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George Duke
  George Duke  
George Duke [April 17th 2006]

George Duke, singer, producer, piano player/musician, musical Director, all round good egg, gave time out to complete this interview for Just Soul, which we were most grateful for.

Tracey: You were born in San Rafael, California. Where are you based now and what was it like growing up in San Rafael?
George Duke: I moved to LA after I joined the Mothers of Invention over thirty years ago. I didn’t actually grow up in San Rafael; my family lived in a small World War II government housing area for minorities that worked in the shipyards called Marin City. Marin City was a small family town mainly populated by emigrants from the south looking for work. Overall my experiences were incredible, setting the tone for the rest of my life! In fact, on my Cool album I wrote a song about my early life in Marin City - the song is titled Marin City.

Tracey: Did you have many musical influences around you as a child and are you an only child or do you have brothers and/or sisters?
George Duke: I am an only child, but I adopted a surrogate brother and sister. My mom and her sister played piano and sang constantly. I also had a cousin who was a music teacher. Most of my musical influence came from the church. My mom would also take me to various musical events; Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Marion Anderson, Lena Horne, classical music concerts, ballet, Gospel concerts, opera, plays, musicals – whatever!


Tracey: Do you have family yourself and if so how many children do you have?
George Duke: Yes, I have a wife of thirty-five years, Corine and two sons, John and Rashid.

Tracey: You must be very proud of your family, as you show many of their pictures in your latest album Duke (maybe these are indeed, some of your own children?). Has it being easy within your profession, to keep that family bond?
George Duke: Most of the pictures in Duke are my extended musical family. As far as immediate family bonds, it’s tough when you’re on the road a lot. One must keep their mind focused on what is real and what is priority. It takes much compromise, mostly from the family members. The important thing is that when I was home, that I was truly available! It was not easy and no doubt I could have done better, but we made it through.

Tracey: You made music for Karate Kid 111. Have you been asked to make music for any other films recently or do you plan on doing any in the near future?
George Duke: Yes, last year I scored DMX’s Never Die Alone. The year before that I scored Good Fences with Whoopi Goldberg and Danny Glover. I’ve also produced all of the Gospel songs for Leap of Faith with Steve Martin and so on.

Tracey: You play many instruments. Which instrument do you enjoy playing the most?
George Duke: Piano!

Tracey: George, you have produced for many artists like Dianne Reeves, Dionne Warwick, Jeffrey Osborne, Natalie Cole, Al Jarreau, Anita Baker, Rachelle Ferrell, Smokey Robinson to Barry Manilow and the Cure. Is there anyone who you haven’t produced for yet, whom you would like to produce for?
George Duke: Yeah! The next artist or group that’s interested in pushing the envelope! I want to produce an artist who has a unique musical point of view, or at least willing to search, work and develop that thing that separates them from the rest of the crowd.

Tracey: When you were 4 years old, you saw Duke Ellington in concert. You probably can’t remember much of that, but your mother said you went crazy and said she had to get you a piano. Was this a catalyst to your career or what was it, which made you want to sing, play instruments & perform?
George Duke: Yes, that Duke Ellington concert had a profound affect on me, partially because his name was “Duke.” Now, singing, playing, performing, producing, writing etc. is all part of being a complete artist. I really feel that diversity is one of the keys to longevity. Being able to be musically inclusive, switch styles at the drop of a hat without loosing who you are– it’s all important if your goal is to be a comprehensive musician. In the end, it will help fatten up your wallet.

Tracey: Brought up with going to church, you must have absorbed the roots of black music. Did you learn a lot about music from that environment and where did you get your funkiness? Was this from church?
George Duke: Absolutely! The “fonk” came from church. We used to call it “soul.” Gospel music and the Blues are the foundation for what I do. My jazz forays ride on top of that.

Tracey: People you have named which have influenced you musically are Miles Davis, Les McCann and Cal Tjader. In what particular way have these been influences to you, for example, style or character?
George Duke: Les was the first. He and Ray Charles taught me that it was OK to play “church” in a secular setting. Cal Tjader introduced me to Latin music, which has become one of my favourite styles to play. Miles taught me how to play a melody, how to play the spaces, how to move between diverse styles of music. He taught me that it was possible for a musician to look deep inside and play the music of his heart without compromise, and still be a star!

