Mike Duke was a member of Wet Willie, toured with The Outlaws and Delbert McClinton, helped discover The Marshall Tucker Band, and wrote hits for Huey Lewis & The News… And after six decades, he finally recorded his own album. Released through the Little Village Foundation in 2019, …Took A While by the Mike Duke Project features 15 tracks recorded throughout the native Alabamian’s colorful and winding career. It’s a labor of love and soul propelled by roiling piano, soaring vocals, and Duke’s signature Southern style. This past September, I caught up with Mike back at his home in Northern California where he continues to play and write music as the house bandleader for Rancho Nicasio. With wildfires and a pandemic in full effect, Duke nevertheless took the time to regale me with tales of Capricorn Records and Macon music history along with plenty of stories from his years on the road. He’s a whirlwind of wit and energy whose talent is matched only by an endearing enthusiasm. Hang on!
AI- I’m sittin’ here in Macon, Georgia, and I’m lookin’ out the window and if there wasn’t a building in the way, I could see Capricorn Studios.
MD- Wow! That’s right down the street! That’s right!
You were here in the heyday– but before we get to that, I want to go back to Alabama ’cause this is the first time I’ve had an opportunity to speak with you.
Oh, thanks for the airplay!
Hey, you’re welcome, man! My boss, Wes Griffith, is one of the co-owners of the radio station and he’s also deeply involved with the newly renovated Capricorn Studios. He started diggin’ into the Little Village stuff and just fell in love with your album. And of course, then you get to diggin’ a little bit deeper and learnin’ your backstory. We’ve been listening to you our entire lives!
You grew up in Mobile [AL]? Is that right?
I was born in Mobile, and I grew up north of Mobile in a little town called Thomasville.
And you taught yourself to play piano?
I did! My mother got a piano from a friend that needed to get it out of her house. She got a sofa and she didn’t have any room for it. So the piano just ended up in the dining room. I started playin’ it and I taught myself. I took a few lessons, but I was a terrible student. I would hear the teacher play and could sit down and pick it out from hearing it. I play by ear pretty much.
What were you bangin’ out at that point in time? What were you listening to?
Oh, just all kinds of things. Anything on the radio or songs that my mother played. She used to play the phonograph after she’d come back from work. We had a maid that was there and I’d listen to gospel music in the morning sometimes. When I was a kid, they said I was dancing in my crib!
You bring up gospel music. You started writing that fairly early on if I’m not mistaken. Was that your first foray into songwriting?
Well, the only place to play was church! I used to play it a little bit at church.
But that’s how you got into songwriting? Was writing gospel tunes?
Yeah. I just wrote all kinds of stuff and I wrote some gospel things. I went to college and for a summer, I took off and I came home. My dad said, “You gotta get a job.” So I worked at this shirt factory. There wasn’t much industry in Thomasville. There was a guy there that said, “Do you play piano?” And I’m goin’, “Yeah!” He said, “Well, I’m the minister over at the AME church.” It was a black church. And I said, “Great!” He said, “I wanna learn how to play ‘Oh, Happy Day’. Do you know that?” And I said, “Oh yeah, I love that song!” He said, “Can you show me?” I went to his house three or four times– and he never got it! He told me, “I only play the black notes!” (Laughs) “Okay, okay. You gotta play a little bit more than that to get it all in there!”
But I showed him two or three times and he never got it together, but he was the head of the youth choir. I would go over and go to the rehearsals. I wrote them a song ’cause there was one girl in it who was about 14 could sing her butt off! This is way before anybody had any blueprint about how to do it. Now, everybody listens to Aretha! She might’ve been listening to Aretha, but probably Mahalia Jackson or somebody earlier than that on the gospel radio. There were people before Aretha, but Aretha was a cumulative of everything that had come down the pike, including pop and soul! She had it all! Played the piano too!
What brought you to Macon and when did you get hooked up with the boys in Wet Willie?
