It’s been a year of musical triumph and personal tragedy for Jeffrey Osborne.
The R&B hit maker, who headlines the Men of Soul tour that plays Harrah’s Casino in Tunica on Friday, saw his first jazz album debut at No. 1 on the contemporary charts in January. But just a few months later, Osborne lost one of his longest and closest collaborators, musician/producer George Duke.
Duke, the jazz keyboard great — who worked with everyone from Frank Zappa to Cannonball Adderly to Stanley Clarke to Michael Jackson — died in August, leaving Osborne’s latest LP, A Time for Love, as his swan song.
Their relationship spanned nearly 40 years. It was Duke who produced Osborne’s first three star-making albums in the early ’80s, after the singer left his band L.T.D. to go solo. “George was one of the most influential people in my career,” says Osborne. “When I left L.T.D., most people knew my voice but didn’t know my name. So I had to try and find someone I could lean on to actually produce that first record. I got lucky and the Lord kind of placed me in George’s hands. It was the first record that gave me worldwide recognition; people knew who I was. So I owe a lot to George.”
Over the years they would remain friends and record together, reuniting for a Christmas album in 1997. “This past year we really got close again and started doing a lot of work together — concerts, we played the Hollywood Bowl, had another show planned for November.”
“I had so much respect for him; he knew the inside and outside of music. I felt comfortable in his hands. It was such an incredible journey with me and George. It really hit me hard when he passed.”
A Time for Love might be the best expression of the long Osborne/Duke collaboration. The album finds Osborne reaching back to his earliest musical influences, by singing a collection of mostly jazz standards.
“I grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, the youngest of 12, so I basically listened to jazz my whole early life, because my older brother and sisters, that’s what they were listening to. So it felt very comfortable doing this record,” says Osborne.
“The hardest thing was selecting the songs, because there were so many great choices. I sat with George and we played different things and figured out which ones to do.”
Critically, Osborne and Duke decided to track the album live with top-flight jazz players Christian McBride on bass and John Roberts on drums.
“We tracked it live and I sang live, and because of that it has such a wonderful feel. Everybody’s listening to one another and that’s the beautiful thing. George was listening to me, listening to every phrase I sang and doing something to complement my performance. And If I heard George play something, I might use a different inflection. We were just vibing off each other, playing so spontaneously, it all kind of flows together and created this beautiful piece of work.”
The album also includes a duet with Chaka Khan on “Baby It’s Cold Outside” and contributions from other jazz greats (saxophonists Everette Harp and Kamasi Washington, guitarist Paul Jackson, trumpeters Rick Braun and Walt Fowler) that Duke enlisted.
“I didn’t realize how precious that session was, until now, that George’s gone. I think it’s one of the best records I’ve ever been a part of. It’s different for my audience to accept ’cause it’s a jazz standards record, but musically it’s one of the best things I’ve done. George was incredible and his orchestration was incredible.”
The project would be laced with tragedy, however. While they were recording the album Duke’s wife died from cancer. And just six months after its release, Duke, who’d also been battling the disease, passed away.
“It’s been a real emotional run for me,” says Osborne. “George’s wife dying last year and then losing him, it’s hit me really hard. I still cannot really accept that he’s gone. I’d done so much with him and leaned on him for everything.”
Osborne says he’d planned on continuing to work with Duke, doing another Christmas album together and a sequel LP of jazz standards. “At this point I’m not sure what to do. The hardest thing is finding a producer. It’s nice when you have a George Duke and you don’t have to worry about anything.”
Happily though, A Time for Love has won over tough-minded jazz critics and aficionados. Though, like most of his recent work, radio programmers have been slow to respond, says Osborne.
“Most veteran artists like myself will do new records and won’t get any airplay. We’ll do a new record and they just ain’t playing it. They’ll still play the old stuff. But our new stuff doesn’t get much of a chance on radio these days. We fall into that jammin’ oldies slot.”
Osborne says that part of it is natural, simply the progression of time.
