I recall seeing him in concert several years ago with Rachelle Ferrell and Rahsaan Patterson at the Arena Theatre. As soon as he and his band tore into his funk favorite, "Reach For It," he hopped off the revolving stage and ventured into the stands to rev up an already jolted crowd. But as soon as he attempted to hop back on that rotating stage, he lost his footing and fell face first, ass to crowd. He got up, brushed himself off and gleefully uttered, "That's okay," and didn't miss a beat. You have to admire a man who can keep the funk flowing after a flub like that.
This little anecdote is illustrative of Duke's musical career, which has had its share of professional trips, slips and nasty spills. And yet his smile, positive attitude and need to stay in rhythm always come out intact. The fact that many rappers have kept the man's music alive in young kids' ears could also be a contributing factor in Duke's jovial demeanor. Cats like Ice Cube, W.C. and local boy Scarface all have been known to frequent the Duke archives when they're in dire need of a G-funk beat. (This is especially true in his collaborations with bassist Stanley Clarke, whose brutal riffs have been known to make many a drunk relative get down-and-dirty at family reunions.) Even tunes that aren't his, like his rendition of that ol' P-Funk standard "Mothership Connection," are often more favored by rap samplers than the originals.
It's easy to forget that Duke is something of a latecomer to funk. Before he hit his commercial peak in the late '70s, he was already an esteemed jazz keyboardist and session player, collaborating with a stable of diverse folk: everyone from Cannonball Adderley to Jean-Luc Ponty to Frank Zappa, who was, believe it or not, one of the biggest influences on Duke's jazz-funk fusion style. His knack, his desire, his Ann Curry -- if you will -- for working with the eclectic became a prime motivator when artists started calling on him to produce tracks for them. (My favorite unlikely Duke credit: He produced the Cure's "Let's Go to Bed" in 1983.)
So, it's no wonder that Duke shrugs off anything that could cause him the slightest bit of embarrassment. His successes have always outshone his stumbles.