There was no place to play in Thomasville, so I moved to Tuscaloosa and went to school a little bit at the University of Alabama and kinda audited courses and played with bands. They liked the fact that I could sing and that I could play and that I could write. There were two or three bands that were really happenin’ and I played around with ’em. Along at that point in time, I played in a band… I can’t even remember what we called ourselves! Chuck Leavell was 14 or 15 and he liked our band. He would come over but he couldn’t get into some of our gigs because we played at these fraternity parties! You had to be either a student or 18. We would let him climb in the window behind our amps and come and sit down and play. And he was great! At 15, he was great! He went on to become Sea Level, and now he plays with everybody! He’s playin’ with the Stones! So I know Chuck from very early on (laughs)!
There were a lot of great musicians in that scene. There was a scene in Tuscaloosa, [but] there was no recording there. That was the sad part. It would have been a Mecca, I think, if we’d have had a recording studio. Nobody was advanced enough to do that. So if you wanted to record, you had to go to Birmingham or you had to go to Macon and Atlanta. And a lot of people went to Macon. The town of Macon discovered us because Eddie Hinton went up to Muscle Shoals where my band cut a 45. We just paid for it. That’s how you got shows. You would say, “I’ve got a 45,” and they’d play it on the jukebox and then they’d get your band in there like you were somebody (laughs)! Without that, you were just word of mouth. We cut a 45 at FAME right at the time they were doin’ Wilson Pickett and Otis [Redding].
Was that when Duane Allman was there?
That was right before he started working with them. They had a disagreement about money and ownership of stuff, and so the musicians left and formed Muscle Souls Sound. They were the backup musicians– you know, David Hood, who’s still working up there, and the late great Jimmy Johnson, who played guitar, and all those people. And when they went from FAME to Muscle Shoals, Jerry Wexler came down and brought Aretha and they cut some of her great stuff.
What was the band that you went and cut the 45 with?
That was a little high school band that I just happened to be in because they needed a piano player and it was called… Oh my God. I can’t even remember! Sandstones? I can’t remember! Maybe Second Time Around? You’d have a different name about every six months. Two people would leave and you’d get a new name (laughs)! But that band did really good. We won the state battle of the bands. It was the first year something like that happened. And we won the state battle of the bands. We got a full paid trip to Atlantic City to do the nationals. And of course, we didn’t even place there! People were showing up with costumes and dance moves and songs written for them. We were just a high school band, you know? Isn’t that funny?
You get to Macon and you’re at Capricorn… I know you were doin’ the Wet Willie thing, but did you have an opportunity to play on any other records that were getting put out at that point in time?
Actually, we were working so much, I wasn’t around to be available for that. I wanted songs [recorded]. Johnny Sandlin recognized my writing talent, and he got a few of my songs cut on some stuff. Paul Hornsby loved my stuff and wanted to publish it and he was gonna get some stuff on Marshall Tucker for me. We brought Marshall Tucker to Macon. We told ’em, “You oughtta hear these guys. They’re great!” We got them a gig there and they got signed that night. They were that good!
I believe you went and did some stuff with George McCorkle solo up in Nashville, didn’t you?
That’s right! We were tryin’ to write some things and tryin’ to get some things goin’. It was a friend of mine, George, and everybody. Toy (Caldwell) was gettin’ so famous. It was like, “Ohhhhh…” He didn’t need any competition in the writing department because he wrote some great stuff! George wrote some stuff with him. They wrote “Fire On The Mountain”, and then they wrote “Can’t You See”. I knew those guys when they were a local band in Spartanburg [SC]. Wet Willie had played a date up there and we heard him at a club after our [show] and said, “My God, you ought to come to Macon! These guys have gotta hear you down there!” We talked about ’em so much that when they played their date at that little club down there, everybody went to it! I mean, I went in there one night and Gregg Allman was jammin’ with Little Richard! It was Grant’s Lounge! We got ’em to get a gig at Grant’s Lounge and they got signed from there. And Paul played organ, Paul Hornsby, who was in Hour Glass with the band before the Allman Brothers.
Paul’s still here! Still operatin’ Muscadine [Studios].
That’s right! Muscadine! He’s still a force in the music business down there in Macon! You can go there and get a great demo with Paul. Good friend of mine! He was pushing some songs of mine and got some of my stuff recorded and things like that. If you want a laugh, go to YouTube and look up “Mike Duke Stumps The Band”.
