George Duke: The Ears Have It

George Duke finished a stint as musical director of David Sanborn’s Sunday Night and quickly flew back to the West Coast to remix a 12-inch single of “All Or Nothing At All” for Al Jarreau. Dance singles are not Duke’s favorite thing to do, but the 43-year-old was having fun with this funky, rapid-fire groove and the singer’s solid and soulful spryness. His beef with 12-inch singles is that often real music is sacrificed for gimmickry. And Duke’s musicality is well-known in the music business. Jeffrey Osborne once joked to his producer, “You know what’s wrong with you? You’re too musical.”

Duke is now called frequently by Anita Baker for arranging ideas. natalie Cole called him for assistance on a Billie Holiday song. Sadao Watanabe and Hiroshima had him produce recent releases. He introduced Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind & Fire to the world as a solo artist, and he’s worked on several Deniece Williams projects. He did Smokey Robinson’s album and a track for Miles Davis this year, before taking his old friend Jarreau into the Top Five in the jazz and R&B charts with Heart’s Horizon.

This well-rounded musical knowledge results from training–some on-the-job–in a variety of styles. He graduated from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, studying classical piano and trombone, but grew bored with it when instructors chastised him for wanting to change notes in classics that he learned. He received his master’s in music composition from San Francisco State University and taught classes in contemporary improvisation and jazz in American culture. He led the house band at S.F.’s Half Note Club from 1965 to 1970, frequently backing a yet-unsigned Jarreau.

After moving to Los Angeles, Duke got his first taste of playing electric piano with Jean-Luc Ponty, and was soon asked to join Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, where his trombone skills were put to use as was his growing keyboard prowess. Zappa forced him to use a synthesizer for the first time, for which Duke is probably quite grateful. Between separate two-year sstings with Zappa, Duke played with Cannonball Adderley’s band from ’72 to ’73. Duke began recording as a solo artist in 1974, with time along the way in the Cobham-Duke band and Clarke-Duke project. On many recording sessions, his name as a sideman has been Dawalli Gonga. Almost overshadowed by producing credits, his solo career is again on the move with the playful and far-reaching Night After Night.

His producing career started in 1977 with trombonist Raul de Souza’s Sweet Lucy and Flora Purim’s Carry On. His first big hits were with Taste of Honey (“Sukiyaki”) and jeffrey Osborne (“On the Wings of Love”), and he’s hoping for some of that same crossover magic with Jarreau’s new one. Jarreau seems quite pleased to be collaborating with Duke again. “George helped me get a breadth of material like I’ve never had,” the singer says. “He’s played this wide variety of music as an accompanist, and then accompanying himself as a soloist. There aren’t any iner, you know.”

I spoke recently to Duke about his work as a producer.

Mix: Do you think the groundwork was being laid for your producing career with your early solo records, the spectrum of music and the craziness like the “Dukey Stick” that you got into?

Duke: Without a doubt. Even my undergraduate years in school–all that theory, composition and ear training. All that stuff has really helped me be more flexible in what I’m doing now. I know a lot of guys don’t read music, but reading has meant a lot to me in terms of my pocketbook. As a producer I don’t have to go out and hire other people to write stuff out. Sometimes I don’t have time and I’ll get somebody to do it, but ina pinch I can sit down and write a lead sheet out, as opposed to trying to explain to someone at a session that I want this and I want that without knowing quite how to say it. I saw, “Listen, this needs to be in A, this should be a B-flat.” You can actually talk music language with people that understand. And all the technical stuff really makes a difference. I learned a lot of that from watching Frank Zappa, who seemed to know so much about what was going on in the studio. The first time I worked with him I said, “Man, I want to be able to do that.” He could look at the engineer and say, “This needs less 2K.”

Mix: Were there other producers who influenced you?

Duke: I never really got into producers until later, because I always considered myself an artist. I started getting into production as a means of making an alternate buck during the disco era, when it looked like the music I was playing was going to be blown away. Other thank Frank, I would assume that Quincy Jones was an influence in the late ’70s, but I basically just drew from whatever I heard on the radio, from whatever I liked and all the experiences I had in the past from the artist standpoint. I never really had a producer. I was always in there kicking around on my own. So when I started producing other artists, I wasn’t coming in like, “Okay, now sing this note here, this is a song we’re going to do.” It was more like, “Okay, what do you want to do with this record? Where do you want to go?” And of course each artist has a different need, so it was all kind of pliable and adjustable.

Mix: If somebody asked you today, could you pick up a Narada Michael Walden- or Keith Olsen-produced song?

Duke: Most producers have a pretty identifiable sound. The main difference between me and most of the on temporary producers is that I do so many different types of music that it would be a little more difficult to tell my productions from one another. Going from Miles Davis to Smokey Robinson, for example. If you heard the song I did for Miles and the one I did for Smokey you’d swear they’re produced by different people. That’s diversity. That’s what I’ve always tried to do in my playing and my music, and I’ve tried to adapt that to production as well.

Mix: How do you explain being a great player and being able to cross over to successful producing? Not everyone can do that.

Duke: A lot of it has to do with just being able to get along with people and being able to listen and perceive what’s going on in somebody’s head. Sometimes you get singers in and they’ve got a thousand things going through their mind, and they’re not putting out their best. You’ve got to find some way to get a spark out of them and get them into the song so they’re making the decisions. Even though you may be making suggestions and guiding the ship along in a certain way, you have to convince them that they have made the right decision. And once they make a decision, it’s like something clicks on in their head, something changes. As soon as that confidence comes back, it’s like another singer stepped into the room. And it’s the same way with horn players.

Mix: You and Jeffrey Osborne seem to work well together.

