Let's Hear It for the Duke
For over 20 years, I’ve thanked my lucky stars for George Duke. In particular, I’d like to thank him for introducing the world to drummer extraordinaire Sheila E. Sheila Escovedo was my second crush in the whole wide world (the first was Thelma from Good Times).
But there’s much more to it than that. To make it plain, George Duke is one funky brotha who has crafted some of the most mesmerizing grooves ever. Yes, it’s true, we’ll always have the one and only Mr. Please Please Please himself, James “The Big Payback” Brown. And yes, there’s the undisputed heavyweight champion of P-Funk, George Clinton. But there’s also George Duke, a consummate musician, songwriter, arranger, and producer who often gets short shrift whenever we start naming the best of the best.
That doesn’t mean he needs a VH1: Behind the Music or an E! True Hollywood Story—please, don’t do that—but a little more recognition would be nice. After all, this is the cat who started his first group with Al Jarreau, and went on to join groups put together by Frank Zappa and “Cannonball” Adderly. This is a man who, as a performer, worked with all sorts of music greats, like Nancy Wilson and Dizzy Gillespie, and then went on to release his own hits.
Like George Duke, Prince is a funky brotha too, and diehard fans of His Reformed Royal Badness, like myself, have a game we like to play on the sly. It’s a secret, but I’ll risk getting kicked out of the New Power Generation fan club by sharing it. There’s no real name for it, but it could be called, “If There Hadn’t Been a Prince…” and you play it like this:
If there hadn’t been a Prince, there wouldn’t have been a Janet Jackson. That’s ‘cause Prince hooked up with Morris Day and helped create the Time, which included Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. As the story goes, Morris Day, taking advice from Prince about band leadership, fired Jam and Lewis. Jam and Lewis met Janet, collaborated with her on the Control album, which was so good nobody remembers she ever had a debut album before it. So, by the transitive property of music, Prince is responsible for Control.
It’s a fun game. With some convoluted logic and a pinch of imagination, you can link Prince to anybody. I’ve been working on Scott Joplin.
Not to say that Prince hasn’t directly influenced other artists, but when it comes to George Duke, you’ll never need the transitive property of music to help identify his musical fingerprints. On his website, Duke has compiled a discography of his production credits and, quite frankly, it’s staggering. Duke has listed his work with the likes of Anita Baker, his longtime buddy Stanley Clarke, Rachelle Farrell, George Howard, Gladys Knight, Chante Moore, Najee, Jeffrey Osborne, Phil Perry, Diane Reeves, Smokey Robinson, Joe Sample, Marilyn Scott, Take Six, Kirk Whalum, Dionne Warwick, Keith Washington, Deniece “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” Williams, and the Winans. And that’s not even the entire list! Anita Baker, when she appeared on The Tavis Smiley Show, declared that she wouldn’t do a project without bringing George Duke onboard. Yep, the man is due some serious respect.
That’s why The Essential George Duke is a step in a righteous direction. In general, “Greatest Hits” and “Best Of” collections often leave music lovers feeling ambivalent. On the one hand, it’s nice to have the “best” tracks from an artist’s past albums in a single set. But, on the other hand, there’s always something that’s not quite right. Either there’s not enough of the “good stuff” on the compilation, or it only includes songs that were “hits” as measured by singles and chart performance, or it turns out your favorite songs appear as remixes. Occasionally, the collection has the songs you like, but somebody goofed and decided to include nothing but the radio edits of the song, so right when your favorite artist is about to “take it to the bridge”, you find that the song fades out before that point. Sometimes, the minute details can make or break the project. I remember being completely disgruntled with Janet Jackson’s Design of a Decade because its versions of “Nasty” and “What Have You Done for Me Lately” didn’t include the dialogue that preceded those songs. Ugh! One day, I’ll go back and re-collect the Control album. See? If there hadn’t been a Prince, this would never have happened.
Thankfully, The Essential George Duke reintroduces us to Duke’s exceptional hybrid of disco, funk, jazz, and soul with 33 of his jams. That’s about two and a half hours of music; more than enough to help you put a glide in your stride and a dip in your hip, compliments of the Mothership.
All the favorites are here, appearing in chronological order, from 1977’s “Scuse Me Miss” to 1984’s “Secret Rendezvous”. By ordering the songs by release date, starting with the earliest, the set sheds light on Duke’s artistic progression. It starts with the extended funk of “Reach for It” and some generous helpings of George Clinton and Bootsy Collins on “Dukey Stick”. On that last one, listen to the bass! Put this sucker on your stereo and I guarantee you an instant Afro plus the Afro comb with the black fist on the handle, you dig? My mother used to braid my hair in cornrows to this song, joyously singing, “We want your mind to grow!”
After that, you’ll hear Duke’s love for Earth, Wind & Fire in “Movin’ On” and “Say That You Will”, followed by the South American vibe he cultivated with “Cravo E Canela”, “Brazilian Love Affair”, and the song that would have been a challenge for future CD spines—“Up from the Sea It Arose and Ate Rio in One Swift Bite”. Hardly anyone escaped the latter part of the ‘70s without getting splashed with a little disco. Check that out on “I Want You for Myself” and “I Just Want to Love You”.
And guess what? That’s just disc one! The second disc starts the party with “Shine On” and contains other jewels like “Ride On Love”, “Son of Reach for It”, the horn-laced “Reach Out”, and “She Can Wait Forever”. For the more jaded souls among us, it might come as a surprise to listen to Duke’s sunshine and optimism in songs like “Every Reason to Smile”, “The Good Times”, “Silly Fightin’”, and “Got to Get Back to Love”. Another song, “Heroes”, follows that pattern as well, but that song is just too cool for criticism. If there’s any cynicism about Duke’s happy-go-lucky tunes, it’s only because we’ve grown more accustomed to personal angst. These songs were produced in the ‘80s, when we were more concerned with figuring out who Billie Jean’s “baby daddy” was than listening to someone’s emotional turmoil. Besides, there’s nothing wrong with a little optimism; we could probably use a lot more of it. And while you’re listening, visit George Duke’s website to read his own thoughts about his discography, as well as his insights on the music industry in general. It’s a good read, especially for artists who aren’t aware of “cross-collateralization” (Listen to your lawyer when he or she says it’s evil).
As for complaints, I only have two. One, the set could have omitted the disco version of “Dukey Stick” and the 12-inch version of “Reach Out” in favor of two other tunes. Any, and I mean any, two songs would have worked, whether they were non-charting songs or unreleased tracks. That’s a minor error in judgment that only appears at the end of the collection, so it’s forgivable. Two, why did it take so long for this release to arrive in the United States? Outside the U.S., the double disc appeared in 2004. There’s not much that can be done about it now, though. In the final analysis, The Essential George Duke is a treasure for anyone, whether you remember the songs when they were first released or you’re just hearing about the man for the first time. This collection’s a definite keeper.
Stanley Clarke / George Duke - Schooldays