Tracey: With a Bachelor of music degree, majoring in trombone and composition and a minor in contrabass and an obvious talent in piano playing, what would you like your fans to think you were master of?
George Duke: The piano! However having said that, I will never master that instrument. It is simply impossible. Some have come close, but the joy is not in perfection but the pursuit of it. What I have tried to do is have enough technique to execute some of my ideas, and enough finesse to create melodies, harmonies and rhythms that truly express what I feel.

Tracey: What would you say was the breakthrough in your career and which period of your life do you personally feel is/was the best year for you?
George Duke: The first time I heard a song written by me on the radio, I thought I had died and gone to heaven! For me that was a mental break through and very important. As far as my best year, I would have to say 1979 when Reach For It was very hot. There’s nothing quite like having a hit record.

Tracey: You have been musical Director for various artists. Do you enjoy doing this type of work?
George Duke: I really enjoy backing other musicians and singers. The music director thing just came naturally because of that – I like organizing musical endeavours.

Tracey: In the 90’s you were nominated, two years running, as best R&B Keyboardist of the Year. Which do you prefer, keyboards or the Grand piano?
George Duke: The Grand! Sometimes I call it “the beast” especially the ones that fight me due to poor action, bad strings and tuning or all of the above!

Tracey: What music does George Duke like listening to and what was the last album you purchased and listened to?
George Duke: It depends on which side of the bed I get up on. I change with the vibe of the day. The last album I purchased was Bartok’s “Concerto For Orchestra.”

Tracey: Do you prefer producing, directing or performing?
George Duke: Though I truly love all of them, if I had to pick one I would choose performing mainly because of the immediacy of the act and the response.

Tracey: I have heard you are branching out into the Broadway Musical scene. Can you confirm this and how exactly will you be involved with that?
George Duke: Due to contractual purposes I cannot go into detail about the venture, but suffice it to say, I’m hoping it all works out.

Tracey: You have achieved much in your musical career? Is there anything else you would like to add to your CV one day?
George Duke: Actually there are many musical projects I would like to investigate before I check out! I want to record a big band album, and I really would like to travel to some distant area and record some native music and add my thing to that. Henceforth I would only like to record theme albums based on a central concept.

Tracey: In the past, you formed a group with Al Jarreau. Can you tell me a little bit about this time and was it a good time for you?
George Duke: What can I say, it was THE BEST! Al and I were learning our craft, having fun experimenting with various musical concepts. Invaluable time! I still plan on releasing some recordings on BPM from that period when the time is right!

Tracey: There is a saying in the UK, which goes something like this; “whatever your profession is, it does not get done at home”. For example, if you are a decorator, your own home is the one, which is in need of decorating the most. I don’t think this quite refers to the music profession, as if it is with me, it is just a natural part of who you are, but if you and your friends and family get together, what would George Duke sing/play as his natural self, to his family/friends?
George Duke: You know it’s strange, but I rarely play in a small room just for family. I guess I do so much playing outside my home, that I prefer not to do it at home. I would rather take my mind off of music – you know one needs a break! On the other hand, my studio is in my home so I’m playing at home all the time! Sometimes on holidays, I’ll play a Christmas song for my grandson and watch his eyes light up as he tries to play with me – now that’s a kick!

Tracey: Do you know of any UK Soul artists and if so whom?
George Duke: I know a few. My most recent recording was with Bluey and Incognito. I think the UK has some incredible talent, I wish I could hook up with more UK artists, they seem to really care about where music is going and how it’s perceived, and not afraid to push the envelope.

Tracey: I love the tracks “Somebody’s Body” and “I Wanna Know” from your latest album Duke. I love to hear your voice in your songs as you have such a sweet singing voice. Do you enjoy singing?
George Duke: NO! I wish I did, but it’s just so hard for me and everyday it’s getting harder. I’ve lost a lot of range over the years making it difficult to hit those high notes I sang on some of my older records. As I’ve gotten older I tend to sing more in my natural voice.

Tracey: Are you planning your next album and if so, what can we expect from George Duke in 2006?
George Duke: My next album is a real jazz album called “In A Mellow Tone” featuring Brian Bromberg on upright bass and Terri Lyne Carrington on drums. Most of the songs are rebuilt standards or new songs in that type of format. It’s due for release in the USA on June 27th. I’ll also be on tour with Stanley Clarke from the end of May through September, hitting Europe in July. See ya!

Tracey: On behalf of Just Soul, it has been a pleasure to interview the ‘Duke’. I thank you for completing the interview and wish you every success in 2006 and beyond.

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