In Memory of George Duke

George Duke

George Duke passed away this week. George who? George Duke, the keyboard virtuoso who backed-up Frank Zappa, and who subsequently came into his own teaming with Flora Purim, Stanley Clarke and many of the other artists blurring the lines between jazz, funk, R&B, pop and fusion.

Today, I still own 20 of his LPs, and recently caught him in concert with Al Jarreau at The Blue Note in New York City. Not only do I owe Mr. Duke a debt of gratitude for the wonderful music he brought into my life, but I also owe him for indirectly helping me land my first job in public relations.

After graduating from college, where I headed the concert committee and hosted a weekly radio show, I set out to land a job in the music industry. Reading Clive Davis’ glorified recount of his time at Columbia Records certainly played a role in driving that quest. I purchased the record industry buyer’s guide and started writing scores of letters to labels.

One random recipient, the head of publicity for Warner Bros., graciously forwarded my resume to Bobby Zarem who ran a small, but very high-profile publicity shop on Madison Avenue. Bobby called me in for an interview during which he asked me to name an entertainment personality I especially liked. I reflexively went for the obscure and mentioned George Duke, a name that flew right over his head.

He asked me what label Duke recorded for and I said Epic. He then flipped through his George Costanza wallet-like Rolodex (remember those?), and dialed PR maven Susan Blond who ran publicity at Epic. Quite coincidentally, she was married at the time to the Warner Bros. exec who originally referred me. Bobby dispatched Luther, his full-time messenger (no email or fax back then), to CBS Black Rock to collect a George Duke press kit.

He asked me to take it home, draft a “pitch” letter on the musician and mail it back to him. (What’s a pitch letter?) I thanked him for the time, and left the office with the kit (swag) in hand. A few days later I dropped in the mail an impassioned pitch letter extolling the musical virtuosity of George Duke. Two months passed, and nothing. I moved on.

On a cold November day, I got the call to start my first job the next day. I spent the next three years — with just one week off for vacation — learning the biz from an intensely manic, but uber-smart flack working on some really cool stuff.

George, I owe you. You’ll be missed.