Remembering George Duke: 1946-2013

by E. "Doc" Smith on August 9, 2013

George Duke, one of the greatest keyboardists I’ve have ever seen, passed away this week at the age of 67. Duke’s career saw him play with everyone from Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderly, and Frank Zappa, to Billy Cobham, Stanley Clarke, Diane Reeves and a who’s who of some the greatest musicians of his generation. Duke will be missed; his battle with leukemia took many who didn’t know by surprise.

I first saw Duke in 1974 with Frank Zappa and his incendiary Mothers of Invention, featuring the incredible Ruth Underwood on mallets, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Chester Thompson and Tom Fowler, at Washington, D.C.’s now defunct Capital Centre. Duke was an amazing keyboardist who could hold his own with anyone, however he was also a fantastic vocalist; Zappa’s brilliant and complex “comedy music” was made even more enjoyable by Duke’s soulful and gorgeous singing. A true musical genius, Duke will be greatly missed.

That Zappa concert left a great impression on me and my fellow musical friends, and after his stint with the Mothers, we jumped on any and everything we could find Duke: his beautiful work with the Brazilian singer Flora Purim; his amazing solo albums, like “The Aura Will Prevail”, is one of my all-time favorites. We soon learned Duke would be joining drummer Billy Cobham and as fate would have it, they were actually going to be opening for British keyboardist and former Yes alum Rick Wakeman.

This was an odd double bill, but we had a lot of that in the ’70s. Now I loved Rick Wakeman; he was another brilliant composer and a great musician, but after Cobham, Duke, bassist Alphonso Johnson and guitarist John Scofield tore up the crowd, there wasn’t much left for Wakeman and his band. As for Cobham and Duke, they would go on to record the now legendary “Live in Europe”, in Montreux, Switzerland.

Cobham and Duke would return, this time to George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium. My friends and I managed to get virtually, front row seats for that one. We left agog and apoplectic after Duke’s mesmerizing keyboard playing, his hilarious banter with Cobham, and his signature solo piece where he basically tells a story about a woman by using his synthesizer to mimic her voice. Priceless.

I would go on to see Duke many more times over the years; with Stanley Clarke; with his own phenomenal band with Ndugu Leon Chancelor, and many others, however those early shows with Zappa and Cobham were unbelievable; both masterful and hilarious. There has been much written about Duke this week; The Washington Post’s Terrance McArdle has written one of the best I’ve read about him, however I will leave you with my favorite tune by Duke of that bygone era, from his album “The Aura Will Prevail”; the aptly named “For Love, I Come Your Friend”. George Duke will be loved forever.

Filed under: Arts & Entertainment