The R&B world lost another great with the passing of fusion artist George Duke, who died on August 5 from leukemia. The keyboardist played rock, jazz, and funk (even playing with Frank Zappa), expanding on the groundwork laid by Miles Davis' Bitches Brew. By the 1980s he focused on funk and contemporary R&B, transitioning into an in-demand producer whose credits include Deniece Williams' "Let's Hear It for the Boy" and Jeffrey Osbourne's "Stay with Me Tonight." Scan the liner notes of any late 1970s and 1980s soul albums, and chances are Duke's name will appear. An example of his many genre-spanning tracks is 1977's "Reach for It," the funky midtempo workout that has been sampled by Ice Cube, Biz Markie, and numerous other hip hop artists.
Born in San Rafael, California, Duke saw his first Duke Ellington concert at age four. Shortly after he began piano lessons, combining his love of Ellington with gospel music. By age sixteen Duke had played in several high school jazz groups; according to Duke's website, he delved further into Davis, Cal Tjader, and Les McCann at this time. He earned his Bachelor of Music degree from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in 1967, and officially embarked on his career. While working on his master's degree, Duke and a young singer named Al Jarreau performed as the house band at San Francisco's Half Note Club.
After recording a few jazz albums, Duke persuaded violinist Jean-Luc Ponty to record with him; the resulting band, the George Duke Trio, won acclaim in Europe and toured in American rock clubs. An appearance at the Thee Experience club in Los Angeles earned audience member Frank Zappa's attention, ending with Zappa recruiting Duke to join the Mothers of Invention. After spending much of 1970 touring with Zappa, Duke quickly accepted an invitation to join Cannonball Adderley's band; two years later he reteamed with Zappa and Luc-Ponty. Finally in 1976 Duke struck out on his own, recording his first fusion album for the Epic label, 1977's From Me to You. But the 1978 album Reach for It introduced him to mass audiences, with the title track peaking at number two on the R&B charts and cracking the Billboard Hot 100.
"Reach for It" emits a party vibe, with the extended groove accented by studio chatter and cheers (much like Tom Browne's "Funkin' for Jamaica"). Duke's keyboards dominate, creating memorable riffs that drive the track. But the popping bass also dazzles, injecting a healthy dose of funk into the tune. In updated liner notes for the Reach for It album, Duke recalled the genesis of "Reach for It": "The tune came about as a result of a gig at The Cellar Door in Washington DC," he explained. "Ndugu [Leon "Ndugu" Chancler, drummer] had played a drum solo, and started playing this beat. I began to play this bass line and motioned for Byron Miller [bassist] to play a solo. The audience went completely nuts. I knew that we had something!"
When Duke and his band returned to Los Angeles, "we were in the studio recording (I waited until after dinner and wine), I asked the band if they remembered that groove we had come up with at the club in DC," he recalled. "They said they did, so we recorded it. I told the engineer to put on a reel of tape and just let it roll. I would pick out what I wanted later." The result is a pulsing groove that contains few lyrics--just brief harmonizing by a trio of female backup singers--but "Reach for It" doesn't require words. The bass, keyboards, and drums carry the track, giving it a laid-back but danceable feel.
By the 1980s, Duke concentrated on producing R&B/pop recordings, although he experienced success with the Clark/Duke Project. Collaborating with longtime friend and bassist Stanley Clarke, the duo scored an R&B and pop hit with "Sweet Baby." He may have drifted from straightforward jazz, but he never strayed far from his roots, lending a sophisticated sensibility to his own music as well those by such artists as Anita Baker, Smokey Robinson, Gladys Knight, and Chanté Moore.
Sadly, Duke passed away just a year after his wife Corine. He released an album earlier this year, Dreamweaver, released last month. It now stands as the final work by a man who helped pioneer the fusion movement, and demonstrated that jazz can be incorporated into everything from R&B to avant-garde rock.