Duke: He was very involved with what was going on in the studio. I learned as much from him as he learned from me. When you’re dealing with a singer like that, there’s almost nothing to say. He goes in and sings, and two takes later you’ve got it. He had a lot of confidence and a very innate sense about which way to go with his own career. At that time he was very unique, and I was glad to have that opportunity to work with him. I have to admit that the third record I did with him, Don’t Stop, suffered from not having as much involvement from Jeffrey as Stay With Me Tonight did. I have to accept blame for that, even though it was a successful record. He had gotten so hot and was flying up to perform at Vegas and Tahoe and wasn’t around for enough of the record.

Mix: What do you spend the most time on in the studio?

Duke: I’ll spend a lot of time on a vocal. I’ll spend a lot of time on a mix, too, but in the final analysis I’d probably spend more time on a vocal. Because if the vocalist is the lead and we don’t sell it with the vocal, we ain’t got a shot whether the mix is right or not. A mix can be bad and the vocal can be happening and you’ve still got a record. So the basic pocket of the record has to be there, which generally doesn’t take that much time for me. And as long as I can get the artist in that work mode, and really believing that we’re going for something special, then we’re generally okay.

Mix: How much of a good sound in the studio is equipment, and how much of it is the ears in the booth?

Duke: Whether you’re talking about samples or live musicians, you got to start with something that’s good. If you’ve got a great sample then you don’t need to use as much EQ or anything else. So if you start off with a good source, it’s automatically going to sound better. Plus I have a great engineer, Erik Zobler.

Mix: If you had to choose, would you prefer good equipment and a bad engineer or bad equipment and a good engineer?

Duke: I’d rather have bad equipment and a good engineer, because you can’t replace somebody that’s got an ear. In my studio I’ve got what I call a “Poor Man’s Massenburg” setup. I have a Series 3B console, which is an old Soundcraft, before they changed over to the SSL people. The Series 3B we use for playback almost exclusively. There may be an occasion where we record through the board, but very seldom. Normally we go through George Massenburg preamps, or another kind–one that was actually built by my engineer–depending on what we’re recording and what we’re looking for out of the preamp; something very transparent, not quite as sophisticated or as wide, or whatever. We go through various limiters or other praphernalia, depending on what we need for the sound we’re dealing with, and go right into the Mitsubishi. I have a 32-track digital tape machine. And on occasion I’ll just record right out of the Synclavier into the Mitsubishi.

Mix: What first piece of equipment would you buy if you were starting up a studio?

Duke: A Synclavier, because that’s a studio all in one. The Korg M1 is great, too. But when I recorded Jeffrey Osborne’s first record, all those great songs except for a couple were done in my office, where I had my secretary working, my coffee machine and my refrigerator. I had switches put on so I could turn the regrigerator and clocks off. I used to put foam in the windows. I’d move my secretary’s desk, and we would put Jeffrey over there and put a mic up in front of him and let him sing. Close the door. And I had to make sure my kids didn’t walk on the floor up above. There was no Synclavier at the time. In terms of recording, you don’t always need something real elaborate to make something happen. But to bring it back to the Synclavier at the time. In terms of recording, you don’t always need something real elaborate to make something happen. But to bring it back to the Synclavier, you’ve got a very strong medium for recording, a strong workstation for doing everything you need. Even without Direct-to-Disk, you can definitely do a complete track on the Synclavier. That’s what I’ve been doing for years.

Mix: I can understand a producer having a core of musicians and wanting to use them on a lot of different records. Do you feel any obligation to use new guys, keep bringing in fresh players?

Duke: No, I don’t feel an obligation to do that. In terms of my work, my responsibility is to the record company and to the artist. And that’s pretty much where the buck stops. I have to give the artist, in the most efficient way possible, the product they’re looking for, and that may mean using the guys that I use all the time. I admit I’m reluctant to use musicians I don’t know, because I can call such and such and they’ll come over here and be in and out in ten minutes. I could call somebody else who doesn’t read as well or I don’t know, and then I just wouldn’t know. I will experiment more on my own records, because it’s my budget and that’s different. But when I’m dealing as a producer with other people’s records, I’ve got their money in my pocket and I don’t want to experiment with it.

Mix: Has MIDI changed things at your studio?

Duke: Oh, tremendously. Without MIDI we’d be in the Dark Ages. I remember going onstage and playing without MIDI, and I don’t know how I ever did it. If we’d had MIDI when I was with Frank Zappa, can you imagine what could have happened in that band? I wonder sometimes. But in the room here it’s made it much faster to do anything I want to do. I think it’s just the greatest innovation of this century. [Laughs] I really think it’s absolutely essential. I’ve got everything going through a big Cooper MIDI switcher, and everything is hooked up to the Synclavier through that, so I can switch it around any way I want to. I’ve got my Minimoog and all my stuff MIDIed up to this unit, and I can pretty much choose what I want to do and run it down any track that I decide to use on the Synclavier. I love the idea of rack-mounting everything and having it come through one or two keyboards.

Mix: In what ways does your own music benefit by you being a producer?

Duke: I did a couple of songs for Barry Manilow. A lot of people would say, “Wow, that’s weird.” But I tell you, from working with Barry you learn something. From working with Frank I learned something. From working with Miles. Whoever. From working with Smokey Robinson recently, I can see how he looks at his own music and what he’s looking for. And I’ll take a little piece of that and put it in my music. Other than that, it’s hard for me to produce myself. I’m really an artist at that point. I don’t get on myself as hard as I probably should, except about my vocals. My voice in general has gotten a lot better because of that, but in terms of overall concept of albums that’s kind of tough, because I’m really an artist first and the producer takes a back seat. I tell him to sit down, because this is my record, and my time to get crazy and do what I want to do.

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