George Duke was born in San Rafael, California, and reared in Marin City, a working class section of Marin County. When he was just four years old, his mother took him to see Duke Ellington in concert. "I don't remember it too well," says George, "but my mother told me I went crazy. I ran around saying 'Get me a piano, get me a piano!'" He began his piano studies at age seven, absorbing the roots of Black music in his local Baptist church. "That's where I first began to play funky. I really learned a lot about music from the church. I saw how music could trigger emotions in a cause-and-effect relationship."
By the age of sixteen, George had played with a number of high school jazz groups. He was heavily influenced by Miles Davis and the soul-jazz sound of Les McCann and Cal Tjader. Attending the San Francisco Conservatory Of Music and majoring in trombone and composition with a minor in contrabass, he received his Bachelor of Music degree in 1967.
George and a young singer named Al Jarreau formed a group which became the house band at San Francisco's Half Note Club. "There was another club up the street called The Both, and I worked there on Mondays with everybody from Letta Mbulu to Sonny Rollins and Dexter Gordon." George later received a Masters Degree in composition from San Francisco State University and briefly taught a course on Jazz And American Culture at Merritt Junior College in Oakland. It was about this time that George began to release a series of jazz LP's on the MPS label.
One night, on a local jazz station, George heard a record by the violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. When he found out that Jean-Luc was coming to California to record, he sent a tape to Dick Bock at World-Pacific Records, along with a note saying "There is no other pianist for this guy but me." The George Duke Trio which emerged from those sessions was soon burning a path of creative excitement through the jazz world. It included a major European tour and an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival. The group's first gig in a rock-oriented venue came in early 1969. "It was a club in Los Angeles called Thee Experience," George recalls. In attendance were Cannonball Adderly, Quincy Jones, Frank Zappa, and the unexpected presence of an electric, rather than acoustic, piano on-stage. The Ponty-Duke performance wowed the crowd, and ushered in the West Coast counterpart of the Eastern fusion revolution sparked by Miles Davis, The Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report. Before '69 was out, George joined Frank Zappa (as he put together a new "Mothers Of Invention" lineup) and toured for an entire year.
At the end of 1970, George Duke received an offer he couldn't refuse from veteran jazzman Julian 'Cannonball' Adderly. "I joined the group in January '71, and stayed two years. Through Cannonball, I was given the opportunity to meet and work with Nancy Wilson, Joe Williams, Dizzy Gillespie - all these great artists I'd been listening to since I was a kid."
In 1973, George rejoined Zappa and brought Jean-Luc Ponty with him. That band stayed together for the next three years, until Duke left to join forces with drummer Billy Cobham. Together, they formed a powerhouse jazz fusion unit even more popular and influential than the earlier Duke/Ponty group.
George Duke became a solo artist in 1976, and enjoyed success with a series of fusion-oriented LP's such as his debut CBS LP, From Me To You. In 1978, the funk-flavored sound of the gold album Reach For It propelled George Duke into the upper reaches of the charts, and from small clubs to large arenas.
In the late '70s, George decided to get into producing as a career. George began by producing the Brazilian instrumentalist Raoul de Souza, then made his first vocal album with singer Dee Dee Bridgewater. His breakthrough came with an album by A Taste Of Honey. The single, "Sukiyaki," went to Number 1 on the pop, adult contemporary and R&B charts, ultimately selling over two million copies.
"From there," says George, "things started snowballing." He went on to produce three albums for Jeffrey Osborne (including the Top Ten pop singles "Stay With Me Tonight" and "On The Wings Of Love") and two best-sellers for Deniece Williams (including her across-the-board number one smash "Let's Hear It For The Boy" and the chart-topping R&B single "Do What You Feel").
Duke also wrote and produced the Number 1 single "Sweet Baby" for his own recording with Stanley Clarke (The Clarke/Duke Project). Duke's special expertise was even tapped by such unlikely mainstream artists as Melissa Manchester and Barry Manilow. By the end of 1988, he had produced four songs for Smokey Robinson and several songs for saxophonist George Howard. George's other production projects included the Number 1 chart hit "Call Me" by Phil Perry and several songs for Miles Jaye, vocalist Dianne Reeves, The Pointer Sisters, 101 North, Najee and Jeffrey Osborne, Take 6, Dianne Reeves and Howard Hewett, Chante Moore, Everette Harp, Rachelle Ferrell and, most recently, Gladys Knight, Keith Washington, Filipino star Gary Valenciano, Johnny Gill and Anita Baker.
George Duke made his debut on Elektra in February, 1985 with the Latin-flavored Thief In The Night. A second album, simply titled George Duke, was issued in August 1986, followed by Night After Night, George Duke's final release for Elektra.
