The Duke of Rancho Nicasio
The first time I met Mike Duke was in my office at Capricorn Records in Macon, Georgia in the early 1970’s. There was an upright piano there and after he introduced himself, he sat down and started playing. It was the beginning of a friendship that lasts to this day.
Born and raised in Mobile, Alabama, Mike grew up with the Wet Willie boys, also from Mobile, but also played with a host of other musicians from throughout the state. He’s been writing songs since he was 10 years old, and has forged a pretty amazing musical career over the years. He was a member of Wet Willie and wrote the majority of songs on their last four or five studio albums and when the band disbanded, he recorded with The Outlaws. He’s toured the world as a member of Delbert McClinton’s band, and sat in with every major act you can think of including Chuck Berry, Billy Preston, Etta James, Clarence Clemmons and just about every Southern band that ever made a record. In the 1990’s he wrote hits for Huey Lewis & The News, Delbert McClinton, and many others through his publishing deal in Los Angeles.
He is happy as a clam in his new position running Rancho Nicasio for owner Bob Brown, the investment banker and longtime manager of Huey Lewis and the News, Pablo Cruise and others.
“Bob bought the place in 2000 and called me to ask if I could run it,” says Mike Duke. “I told him that I would and that was 11 years ago. It’s a great place to be, out in the country and yet close enough to the City.”
While running the restaurant during the week, there is plenty of music in the place on the weekends. “We stay pretty booked all year long,” Duke says. “We get a lot of acts coming through here that play in the City first and then head on up the road. There are also a lot of folks who live in the county that come out and play, too, like Elvin (Bishop) and Maria (Muldaur).”
And if an act is coming through without a band, Duke pulls together the Rancho Nicasio All-Stars with himself on keyboards and backing vocals and a county full of musicians from which to choose.
Rancho Nicasio’s upcoming BBQ on the Lawn and concert series features The Blues Broads on June 17 with Tracy Nelson (worth the price of admission alone), Dorothy Morrison, Annie Sampson and Angela Strehli. On June 24, Petty Theft rolls in and on Sunday, July 1 it’s Peter Rowan’s 3rd annual Bluegrass Birthday Bash featuring the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band and special guests, The Rowan Brothers.
Rancho Nicasio will present its annual 4th of July celebration with the Zydeco Flames and then coming in August are some cool shows featuring the Paul Thorn Band (which is quickly selling out), Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks, Asleep at the Wheel, and Charlie Musselwhite. The great Marcia Ball comes to Nicasio on September 9.
Mike and I talked several times this week for this piece and he regaled me in stories about working at the Sweetwater, in Sweden with Little Milton and Denise LaSalle, filling in on vocals for Delbert McClinton when he lost his voice; and the same with Tommy Castro when he, too, lost his voice. To say that Mike has a compelling way to tell a story is an understatement.
His tale of racecar driver Dale Earnhardt and Delbert McClinton at a big dinner at the Sherry Netherland Hotel in New York and singing “Giving It Up For Your Love” for some 30 minutes had me rolling on the floor.
Duke was fortunate enough to back Chuck Berry for two shows at the Electric Ballroom in Atlanta and had nothing but praise for the legendary entertainer. Berry rarely traveled with a set band. He would pick up musicians in whatever town he was performing. Duke on keyboards, a drummer and a bass player were selected for the Atlanta gig and true to form, Berry showed up 15 minutes before showtime, which meant no chance of a rehearsal.
“When I asked him about it, he said, ‘Boys, this is how we do it. Just watch my right foot. When I tap my toes, we go. When I step on my heel, we stop.’ And that’s just what we did,” said Duke. “And one other funny thing, during the last song, he kept looking at his watch, and I kind of had an idea of where he was going with this, as soon as 60 minutes had passed, he ended the song and walked off the stage. He wasn’t going to play a minute over what his contract had stated.”
Another Mike Duke claim to fame was his appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Actually, he was not a guest, but was sitting in the audience and was selected to play “Stump The Band.” Apparently, Carson enjoyed talking with Duke since the segment, which usually lasts a couple of minutes, went very long.
“It was like he was setting me up with his questions, and I was hitting them out of the park,” remembers Duke. “It was incredibly funny and I saw that the band was laughing like crazy, too. When Carson finally asked what song would stump the band, I told him it was called ‘Why Do You Think They Call ‘Em Cowpokes’ and the band lost it again. They obviously didn’t know it, and when I sang it, Carson lost it, too.” Incidentally, Mike wrote the song and made a few dollars for it being played on television!
To get the real Mike Duke treatment, head over to Rancho Nicasio and if he’s got the time, he will tell you some rock and roll war stories that are so funny they will bring tears to your eyes. And the best part of it is he doesn’t even know how funny he really is.