. But I just did not like that song.
They remade Footloose recently. Did they call you up to produce some music for it?
No. They called me to get my opinion about it.
You will always be associated with the success of the original. And with Deniece.
I love Niecy.
She's had a great career. Free. Then her duet with Johnny Mathis. And so much more. But you've got to especially love her big disco hit I've Got The Next Dance from 1979.
In the late 1970s, any woman who had done R&B was expected to attempt at least one Disco track. And Deniece succeeded. But even with Next Dance, and Let's Hear It For The Boy, she was never labeled a Dance artist. She's just as much remembered for songs like It's Gonna Take A Miracle.
She did that with Thom Bell. That was just great.
You know, one thing I remember about the Let's Hear It For The Boy 12" single is that it was the first time I saw a remixer receive credit for additional production. Not just re-editing, but for adding new instrumentation to the record. The John "Jellybean" Benitez remix.
Yeah. He was like the remixer flavor of the day.
Didn't he remix Madonna's Like A Virgin around the same time?
I really don't know. I never actually met him.
You let him tamper with your song without meeting him face to face?
Well, when a producer turns in a project to a record company they can do anything they want with it.
Were you happy with Jellybean's remix?
You know what, I don't even remember it.
A year later Shep Pettibone did a remix of Does He Dance, from the album you produced for France Joli. Did you work directly with him on that?
No. Never met him. I wasn't really into that. But you know, when I was hired to do a record with her, they wanted a Dance record. More R&B. But they definitely wanted to keep her in the Dance area.
The first song you recorded with France, Party Lights, was more up-tempo Dance Pop.
I had written the song Party Lights, and France performed it in Japan and won the Grand Prix with it at the Yamaha Music Festival.
Didn't someone else record it before France?
Yes. Another girl. A French Disco singer named Katia.
So how were you approached to work with France?
I really didn't know who she was. They sent me some material, and asked me if I wanted to work with her. She had a big voice. I said, "Wow." I wanted to produce something new. A younger singer. But more international. To try something different. I met her and her mom. They came into the studio. I liked them right off the bat, and I said, "Let's do it!"
And then you had the success at the Yamaha Music Festival with her. And did you know that just a couple years before that, Celine Dion had won a prize at that same festival.
Oh really. I didn't know that. I did some work with Celine, for Disney, in the 1980s. It would have to be in the mid '80s, after I worked with France. And I didn't know her at all. When Disney said they wanted her to sing a song, I said, "Well who is she? A Canadian singer?" And then I heard her voice, and said, "Oh my god."
Was that something from Beauty and the Beast?
No, before that. A Christmas kid's show? For a television special.
Before you recorded Witch of Love with France, did you listen to her other Epic album, Attitude?
Absolutely. Because I needed to figure out who she was.
It reminded me of an album you did with Stanley Clarke that same year. Heroes. When everything sounded like it's from Flashdance.
Well Mike Sembello and I are friends.
And your song Heroes sounds like Maniac.
You're right. Exactly. As a matter a fact, I produced a track for Sembello for a movie. He lives in Philadelphia.
Did he play on the Heroes song?
I don't think so. I don't know. That's a good question.
There's a lot of aerobic dance beats on it.
[laughs] That's funny. I hadn't thought about that for a long time. I had this idea for a song called Heroes. Of course, we made this little video with Howard Hewitt in it, and with me and Stanley Clarke as a private detectives.
Howard Hewitt was in that video?
He did a cameo where he popped up with the hat and the trench coat.
You're right. I forgot about that. And didn't you record something with Howard Hewitt? Didn't you produce I Commit To Love for him?
Right. I produced a couple projects for Howard back then. Stanley Clarke also produced several tracks for him. We influenced Howard for a long time.
How about Jody Watley? Were you interested in working with her back then?
Jody and I actually did a track that was never released. I may eventually release that one day.
What's it called?
I don't remember... oh god... I don't remember the name.
Tell me you saved the tape.
Oh yeah. I got it. It's the master.
Some of those tapes, you better start digitizing them...
Oh yeah, those will be digitized.
But you don't remember the title?
No. You know, Jody Watley's daughter used to go to my son's school. So I used to see her there picking up her daughter.
Small world. But let's go back to just before Heroes. In 1982 you combined the best of Quincy Jones, Nile Rodgers, and Narada Michael Walden, and had a solo hit called Shine On.
Yeah. From the Dream On lp.
That was a big hit in Japan.
And in Europe. That song, and Reach Out, became my two biggest records in Europe, outside of Brazilian Love Affair. Which for some reason became an underground Dance hit.
Reach Out was also a big hit in France.
Yeah, and Shine On as well.
You know, you said that in '79, you wanted to go in a more Earth, Wind & Fire direction. But by 1982, with Shine On, you really seemed to achieve that.
You know, I was interested in doing a cross between Earth, Wind & Fire and Shalamar. But Shine On was actually written as a ballad. I sat there and sang the melody, and wrote it as a ballad, and added the beats later. Because I wanted some interesting changes. I wanted to make it a little jazzier, make it interesting.
