RIP: George Duke

Posted August 6, 2013 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

Talented jazz fusion giant dies at the age of 67

Record producer, composer  and renowned jazz musician George Duke died Monday in Los Angeles at age 67. According to his record label Concord Music Group, the talented artist was battling with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. The label also confirmed confirmed his death.

Duke, a jazz fusion follower in the Herbie Hancock/Stevie Wonder tradition, was born in San Rafael, California, and studied composition and contrabass at the San Francisco Conservatory. He began his musical career playing alongside avant-garde musician Frank Zappa. By the late-70’s, Duke made a big splash on the recording scene when he signed with Epic Records, releasing hit records in the R&B world including “Reach for It” (#2 R&B) and “Dukey Stick” (#4 R&B). Listeners to “Reach for It” often observed the song as being a spawn of George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic jams. The shift towards R&B exposed Duke to a larger audience, but he never forsook his jazz aspirations. Many of his highly acclaimed works were in that field: 1979’s A Brazilian Love Affair incorporated the efforts of Flora Purim  and Milton Nascimento and produced a bevy of Latin jazz-tinged works; Tutu, Miles Davis’s 1986 album, paired Duke with Davis on “Backyard Ritual;” a trove of albums produced on Diane Reeves, his cousin, documenting much of the last century.

Duke worked tirelessly behind-the-scenes on albums for Michael Jackson (Off the Wall), Deniece Williams (Let’s Hear It for the Boy), Jill Scott (The Real Thing: Words and Sounds Vol. 3) and Joe Sample (Sample This). His crowning achievement – one that defined his career as a record producer – is his work on Deniece Williams’s “Let’s Hear It for the Boy.” The track was one that was composed by Tom Snow and Dean Pitchfork and was considered to be bubblegum fluff to Duke’s tastes, but his involvement on the track gave Williams her biggest single to date, soaring to number one pop, number two in the UK and was certified platinum in the US.

By the ’80’s, Duke’s solo albums had fallen into the comforts of adult contemporary jazz. Occasionally those albums would resonate well with R&B and hip-hop audiences, particularly 1992’s Snapshot. With its smooth jazz layout, the Warner Bros. album contained the Jim Gilstrap/Rachelle Ferrell-guested “No Rhyme No Reason” and productions featuring Jeffery Osborne and Phil Perry. The album rocketed to number one on the Top Contemporary Jazz charts and even earned a hot spot on the R&B Albums’ chart (#36), becoming Duke’s highest charted album since 1981’s collaboration album, The Clarke/Duke Project (with Stanley Clark). His most recent works, 2006’s In a Mellow Tone, 2008’s Dukey Treats and 2010’s Deja Vu, were all Top Ten hits on the jazz charts. Duke’s final album, DreamWeaver, was released July 16 and made its debut at No. 1 on Billboard‘s contemporary jazz chart. It was his first new music since the death of his wife, Corine, last year.

In recent years, Duke’s music has been reused as inspiration in the world of sampling. Rapper Kanye West used 1982’s “Someday” on Common’s “Break My Heart” and Daft Punk used 1979’s “I Love You More” on their hit record, “Digital Love.”

At the announcement of his passing on Tuesday morning, celebrities took to Twitter to express their condolences:














Music critics and journalists also weighed in on the tragic news:

David Nathan, UK’s premiere soul critic, posted earlier that “it would appear that the world of music lost the wonderful and super-talented George Duke last night in Los Angeles. I will be preparing a tribute to a man who I admired, loved speaking with, had the privilege of interviewing many times, watched work at his famous LeGonks studio in Hollywood and then whose albums I was proud to have reissued on SoulMusic Records (SMR).” contributing editor Christian John Wikane wrote that Duke was “a musical legacy like no other.” He added,’ “I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Duke about his production work on Twice as Sweet by A Taste Of Honey. He was warm, funny, and generous in his praise of others while still very humble about his own success.”

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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