SWEET MAN: The Real Duke Ellington by Don George

SWEET MAN: The Real Duke Ellington

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An uneven offering of anecdotes about the great Duke--by a longtime, off-and-on songwriting collaborator (""I'm Beginning to See the Light,"" ""I Ain't Cot Nothin' But the Blues""). George is best in first-hand reminiscences of his early 1940s days with Duke: he simply talked his way into Duke's Capitol Theater dressing room and sat there, ignored, for days while Duke ate, dressed, napped . . . and finally asked the white kid--""Who are you?"" They started writing together immediately, in the dressing room (lyricist George had a knack for titles). And George was soon a regular chum: he helped philandering Duke to fool his wife (""Don, we can't permit anything to interfere with man's inalienable right to have a little pussy on the side""); he shared in some mini-orgies (""This is no orgy, man. This is therapy""); he escorted Nat ""King"" Cole into the hitherto-segregated Ciro's to see Duke's act. But a hefty percentage of the anecdotes here--about Duke's women, clothes, tours, early life, glittery pals, etc.--are second-hand, with much familiar material. Some of the tidbits are limp, even meaningless. And George's repetitious appreciations of Duke's much-documented personality are rarely illuminating, frequently verbose or fatuous: ""He lived where the roses lived, where rainbows were born. He walked with the gods, his head in the stars. . . . He was amoral, not immoral. He belonged to anyone who approached him that he responded to. . . . They [Duke and Peggy Lee] were both out of Sartre, both existentialists. . . ."" Towards the end, when Duke is dying of cancer, George returns with some welcome personal involvement, even if the moment is maudlin: ""This is my buddy, my main man. We've been so close for thirty years, we don't have to talk. We look in each other's eyes, and I hear his silent scream."" But overall George reveals too little of himself to make this a directly engaging memoir; and the result--with glimpses of Duke at his most unbuttoned and a few vivid appearances by Lena Home, Billy Strayhorn (""Sweetpea""), and band regulars--is a sporadically amusing, rarely grabbing potpourri, mostly for only the most devoted Ellington devotees.

Pub Date: Oct. 6th, 1981
Publisher: Putnam