Celebrating George Duke
Paying tribute to a man who was a great musician and a good guy
By Lionel Rolfe 08/21/2013
The death of keyboardist George Duke at 67 on Aug. 5 brought back memories of the 1970s, when I smoked dope with him nearly every day.
I had hooked up with Nigey Lennon, to whom I would be married for about a quarter of a century, and I used to go with her to Frank Zappa’s rehearsal space on Sunset Boulevard, near Bronson Avenue, where Zappa’s Mothers of Invention worked on such albums as “Roxy and Elsewhere” and “Over-Nite Sensation.”
It was a cavernous airplane hangar-like building, a former movie sound stage which, oddly enough, I had worked in some years before when I was a teenage gofer on a movie about Rosa Parks. Now the space had the feeling of a nightclub, with an obnoxiously loud sound system and lots of glaring spotlights. Dead center on the stage, haloed by the main spot, was Frank’s chair, where he chain-smoked Winston cigarettes and guzzled endless cups of 40-weight coffee from a Shop Vac-sized thermos. When he wasn’t playing, he was tyrannizing the musicians, which bothered me because I was used to the much more genteel and civilized way great classical musicians work together.
They might as well have been working on a construction site in Lancaster, the desert outpost where Zappa grew up. I considered this rock ‘n’ roll pretentiousness. And I noticed Zappa had a bit of a double standard.
He made public jokes at the expense of his well-endowed marimba player Ruth Underwood. His barbs reminded one of a 14-year-old boy, talking about Ruth’s magnificent mammaries. But if he felt as if he needed you, he was quite gentlemanly.
Duke was then Zappa’s keyboardist, an integral part of the band: A good looking, sturdily built guy with a most genial manner. He seemed to like me. He’d nod at me and tell me about the “fine doobie” he had, and lead me to his van parked in the alley behind the rehearsal space. One time, Frank came to the van’s door, flung it open and glowered at us. He needed Duke on stage. Frank hated marijuana with the passion of a true nicotine and caffeine addict. I remember that Duke and I laughed at the contradiction, but George showed considerably more affection toward Frank than I did.
I was afraid Zappa would ban me from the rehearsal hall for corrupting his employees — but he continued maintaining at least a superficial friendliness toward me that later warmed up over time. Later, he told Nigey she ought to marry me, which I think had something to do with her doing so.
But Zappa rarely took backtalk, which Nigey said I gave him in spadefuls. And when Tina Turner came with her husband, Ike Turner, who was incredibly hard on his beleaguered wife, Ike listened to her parts and harrumphed, “What’s this shit?”
Zappa would have shown the door to anyone else.
Tina sang backup vocals on “Dirty Love” on Zappa’s “Over Nite Sensation” album. Nigey had originally recorded the same backing tracks for the song, but they were only used as a reference and ultimately were discarded.
Nigey briefly toured with Zappa as a guitarist and vocalist when she was 17. Zappa promised to produce her first album, but the project was never completed. Many of those original songs appear on “Reinventing the Wheel Reinvented,” just released by Muffin Records. Today, Muffin is associated with lots of Zappa’s former musicians. The cover of “Reinventing” features a sketch of Nigey done by another Zappa colleague, Captain Beefheart, otherwise known as Don Van Vliet.
“Reinventing the Wheel Reinvented” also features her song, “Tit Elation,” which she admits was inspired by “Dirty Love.” She remembers sitting with George at the pipe organ in the studio when he recorded some tracks during the sessions for “Over-Nite Sensation.” He had apparently had relatively little experience playing pipe organ. Nigey boasts that she actually taught him a couple of “stupid tricks,” which he put to particularly good use in the song “Fifty-Fifty.”
Zappa and I came to have a wary but at least superficially friendly relationship. I would pick on him for his extreme use of electronic musical instruments, which I barely regarded as real instruments. But when Nigey told him my uncle was the great classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin, and my mother was pianist Yaltah Menuhin, Zappa became a lot friendlier. We talked often and I realized that despite his caustic remarks, Zappa wanted nothing more than to be accepted as a real classical composer rather than as a rock ‘n’ roller — and toward the end of his life he produced some incredible and beautiful examples of “serious music.”