I think you succeeded. But nothing could be more interesting than the story of your album Guardian of the Light. You said it was the soundtrack to a script you wrote?
Yeah. But it never happened.
Like a Star Wars science fiction thing?
Yeah, but the only difference is, I started looking around, and I was a Star Wars fan, a Star Trek fan, a science fiction fan in general. And I figured there was no R&B opera. I knew there were Rock operas. And Jazz operas. But I had never heard of an R&B opera. Like a soundtrack to a movie, where the songs were integral. Like a musical. So I decided I was going to do that. It might have been a mistake. But Reach Out from that album became popular in certain areas. And Born To Love You became a hit in Indonesia. That was unexpected. But basically, it was a Good- Against-Evil thing, but with a Jazz/R&B danceable soundtrack.
Did you have any directors interested in doing the movie?
No. They weren't going to make an R&B Star Wars.
Michael Sembello played guitar on that album.
Oh, Michael played on a lot of my records.
And you also had Louis Johnson from The Brothers Johnson.
Yeah, Louis. That's my buddy. He played on Reach Out. He played on Shine On. He was incredible.
He was also on your Live in Tokyo album.
Yeah, back in the early 80s I took the band with Louis, and Steve Ferrone...
From Average White Band.
Yeah. It was a great time musically. Musicians could be musicians, and not play down to people. I think that's the main thing. If you hire good musicians, they're going to bring something to the party. So even if you're playing simple music, it should have an attitude, and a point of view musically.
When you worked with France Joli, what did she bring to the party?
I have done a few Dance acts. Sister Sledge. A Taste of Honey. But I had never worked with someone whose voice was as strong as hers. Her voice was big.
Stronger than Kathy Sledge?
I think so. It was different.
Your album with Sister Sledge, that was Bet Cha Say That To All The Girls.
All I remember was the song Bring Your Own Baby.
That was a fun song.
You remember that?
Jesus. You did your homework man.
I used to have it on CD. That was a swingin' little tune.
And you were working with some other big names at that time. You had some big success with Jeffrey Osborne. On The Wings Of Love. And then Stay With Me Tonight.
So I asked France why you didn't arrange a duet with Jeffrey. They would have sounded great together.
Or someone else even. It seems to me that the idea would have come up. I know we talked about it.
He did sing back-up on one song on France's album, Love Always Finds A Way. At least you got a little piece of him there.
I think I should listen to this album again before I talk to you. [laughs]
And for the title track, Witch of Love, you returned to France's trademark style, the ballad intro going into the up-tempo Dance beat. And I really liked that song. But I thought the sound at the time was very mechanical. And that song was begging for a full orchestra, strings and horns and percussion.
You know, that's symptomatic of not just France's record, that's symptomatic of a lot of albums from that period. The albums, for example, of Jeffrey Osborne, the ones we did with a live band, with Steve Ferrone, and Louis Johnson, whoever, far outlived the ones we did that were electronic. Maybe short of Stay With Me Tonight, that was kind of the vibe of it, but the other stuff with the straight LinnDrum machine, even the Clarke/Duke stuff, when we went to our second record, and that was in the age of the drum machine, and I'm like, "Jesus, what were we thinking?" I hate that stuff now. And fortunately it's grown from that. But a lot of records suffered from that during that period.
Did you have talks with Epic Records to tell them that France needed an orchestra behind her?
No, not with that kind of budget.
At least they released Witch of Love on cd.
Did they come back to you to add liner notes, or to add an unreleased track? Anything special?
I spoke to several different people about what we're talking about now. And I couldn't add anymore than I'm telling you. It was so long ago. I have a hard enough time remembering last week.
Were there any other songs you recorded that didn't make the album?
Not that I'm aware of.
So what are you doing nowadays?
I've been touring. And tonight I leave for New York. I'm on the board of directors for ASCAP now.
Are there any major things going on with ASCAP? People are concerned about the policing of online music, and royalties, and copyrights.
They just reached an agreement, in principle. And I can't talk about a lot of it. But there's a lot going on. There's, I think, the songwriters, composers, publishers, in many ways, on Capitol Hill, are under attack. I'll just leave it at that.
And you're also wrapping up an album for an Indonesian artist?
Jay Alatas. We're mixing, starting today. Chante Moore is singing on it. Hubert Laws is playing on it. Stanley Clarke. Jeffrey Osborne.
You'll be seeing Jeffrey?
Will you ask him what his memories are of working with France?
[laughing] That's a long time ago.
If he can't remember, at least get me some stories about his days with L.T.D.
Why don't you ask him?
I just might. [laughing]
© Kelly Hughes
For more information on George Duke, I highly recommend visiting his website http://www.georgeduke.com. It has an extensive discography of his solo work, plus the work he has produced for others, with lots of notes and personal thoughts on many of these projects.