That march of time has become clear to the singer in several ways recently. Osborne has been known for singing the national anthem at Los Angeles Lakers games for years, a tradition that began during the team’s Showtime era of the 1980s. “I’ve sang on opening night for like 28 years in a row now,” says Osborne, who counts Lakers legend Magic Johnson among his close friends.
“The beauty of me doing it back then was that all the players were into my music; they were really fans. So I had a connection with those players, that’s why it worked. When I sang, they got pumped up; they won every game. Now, these kids that are playing now don’t even have a clue who I am. They’re Lil Wayne fans,” says Osborne, with a chuckle.
“Though the fans recognize me and have been there all those years and like the tradition, the only person on the team I can relate to is (17-year veteran) Kobe Bryant. They got all these young kids now and they don’t care — they’re looking for Jay-Z and Drake, not Jeffrey Osborne.”
“But hey, man,” says Osborne, “it’s OK, ’cause I’m still doing my thing.”
The Men of Soul Tour featuring Jeffrey Osborne, Peabo Bryson and Howard Hewitt
Friday, 9 p.m. at Harrah’s Casino Tunica Event Center, 13615 Old Highway 61 N., Robinsonville, Miss. Tickets: $58. On sale at all Ticketmaster outlets, ticketmaster.com or 1-800-745-3000.
Other Southern Heritage classic events
V101’s The Tom Joyner Morning Show: 5 a.m. Tiger Lane at the fairgrounds. Live broadcast of the show with Tom Joyner, J. Anthony Brown, Sybil Wilkes and Stormy.
Greek Showdown: 7 p.m. LeMoyne-Owen College/Bruce Hall. A step show presented by Memphis Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. Tickets: $15 in advance, $20 at the door. For tickets and more information, contact Adrienne Dobbins at 901-603-9003, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Online at memphisalumnaedst.org.
Classic Tailgate: 8 a.m. at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium parking lot and Tobey Park. Food, music and fun. Premium Tiger Lane, RV and tailgating packages on sale at Ticketmaster outlets. To charge by phone, call 800-745-3000. For more information, contact Sherry Bell at 901-729-4344.
Ed “Too Tall” Jones Golf Classic: 8 a.m. The Links at Cottonwoods. $150 per person, includes green fee and half-cart. For more information, call 901-398-6655. Net proceeds to benefit the Southern Heritage Foundation. Sponsored by Harrah’s Tunica.
Classic Parade: 10 a.m. Presented by the Orange Mound Parade Committee. Parade route: along Park Avenue from Haynes to Airways, featuring area high school marching bands. Claudette Boyd at 901-413-7109 or online at orangemound.vze.com.
Classic Battle of the Bands: 10 a.m. at Whitehaven High School Stadium. The competition features the best high school show bands in the region. Tickets: $7 in advance, $10 day of, plus service charges. Tickets on sale at Ticketmaster outlets. Call 800-745-3000. For information, contact Walter Banks Jr. at email@example.com or Andre Newsom at firstname.lastname@example.org or 901-230-6973.
Classic Fashions & Brunch: 11 a.m. Holiday Inn at the University of Memphis, 3700 Central. “Rhythm on the Runway.” Presented by the National Coalition of 100 Black Women-Memphis Chapter. Tickets: $50. For tickets and more information, contact Niki Barnes at 901-830-3569 or Cheryl Harris at 901-268-2321, or go to ncbwmemphis.org.
Classic College Fair: Noon. Pipkin Building at Tiger Lane/fairgrounds. Presented by Memphis Mayor A C Wharton and the Memphis Office of Youth Services. Regional college and university reps on hand to provide information about attending college. Prizes, games and entertainment. For more information and a list of participating schools, call 901-636-6264, or visit memphistn.gov. Free admission.
Southern Heritage Classic presented by FedEx: 6 p.m. at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. Tennessee State vs. Jackson State. Tickets: $48, $33 and $18, plus service charges. All seats reserved. Tickets on sale at Ticketmaster outlets, including Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium box office. Call 1-800-745-3000 to charge by phone. southernheritageclassic.com/classic_events.asp