“Mike Duke Stumps The Band”?
Right. I was on TV and I sang a song I wrote as a joke for Paul. I said, “I got a song for Marshall Tucker. And it’s called, ‘Why Do You Think They Call ‘Em Cowpokes?'” You’ll see! It’s a little video that’s on there. It’s really a laugh riot! And so we had a lot of fun! I was [at Capricorn] when they remodeled the studio. When it first started out, it was an old Pepsi plant. And then they put the studio in and then they really got the acoustics fixed. It looked great! They fixed the studio up where it looked modern. I was there when they were doing that. You know, they had a rehearsal hall next door. They bought the building next door. It was like a barbershop. And so it was funky.
It had a linoleum floor and they just knocked a hole in the wall! In the front where you entered, there was a really nice gray, very California reception area where the secretary sat in a little booth in there. And then there was that hole in the wall and you could go into the barbershop! Dr. John would have a B3 and there might be a piano in there and people would rehearse in there! We rehearsed a little bit in there. I remember Chuck came over from Tuscaloosa and started playin’ with Dr. John. Dropped out of high school at 16 and went on the road with Dr. John (laughs)! You just walked through this hole in the wall and there was a rehearsal studio. It was called The Barbershop. When you were gonna rehearse, you’d go in The Barbershop because they were using the interior rooms of the studio for other things. Even the basement! They had stuff going on!
Did you actually make the transition with Wet Willie to Epic when they made that jump? I know you appear on the records.
We sure did!
What led to you leavin’ that band?
We disassembled ourselves because it just felt like our record sales weren’t millions. People were makin’ millions. Bands that we went out with were on labels that knew how to promote what they did. Our thing was a little out of pocket, you know? It wasn’t Southern Rock. It wasn’t country Southern Rock. Marshall Tucker kinda took it to a country zone and everybody had on a cowboy hat– and Charlie Daniels, a great friend of mine who just passed away. Charlie was great! It was country-flavored rock n’ roll with a Southern twist. We were gospel-flavored Southern rock n’ roll! And just somehow, they didn’t know how to promote that. It was like an odd thing to have that on there, but we played some great shows. We did some great shows! We opened up the [Superdome] in New Orleans. It was the Allman Brothers and then Wet Willie and then Marshall Tucker and Charlie Daniels. It was a Southern rock thing, and it was the second night they opened the Superdome. That was a great show!
Where did you take off to next?
I took a little time off and just started writing. And I wrote some songs that were hits for Huey Lewis! I actually played a year with The Outlaws from Tampa. They were friends of mine too, and I knew them when they were a local band. We actually played a show with a band I was in called Second Time Around or Big J. I can’t remember what it was. And we played down there. It was a big ol’ band with two drummers and an organ player and me playin’ piano! Like loaded, you know? Two guitars, there’s like 15 people! The Allman Brothers were havin’ that impact. Everybody wanted a big show when they saw the band.
We opened up a show for [The Outlaws], but the club owner hired us as if we were doing the three-night stand– and they had gotten the three-night stand too! It almost was a fight with the crew! I said, “Look, why don’t we set up in front of you guys and open up and then you play, and then the next night your stuff is sitting here. And then we’ll set up behind that and we’ll headline and we’ll flip flop.” And they said, “Alright.” And so it worked out great! You didn’t have to set up but twice. Just had to move your gear a couple of times. They lived there so it didn’t matter to them. I said, “We need to gig because we gotta make gas money and hotel money.” And they let us do that. There were really very good. And the club owner was good too! He paid both of us because he messed up and double booked. So that’s how I knew them. And I was friends with them.
At what point in time did [Huey Lewis & The News manager] Bob Brown come into the picture? You mentioned Huey Lewis earlier, and this is when your renown as a songwriter begins to pick up.
