Sometimes the story of how an album came to be is as fascinating as the music itself. The Mike Duke Project’s …took a while, released on Jim Pugh’s non-profit label Little Village Foundation, is a prime example. Despite a 40-year-long career as a respected singer, songwriter, and keyboard player, Alabama native Mike Duke had never released an album of his own. Duke spent several years with Southern rockers Wet Willie; his keyboard playing can be heard on the band’s 1974 hit single “Keep on Smilin'”. He further honed his Southern rock chops playing with the Outlaws and spent much of the 1990s playing keyboards for legendary roadhouse rocker Delbert McClinton.
Bob Brown, who served as the executive producer and driving force behind…took a while, has been friends with Duke since the early 1980s. When the two met, Brown was managing Huey Lewis & the News. The band recorded three of Duke’s songs – two, “Hope You Love Me Like You Say You Do” and “Doin’ It All for My Baby”, ended up on Billboard’s Top 40 singles chart. When Brown purchased the Rancho Nicasio roadhouse in Nicasio, California, he invited Duke to join the house band. Duke remains a member of the Rancho All-Stars to this day. In addition to archival recordings dating back to 1977, …took a while features several new performances of Duke’s music recorded at Rancho Nicasio and produced by blues renaissance man Kid Andersen. The album is an excellent showcase for Duke’s range and deep musical roots.
Opening track “Little Miss Ponytail” introduces listeners to Duke’s warm and unbelievably soulful vocals. Duke’s voice is rich and expressive, with a nice ragged edge on the high notes. As he sings the touching lyrics about young love, his delivery sounds effortless. Duke has a singular gift for writing and singing about matters of the heart. Hearing one of his beautiful meditations on love and loss makes the listener feel as if they’re receiving words of wisdom from a barroom philosopher who’s seen it all. The tender ballad “I’m Not Sad Tonight” was recorded at Rancho Nicasio. Hammond organ riffs from Jim Pugh add soul and backing vocals from Dallis Cradt and Angela Strehli flesh out the arrangement. Duke’s heartfelt vocals touch the listener like a reassuring clap on the shoulder.
“Let Her Go and Start Over” further explores the themes of lost love and closure. The tune was recorded by Huey Lewis & the News, but Duke’s version strips away the show-biz polish and hits much closer to the bone. Andersen took Duke’s 1981 recording and re-mixed it at his famed Greaseland Studios. Andersen overdubbed organ riffs from Jim Pugh and backing vocals from Lisa Leuscher Andersen and himself. The resulting track sports a mix of musicianship and raw emotion that’s sure to move today’s listeners. “Coming ‘Round Again”, a song originally pitched to Gregg Allman after his breakup with Cher, is one of the earliest recordings in the collection. The simmering, moody arrangement is a mixture of jazz and blues with Ray Honea’s sensual guitar work and a three-piece horn section adding atmosphere. Given the back story behind …took a while, it’s ironic to hear Duke sing, “I know for all the luck in my lifetime/It’s coming ’round again.”
Given the critical acclaim that …took a while has been generating, things are indeed coming ’round again for Mike Duke. Thanks to the efforts of Bob Brown, Jim Pugh, and Kid Andersen, an overlooked talent is finally getting some long-overdue recognition. Duke draws from a deep well of influences and pours his heart and soul into everything he plays. The Mike Duke Project has given roots music fans a wonderful gift.