Nigey noted that I seemed especially attracted to Duke, probably because he would warm up by playing pretty respectable Bach on a real piano. He also doodled on an electric clavinet hidden in the corner of the studio. Nigey reminded me that I always said I liked Duke the best of Zappa’s musicians because “he was the most down to earth.” When we needed $5 for gas to get home after a rehearsal, George was always good for a touch.
Sometimes others of Zappa’s musicians would join us to smoke Duke’s stash. Drummer Chester Thompson and singer Napoleon Murphy Brock were often part of the party toking away in George’s Ford van. Nigey thought it was funny how comfortable I was with the musicians. She thought it was interesting that there I was, “a Jew,” with three black guys, jiving and shooting the shit for hours. She attributed this to my coming of age in the coffeehouses around Los Angeles City College, where blacks and whites hung out a lot in the ’60s, often listening to some great blues musicians, like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, who also hung there.
Duke’s first exposure to music was as a youth hearing gospel in the Baptist church his parents attended. He graduated from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in 1967 and became a well-known jazz pianist, working with such jazz greats as Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, Duke Ellington, Al Jarreau and Dizzy Gillespie. It wasn’t until he started working for Zappa that he began to move toward synthesizers. Later, he would play with such pop stars as Michael Jackson. When he joined up with Zappa, he had a lot of trouble with rock riffs, which is why he warmed up with Bach.
Zappa reveled in the synthesizer, but not all who played with him were as enthusiastic. Jean-Luc Ponty, the jazz violinist who specialized in playing an electrified violin, and with whom Duke recorded several live albums, agreed with me that a real violin is better. When you play an electric violin, all the overtones of a real violin disappear. Ponty agreed this was the case and told me the reason that he chose to play the electric violin was “because I didn’t have the chops to play a real violin.”
The Zappa rehearsal period ended and Nigey and I moved on. More than a decade later, Zappa called me enlisting my help with his campaign against Tipper Gore and her bizarre campaign against rock music because of its alleged connections with devil worship. I was editing the old B’nai Brith Messenger, and Frank wanted me to point to the anti-Semitic origins of her campaign. I remember I interviewed Tipper Gore for more than an hour and was surprised at how stupid she seemed — especially surprising because her husband, Al Gore, was a rather bright, if somewhat wooden fellow. I helped Frank with his anti-PMRC campaign, but we never took up his offer to come up to his house on Woodrow Wilson Drive, off Laurel Canyon Boulevard, and have dinner. Nigey told me she didn’t want to go. She had been through a lot with him, and their friendship had ended in 1975 after a rather unpleasant argument.
Nigey said that she had thought a lot about George Duke when recording an earlier version of her “Reinventing” album 10 years ago. She had mentally dedicated several songs on both the old and new versions of the album to George. “He was a real huge influence on me and my sense of harmony. A real giant in that sort of gray area between jazz and pop.” She noted that George was always a major champion of music education in the schools, because that was where he received his first serious exposure to it.
George’s death, from cardiac complications resulting from treatments for chronic leukemia, was unexpected. Nigey said he had looked well during a recent video tour of his recording studio he conducted for Keyboard magazine. He had been grieving about the death from cancer of Corrine, his wife of many years, and his most recent album, “Dreamweaver,” was a memorial to her.
As for myself, I remember George Duke simply, as a “laid back dude,” unpretentious, unfailingly humorous, his genial demeanor belying his genius. And he warmed up with Bach. What more can you say of a man?
Lionel Rolfe has written eight books on subjects ranging from classical music and history to literature and politics. His books are available digitally on Amazon’s Kindle Store. For more information on Nigey Lennon and “Reinventing the Wheel Reinvented,” visit http://facebook.com/nigeylennonmusic.