(Laughs) Well, I had a whole album of Wet Willie stuff that I wrote most of. If you look at Manorisms, I wrote most of that– along with the band too. We were so scattered from touring that it was really hard to focus. And I had just managed to keep writing, you know? I wrote a bunch of that album because there was just no time for input and they wanted another record and they wanted us to open for Heart as a special guest. And they want us to go out with Guess Who, and they wanted us to go out with, one of my favorites, Foreigner! They loved us! They thought it was so cool! We opened it up as a special guest, and every week they had a new hit single– “Feels Like The First Time”, [singing] “Hot Blooded”! (Laughs)! They just had a run of one number ones, and we were with them on that tour. We did all of Canada with the Guess Who. We’re talkin’ three months! We went out with Heart! They were fans of ours! They were a local band in Seattle and came to see us a big theater kind of club. And then when they made it, they got us booked on their tour!
I took about a year off in ’81 and just wrote. ’81, ’82. I was doin’ The Outlaws and we were in the record plant and my publisher from the Wet Willie days, I’d gotten Wet Willie to cut some of his songs, he came down the hall and he wanted to meet me. He heard me playing a song and he said, “Whose song is that?” And I said, “That’s mine.” He said, “That’s a hit song!” And that was the song that he re-cut. He got that on cassette from me and sent it to [Huey Lewis & The News]. And then he called me up and he said, “They wanna cut it! You’ve gotta give me the publishing!” So we were back into it, and then we split the publishing on it and they cut it! That’s how Bob knew me. He had heard my tape– and it was so funky, he thought I was a black guy! It was like a soul man, you know?
They did a good job on it. I had never met the band. They were going down to Florida to do some dates and it was very early in their career. And that was, “Hope You Love Me Like You Say You Do”. It got in the Top 15 or 20, and I think it was Top 10 or something. But they cut that, and then they had a hit with, “Do You Believe In Love?” Their second record, they cut “Doing It All For My Baby”, which was a big number 4! It was a big hit! It would have been higher… Michael Jackson had like “Beat It” or something on there that wouldn’t get off the top number one!
It’s tough to beat Mike.
Yeah, it was on the charts for weeks! They liked what I did and they learned some things. Huey and I wrote some stuff, but then I moved to California and met Bob and he kind of helped promote my career in a way. I would play club dates and he’d come down to the club dates. I used to play the Sweetwater and it was just a great place! Anybody might walk in there! Jerry Garcia’d walked in there and sit down and start playing! I opened up a show solo because the club owner was kinda broke. It was a small club and I was helpin’ her out and I said, “If you need anybody to open up for you, or if you need to borrow my piano, so you don’t have to pay a hundred dollars a night to rent a piano, you can do it.” Jeanie [Patterson] was a sweetheart. She was a fan of my writing, and so I opened up for Etta James a couple of times. I opened up for Billy Preston and I told her, “Oh no, don’t make me do that!” (Laughs) He’s like the king of piano and organ! And I did it and it was great. He was a sweetheart! He actually handed me the mic on “Will It Go Round In Circles”! Sing it, Mike!
It was a lot of fun. It was a crucible, a scene. Everything was happening. The Dead used to come down there and hang out. I was down there hearin’ Aaron Neville when he did that solo album with a bass player, which won a GRAMMY. Aaron’s a good friend of mine. In fact, he heard my little CD, Mike Duke Project […Took A While], and called me! He had to reach out to about four or five people to get this number and call me and said, “Man, I love your voice on that! And I said, “Thank you! That’s a high compliment comin’ from you!” I said, “Have you been giggin’?” He says, “No, I hadn’t done any gigs. And I don’t think I’m gonna tour anymore or sing.” I’m goin’, “You can’t not do that! You’re one of the most recognizable voices! It’s like Ella Fitzgerald. She sounds like that. Aaron Neville, you sound like that. You’re one of the voices! Like Sinatra! You’re one of the voices!” People just can’t imitate that.
When did you meet Jim Pugh? Because you guys have a lot of common…
Jim was the organ player with Etta! He’s played with a million people. He played with so many soul guys and blues guys, and he’s the real deal! He played with Bonnie Raitt. I know Bonnie Raitt real well. I remember seein’ her in New Orleans when she was broke and didn’t have a band. Just had two pieces– guitar and bass! I told Aaron this, I said, “That’s some of the best music of my life!”
