The depth of George Duke’s influence on popular music largely depends on which generation you talk to.
To fans of contemporary funk and jazz-laced R&B, the keyboardist — who died Monday at age 67 from leukemia — is best remembered for a mountain of commercially rich recordings from the ’80s onward that drew on his expansive talents as a composer, singer, producer and especially an instrumentalist. The client list went from pop-soul titans Michael Jackson and Jill Scott to band projects with fusion forefathers Stanley Clarke and Billy Cobham. And that doesn’t even count the decades upon decades of pop-soul albums that Duke put out under his own name.
But go back to the early ’70s, when a younger Duke was a mainstay of Frank Zappa’s band and you heard an artist very much in the thick of rock experimentation that was as progressive as it was playful.
Duke’s hit albums from the ’80s and ’90s, frankly, never spoke to me much. But I was happy nonetheless that a player who had so obviously paid his musical dues in the previous decades was getting some spotlight time. Without conditions, he deserved every iota of fame that came his way.
The Duke I knew and championed was the virtuostic, quick-thinking and remarkably animated player who was, in many ways, the co-pilot on six consecutive Zappa classics: Waka/Jawaka, The Grand Wazoo, Over Nite Sensation, Apostrophe, Roxy and Elsewhere (a 1974 live album that generously featured Duke’s playing), and perhaps my favorite Zappa disc of all, 1975’s brilliant prog-infested fusion romp One Size Fits All. A wonderful archival DVD of Duke with Zappa, A Token of his Extreme, was released earlier this year.
The ideal introduction to Duke’s solo music? That’s easy. Take a listen to 1975’s I Love the Blues, She Heard Me Cry, an electric party piece that balances the inviting warmth of Duke’s singing and arranging with the kind of nasty, simmering funk that rivaled Herbie Hancock’s groundbreaking fusion records of the day.
The keyboardist wasn’t a star in those days. But get into the ultra-persuasive groove of those early records and you will discover that, even then, Duke was king.