Through the years, along with his own releases and busy producing schedule, George has acted as musical director for numerous artists and television specials, including the Soul Train Music Awards (nine years), NBC's Sunday Night Show and Anita Baker (Duke took Anita and a 14-piece band to Washington D.C. to perform at the Kennedy Center for The Democratic National Committee). He served as musical director for Disney's concert to benefit the Foundation for Pediatric AIDS For Our Children (featuring an all-star cast that included Michael Bolton, Paula Abdul and Kris Kross) and Disney's Salute To Youth during the President's Inaugural celebration. In '92, he went to Spain to be music director for the largest guitar festival in history, featuring such artists as George Benson, Stanley Clarke, Larry Coryell, Paco de Lucia, Rickie Lee Jones & John McLaughlin. He also was at the helm for Legend to Legend with George Burns, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis and others. In addition to his non-stop musical adventures, George appeared on NBC's soap opera Generations in '89, playing the role of a night club owner. He also found time in his schedule to appear on Comic Relief with Doc Severinson, donating his funds to the homeless. That same year George recorded a third album with Stanley Clarke for Epic Records, titled Stanley Clarke & George Duke 3.
In 1990, George Duke was named "R&B Keyboardist Of The Year" by Keyboard Magazine for the second consecutive year. Other honors include Grammy nominations for his production of "We Are The World" by the Children Of The World; "Sweet Baby" by the Clarke/Duke project; "Let's Hear It For The Boy" by Deniece Williams; "Stay With Me Tonight" and "On The Wings Of Love" by Jeffrey Osborne; and "Fumilayo" by Dianne Reeves. Tutu, by Miles Davis with selections produced by George Duke, won a Grammy in 1986. Both Miles Davis' Amandla (selections produced by Duke) and Al Jarreau's Heart's Horizon (produced entirely by Duke) received Grammy nominations in 1990.
Duke has also established a reputation for television and film scoring work with The Five Heartbeats film soundtrack, the title song for the movie Karate Kid III, music for Paramount Pictures' Leap Of Faith and Meteor Man, and NBC's Leeza and Marilu daytime talk shows.
Highlights of '91 included a sold-out U.S. tour with Dianne Reeves and Najee, with a performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival's 25th Anniversary and headlining the first annual Japanese Playboy Festival at the Tokyo Dome.
In '92, George's Warner Bros. debut Snapshot captured the Number 1 slot on the jazz charts for five weeks and generated the Top Ten R&B single "No Rhyme, No Reason."
The following year, George Duke's Muir Woods Suite, a major orchestral piece, premiered at the Montreux Jazz Festival and, in 1994, Duke began work on Illusions.
Reflecting on Illusions George said, "I wanted to continue what I started with the Snapshot record, to continue doing that type of music... and I wanted to do a follow-up to 'No Rhyme, No Reason.'"
Following the release of Illusions in January 1995, Duke began mixing the Muir Woods Suite which was recorded live, when originally performed at the Montreux Festival in 1993. When not locked in the studio with the Suite, George arranged, produced and performed on songs and albums for a number of artists, including: Najee, George Howard, and the Winans (he arranged and produced three tracks on their Qwest album Heart And Soul which was nominated for a Grammy). George Duke also traveled extensively, performed a European tour with Anita Baker and a Brazilian tour with Rachelle Ferrell, as well as toured the states with his own Duke and Friends tour featuring Phil Perry, Howard Hewett, Dianne Reeves and George Howard. He ended the year performing in Jakarta with Phil Perry.
'95 also saw George involved in conducting and arranging for numerous award and episodic TV shows. He maintained his long time association with Soul Train, and served as Music Director for their 25th anniversary special and also wrote, performed and produced the theme for the Walt Disney show Inside Out.
The beginning of '96 saw the release of his musical and emotional tour de force Muir Woods Suite, which was performed by a jazz quartet made up of George Duke (piano), Stanley Clarke (bass), Chester Thompson (drums) and Paulinho Da Costa (percussion) with L´orchestre National de Lille, Ettore Stratta, conductor.
This was followed by more production with work on songs for Marilyn Scott, Al Jarreau and Natalie Cole. (George produced one-third of the songs on Natalie's Cole's Stardust LP which was nominated for two Grammys.) George also wrote and produced the main title for The Malcolm and Eddie Show on UPN.
1997 began on a high note, with a trip to the Arkansas Ball for the President's Inaugural, where George Duke was a featured performer and special guest. This was followed by the spring release of George Duke's thirtieth solo album and fourth release on Warner Bros. Records, Is Love Enough? which continued his tradition of posing questions, inspiring thought, requiring reflection, displaying myriad influences and boundless energy.
George Duke immersed himself in more "Love," serving as Executive Producer on Warner Bros. Records artist Marilyn Scott's album, Avenues Of Love. He also played on yet another labelmate's album, Kirk Whalum's The Gospel According To Jazz, recorded live at the Roy Acuff Theatre in September of '97 (to be released October of '98). The two teamed up again, along with Michael McDonald, headlining the inaugural event for a week-long celebration entitled "Memphis Remembers Martin," in March of '98. Around the same time, he served as musical director for a Burt Bacharach television special on Fox Network, entitled One Amazing Night, which featured Bacharach and an array of legendary and breaking artists including Dionne Warwick, Elvis Costello, Winona Judd and Barenaked Ladies.