Remembering George Duke–and the “Sunday Night” Show

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The amazing keyboardist/vocalist/producer George Duke, who passed away yesterday, was one of my favorite musicians. He was and will always be well and truly loved by listeners and fellow musicians alike, and his lessons and examples of inclusion will always be relevant and inspiring. It was only a couple of weeks ago that I learned that he’d released a new album, DreamWeaver, and that there was a video of him discussing the new album. That got me to remembering when I first met him: on the set of the SUNDAY NIGHT television show, which ran from 1988 to 1990… and I began drafting this post then. So the news is extra sobering.

SUNDAY NIGHT was unique in its simple premise: artists from different musical genres would be booked to perform in unusual combinations on the show. No categories: just musicians performing together. How cool a concept is that? So it was a huge thrill when my JazzTimes editor W. Royal Stokes asked me to write an article about the show, because that meant full access to all the tapings, which took place in New York City. Yes people, I was in HEAVEN, seeing and hearing artists like Curtis Mayfield, Robert Cray, Earth, Wind & Fire (Philip Bailey kissed me on the cheek!), David Sanborn, Youssou N’Dour, Santana, Betty Carter (I sat next to her in the studio cafeteria!), Branford Marsalis, and many more.

For the first several shows, George Duke was the musical director. When I interviewed him backstage I was so giddy, both from being in that setting and from being in his presence, that I’m sure I was not professional at all! But he was gracious and friendly and full of delight about being on the show, and working with the musicians, and the honesty of the music they made. His comment captured it perfectly: “People have told me that they watched the show and couldn’t believe that they were actually seeing these odd combinations of musicians playing and singing live. That’s the thing that’s so unique about this show–you get this incredible group of jazz musicians, rock musicians, musicians from different backgrounds, people who never worked together, coming together to make some music. And that’s what it’s all about in the final analysis anyway.”

My article is reproduced below for your reading pleasure, together with images of some of my personal mementos from the show (click on images to view the slideshow). Although some of the artists who appeared are no longer with us, I’m glad that I got to hug them–and that their music lives on in my collection and in my heart!

How will you remember your favorite music / musicians today?

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“Sunday Night” article (page 2)
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Sunday Night page 1

My “Sunday Night” article (page 1)
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Earth Wind & Fire: Opened My Eyes

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One of the fun things about the music of the ’70s was the surprise that awaited whenever you bought an album. With self-contained groups, especially, you could never really know ahead of time what the whole album would sound like.

The first album that got to me in this way was Earth Wind and Fire’s Open Our Eyes, released in 1974. Once again, it was my nephew Kevin who brought the album home, and it was the first time we’d heard EWF. As usual, I pretended I wasn’t interested, but after he left the house I sneaked into his room to listen more closely. My favorite song was Mighty Mighty, the first tune on the first side, because there was no intro, no warning: as soon as you put the needle down you had to start dancing… or singing.

Walk around
Why wear a frown
Say little people
Try to put you down
(Put you down)
What you need is a helping hand
All the strength
At your command
How’s your faith
‘Cause your faith is you
Who you kiddin’
To yourself be true
Spread your love
For a brighter day
For what you search
You’ll find a way
Awww, yes sir
Ooh hoo
Ooh hoo
(x2)
We are people of the mighty
Mighty people of the sun
In our heart lies all the answers
To the truth you can’t run from
(Doogey doogey doo doo)

That was my favorite song, but I liked them all. On the first side, the songs (Mighty Mighty / Devotion / Fair But So Uncool / Feelin’ Blue / Kalimba Story) were just what I expected: there was singing, lots of drums and African percussion, they made you dance, and they made you sing. Feelin’ Blue was a bit of a surprise since it was all mellow and vocal, with smooth harmonies but without that aggressive beat of its preceding brethren. But I was okay with that… it fit right in.

On the flip side, the third song–tucked in right behind Tee Nine Chee Bit–was the surprise: an instrumental tune called Spasmodic Mood. It was a cruel trick to play on a teenager’s ears: it started out with African-sounding drumming, so you got ready for some ass-shaking. And then bam! A horn! Then a piano with some drums! Then the horn comes back! And no vocals, nowhere! Huh? Damn, if you didn’t know it was an EWF album you’d swear it was your daddy’s jazz album! And then, as quickly as it began–one minute and forty-one seconds later–it was over, with a final piano punctuation, as if to say “Now that didn’t hurt, did it?”

And somehow it paved the way for the next tune, Caribou, a tune fat with chorally vocals that had no words, only scatting. By then you were sitting down and paying attention, which was the perfect setup for the final tune–the title tune–Open Our Eyes, a beautiful gospel-flavored solo vocal with churchy piano behind. Whoever chose the sequence of tunes knew what he or she was doing. A mind trick of the highest order.

Mind you, I was a kid; my main responsibility where music was concerned was to dance or sing along. I didn’t yet know who these guys were. I was unfamiliar with their jazz pedigree. I only had feelings, and the main one was respect: I could respect this album because it didn’t feed me the same tune times ten–each tune sounded different! If I wanted to feel grownup, there was a tune I could play. If I wanted to feel African, there was a tune on there for me. If I wanted to shake my butt and sing, there was something. If I wanted to feel like I was in church, there was the title track. And if I wanted to play a trick on some stodgy grownup who thought that Earth, Wind & Fire was for bratty-ass kids, well… I could play Spasmodic Mood! And in later years, when I would make countless mixtapes for friends, this song would be a staple I’d sneak in for the jazz purists.

But that’s how it was done then. There were plenty of self-contained groups like EWF, who studied music, who played instruments, who often played more than one instrument, and who wrote their own material. Groups like Santana, War, and the Isley Brothers, whose music fills my shelves. This is the music that spoke to us… And still does.

Which is exactly why my original copy of Open Our Eyes is spinning on the turntable as I write this entry. Oops, gotta go flip it over … excuse me…

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