There are songs and music artists that not only move you but their work defines certain times in your life. George Duke who just passed on Monday was one of those cats for me.
I first heard and was mesmerized by George on one of his later radio friendly songs “Rhyme or Reason” in the fall 1992. I was in high school and was all into hip hop at the time but this jazz marinated, R&B slow jam came on the radio (WVAZ “V 103”, here in Chicago), and I was hooked. Despite being 16 years old and this song was way more mature than I was, the groove, George’s vocals and exceptional piano playing took me back to when my mother introduced me to jazz (via Daddy O’Daily’s radio show and my mother’s own piano playing), as a small child. This song has been in regular rotation ever since, can’t enough of the piano riffs, smooth vocals and tight production.
The song came from George’s 1992 CD “Snapshot”, which had some really good instrumental songs on it too and it’s like George spoke to me. I quickly bought the CD and told everyone I knew about it, even other hip hop hardcore fans like I, appreciated George’s talent, technique and style. Little did we know many hip hop artists (Common, Kanye West, etc), sampled some of George’s earlier work to make hip hop beats. George just had hypnotic rhythms and timeless music that has stood the test of time. In fact I had just played my favorite three songs (6’O Clock & Ooh Baby in addition to Rhyme & Reason), from the Snapshot Monday evening, not knowing that George had passed yet.
Some years later (when Tower Records on Clark & Belden closed), I bought “The Essential George Duke” 2 CD set. It was filled with his genre bending music, from straight funk like “Dukey Stick” & “Reach For It” to R&B Flavored hits “Sweet Baby”, and even south of the border swing “Brazilian Love Affair”. There was nothing in urban music George couldn’t do and make it sound great, all the while with his trademark smile.
To top it off around the same time PBS (WTTW here in Chicago), was airing local jazz icon Ramsey Lewis’ Legends of Jazz show and George was on one episode. He sat down at the piano and played like few before him, it was a joy not just to see someone make great music but George enjoyed himself when he played. Always a smile or laugh, you felt the good vibrations from him in every note.
Did I mention how prolific the man was? He started out playing with Frank Zappa and seemingly played with every musician on the plant since then. He just released new music in the last month, a year after the passing of his dear wife. Over 40 years of tunes, George has left us a legacy that was a life of love and more collaborations and producing that most people can do in two lifetimes. The most notable being when he worked with jazz legend Stanley Clarke in the early 80’s. The top ten hit “Sweet Baby” from 1981 is the most reconizable piece from that.
I have followed urban music most of my life and there are artists, producers, legends and finally icons of the music and George was one of the few people that was all of those for every genre he played. George didn’t make just jazz, funk or R&B, he simply made great music and will be sorely missed but left us a great legacy that we can listen to over and over again.
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