I went to the Jazz & Heritage festival in New Orleans in 1984. They had a boat that went out on a cruise and it went out for about two and a half hours and bands would play. The bands I saw that night were Bonnie Raitt duo– just singin’ her butt off and great songs– and then Fats Domino! With horns and a band! He was great! He was in it, you know? Really lookin’ and soundin’ good. And then he went off and Ry Cooder comes up with his L.A. band and just blows the top off of it! ‘Cause it’s brilliant stuff. And then they go off– and up come the Neville Brothers! Just murderin’! They’re so good! I told Aaron that I was drunk by that time. I was sitting in like the third row and we were seated behind [their] wives. His wife was a little short girl with a red fro. I was singin’ along with ’em on a ballad, and she kept lookin’ back at me and givin’ me the evil eye! Like shut up! And he said, “She does that to my sister all the time!” And I said, “That’s some of the best music, live, I’ve ever heard!”
Why did it take you so long to get a real deal Mike Duke solo album out?
I was just too busy to try to do it! I was in other things. I did Delbert McClinton for 10 years off and on. I was in his band and toured with him all over the world. We wrote some stuff. I sing on some of that stuff. The Paul Schaffer band and myself and Jim Horn cut a bunch of Delbert McClinton stuff.
So you just never slowed down long enough to do it.
That’s right! I toured for 25 years. 25 years! And I’ve never had management that focused on me. After Wet Willie broke up, the record label that we were on at that time was gonna try to promote Jimmy [Hall] as a solo artist. But you just can’t go out after doin’ Wet Willie and sing to a tape! You can’t do it! I saw this piece on Shania Twain. Her first solo record, they sent her out with a tape and it was like doing karaoke! You just can’t do it. People want to hear that immediate, great, live thing.
Is that what they tried to do with Jimmy?
They sent him out and he did a few dates singing to taped music. And I mean, Jimmy’s a good lookin’ guy and can sing his ass off, but that’s not the way to present him. You put him with a band and he can cook!
The songs on …Took A While were all written and recorded over a 50 year period. You were able to get some new tracks on there. Tell me about that experience.
We just recorded them in [Rancho Nicasio], in the big room in the back. It was during the first of the week and we don’t have music back there. There’s a stage and there’s a giant room, so you got room to separate everything. Kevin Hayes came in and brought drums and played. Jimmy [Pugh] played organ on some of it. We had a B3 and we had a grand piano that was tuned up and we had people come sing with us. There’s a zydeco band called The Zydeco Flames that’s great out here. They just don’t have big time management or a record deal. They could put out little stuff, but it just is regional. Their fans love it [but] people just don’t discover them. I just wanted to feature people that were fun– and Bob loved ’em. Why not put them on there? It’s just a collection of things and we thought we would dress it up!
And you’re still with Bob Brown, running the band there at [Rancho Nicasio]?
Well, since March, we haven’t had a single live show. The only thing we’ve done live there was Tommy Castro came and separated his band on the lawn outside and cut a live video for his fans and put it on his website. Said, “We miss you guys!” He did a show and you could just go online and see them do their show at Rancho.
This is probably a foolish question, but I would wager that you are still writing?
Oh, of course! I’m tryin’ to write stuff all the time.
So there indeed will be more of the Mike Duke Project at some point?
Well, I’m looking at Mike Duke 2. That would be fun. There’s so many songs that didn’t get on there. Those are Bob’s picks and that’s great. They’re songs that meant something to him and felt good to him. And there’s some old things that are creepity, but the song gets through.
I did something crazy. I just sent one of the copies of the thing to Cher in Malibu! I don’t know whether she’ll listen to it or not. Who knows? People get so much crap! But there’s a song on there that I wrote for Gregg [Allman] called “Coming ‘Round Again” and it’s a real antique sounding thing from the early ’70s. I sent it to her. And I heard that she was trying to volunteer for the fire department– if they needed help putting out the fires! I can’t see Cher doing that– manning a hose! Well, maybe I can (laughs)! But I heard that and I said, “She needs somethin’ to do. I’m gonna send her a CD!”