“Sir Duke,” single from the 1976 Stevie Wonder album Songs in the Key of Life.
Fun, amazing, joyful.
(3 minute read)
*Note – I’m not even going to try to rank songs. I just plan to periodically write a little bit about some songs that I like.
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This will be a ridiculous post, right? A post even less necessary than all my other posts, which are just some random, aging Gen-Xer talking about music he likes. Every now and then I might tell you about some music or act you’ve never heard of. Maybe I’ll make you reconsider a band or album that you’ve overlooked. But clearly there’s nothing imperative in reading about why a fifty-three-year-old white American guy likes Pink Floyd, for example.
But today’s post is even less essential. I’m explaining that I like the Stevie Wonder song “Sir Duke,” which is akin to writing a piece explaining that I like candy. It’s not really going to reach off the screen and grab you, is it? But still, allow me to say that “Sir Duke” is fricking amazing.
I’ve loved this song since the first time I heard it, probably in 1977 sometime near the end of 4th grade. By then I had about a year of trombone lessons under my belt, and as a member of the Ebenezer Elementary School band, I tried desperately to get Mr. Fox, the director, to approve my request for the ensemble to play “Sir Duke” the next year. Mercifully, he did not grant that request.
Listen to the horns throughout the song. That introduction, to the bursts in the pre-chorus (0:40), to the riffs during the chorus (0:52), to the amazing post-chorus run that everyone wishes they could whistle (1:04)1. Please note, that riff is doubled by the bass guitar! Imagine this song played by a bunch of 9- and 10-year olds just learning to play their instruments. (I point out the bass guitar because the trombone is a bass instrument in a tuba-less elementary school band, which means my little right arm would’ve been flailing around like I had St. Vitus’ Dance.)
Imagine beginner percussionists, standing behind snare drums and bass drums, or with cymbals strapped to palms, or dangling a lonely triangle. They couldn’t keep up with that beat that shifts effortlessly from swing to rock. And while a concert band doesn’t have a vocalist, who’s going to play that melody line that ranges so wide, yet has subtleties like the nice descending chromatic scale, for example when he sings “There’s Basie, Miller, Satchmo/ and the king of all Sir Duke!” You think a cornet or clarinet player in braces is going to handle that?
How would this assembly of novices convey the pure joy that is this song? And without even singing! One might imagine a youthful chorus pulling together a passable, abridged version of “Sir Duke.” They’d have to cut out some of those ending “feel it all over” lines, sure. And most of the swinging syncopation would have to be flattened out. It might sound thin, accompanied only by Miss Radocinovich on that clanky upright piano. Still, I think they could pull it off. But “Sir Duke” played by an elementary band?
It all would’ve been horrible, right? I’ve always thought so.
But looking back I think most concert-goers would have enjoyed it. It’s such a beloved, joyful song that most parents and grandparents would be happy to hear it lovingly butchered by their struggling youth. Obviously, the main point of the song is to celebrate and remember the history of jazz and its fabulous musicians. But another point of the song, in both lyrics and sound, is that music itself is a celebration. It’s a world within itself, a language we all understand. An audience at a children’s band concert would be there to hear the new speakers, to watch them begin to enter this world, and to start to form nascent bonds with the pioneers of the past.
“Sir Duke” is amazing. I don’t think it would’ve been harmed at all by the Ebenezer Elementary School band playing a dreadful version of it. I think it would have been wonderful to hear (once). But I’m still glad I didn’t have to learn that trombone part.
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