January 13, 2018

The ballad of Duke Levine

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Nate Dow / courtesy

Duke Levine

The kid never had a chance, or a choice of what he was going to do when he grew up.

Astronaut was out. President was out. As was doctor, teacher, accountant and everything else … except guitarist and performer.

Indeed, his guitar, talent and drive have taken Worcester-born Duke Levine on a long, successful career, from his start at city haunts such as Ralph’s Diner to tours and records with the likes of Mary Chapin Carpenter, Peter Wolf and the Del Fuegos.

The youngest of five – brothers Buzz, Elliot and Rick and sister Rachael – Levine, now 56, was surrounded by music. Everyone had a guitar and was either in a band or between bands. And they all practiced with their bands or buddies in the basement of their house.

Rick was in the Prairie Oysters in the early 1970s with Walter Crockett, a longtime area artist in both music and writing. He and his late wife, Valerie, were staples of the Worcester music scene for decades.

“Rick is still in Worcester, and has a band called Cosmic Slim and His Intergalactic Plowboys. I sit in with them every once and a while,” Levine said. The band includes Bill Fisher on bass (from The Prairie Oysters), and Tim Bowles on pedal steel (from The Trailers), and they play around the Worcester area.

Rachael eventually formed a band called The Worst, a punk group  in the early 1980s, and Levine eventually played alongside her, too, for a brief time. She also remained in Worcester and performs music and comedy at the Friday Open Mic at John Henry’s Hammer Coffeehouse at the First Unitarian Church, 90 Main St.

Initial allure

At about 8 or 9, Levine said, he picked up his brother’s acoustic guitars that had open tuning and started picking, and he liked what he heard. “It sounded pretty cool and it made a nice sound without doing anything to it. So, how hard could it be?” he asked himself.

He kept at it and practiced, practiced and practiced with his new best friend.

Others were doing the same and eventually people found each other, and bands formed within his own age group by the time he was 12.

When some of his older friends formed Cloudy Heaven, they asked Levine if he wanted to join.  A few months, ensconced in the band, Levine prompted a name change, to Landslide.

“And that was a band that stayed together for five years – until I was 17,” he said after a recent show in Cambridge. “We used to play a lot of the churches and high school dances during that time. And the keyboard player actually became our manager, Joe Pagano, who is still in Worcester. He bought a school bus and that’s what we had for transportation. We also had a road crew and our own public address system and lights. And of course all of our friends wanted to be in the road crew.”

Looking back on those times, Levine said, “Without even realizing it, I learned a lot about being in a band,” including dealing with different personalities, being on time and sticking to a schedule. He added that “all of our parents were pretty cool about the band.”

Rehearsals were held at the Levine homestead on St. Elmo Road or in the Burncoat neighborhood, where half of the guys in the band lived.

School days

Levine attended Chandler Junior High, spent one year at Worcester Alternative School and when it closed, he transferred and graduated from Doherty Memorial High School.

“At Doherty, I took classes with a really influential music teacher, Antoinette Giannini. She was very important to many of us who aspired to be musicians,” he said.

He also studied guitar with Rich Falco for about five years. “He was another huge influence and a great teacher. He’s been in the music department at WPI (Worcester Polytechnic Institute) for many years.”

The working man

During most of his high school years Levine held a part-time job at Union Music on Southbridge Street, working for owner Karl Kamp. Union Music provided the perfect setting to ask questions of other guitarists and learn the intricacies of the instrument.

By the time he graduated from high school, Levine said Walter Crockett was starting a band with his wife, “and she wanted me to be in the band – right out of high school. So I was in a full-time band with Walter and Val. And that lasted for four years.”

“During that time, every town had a venue with live music and sometimes there were more than one place, even in smaller towns. Walter had us working seven days a week at different places – playing his music … and that was a great experience, too,” he added.

Walter and Valerie and the Oxymorons (their moniker for the revolving cast of local musicians who joined them) continued to play music in Greater Worcester for more than 25 years.

[Note: Valerie died in October 2009 at age 53, and their daughter, Emily, who battled multiple disabilities her entire life and was a student at Harvard University, died at age 26 in October 2011.]

In addition to his talent as a singer-songwriter/guitarist, Walter Crockett is a journalist. He worked for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette and Worcester Magazine (at separate times), for many years.

He continues to work with the husband and wife team of Chuck and Mud (Demers) and the Hole in the Dam Band, along with other incarnations such as the MudChuckers.

Levine decided to take a break from that nonstop schedule and found time to do some solo gigs, and founded The Trailers, a country and western band, around this timeframe.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Levine worked in many of the music venues in Worcester, from Ralph’s Rock Diner to Sir Morgan’s Cove, Gilrein’s, Nick’s and many more, as well as in the Boston and Providence areas, which also had numerous clubs and an eclectic nightlife scene.

Off to Boston

To further his career within the music business, Levine knew he had to get some formal training. He decided to go to college, the New England Conservatory, in Boston and earned a degree in jazz performance in 1987.

He’s been in the Boston area ever since.

“From there, you meet people in school and you make connections. Even though I was in the jazz department, I don’t consider myself as a jazz guitar player, then or now. But I met like-minded people … and some people I met back then, I still work with them today.”

In the late 1980s and early 90s, “That’s when the whole singer-songwriter scene was happening [again],” Levine said. “Both Boston and Cambridge were known for launching careers.”

In the 1960s, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and others were constantly touring greater Boston; Bonnie Raitt was a student at Radcliffe College in Cambridge; and many, many artists, such as Tracy Chapman, played in the Red Line subway stations when they were starting out.

Levine said many of the singer-songwriters he befriended in the late 1980s and 90s moved to Boston because it became a scene where one could get gigs. “I even did some blues stuff and a couple of tours with Otis Rush [a powerful Chicago-based guitarist and singer], and Ken Vangel, a piano player from Worcester, who played and managed Johnny Copeland [a New Jersey-based guitarist, singer and songwriter], for a long time.”

Levine said Vangel and his partner would put together tours to Europe. One was with Leon Thomas, a jazz/blues singer in a package with Otis Rush, Big Jay McNeely and Big Time Sarah. “So that was pretty cool during that time,” he said.

In 1990, Levine released his first of six albums, “Guitar Talk,” which had a distinctive blues edge to it. Six of the seven selections are blues-based. And that certainly started the next step in his career.

Del Fuegos and Mary Chapin Carpenter

In about 1992, Levine started playing with a version of The Del Fuegos, the Bay State garage-rock outfit that rocketed to fame for a time in the mid-80s on the strength of singles “I Still Want You” and “Don’t Run Wild.” (Tom Petty was a fan; he guested on their song “Stand Up” and brought them on tour with him in 1987.) Founding member Dan Zanes had reassembled the broken-up band because he got an offer for some tours. “So for a few years we were playing Dan’s new stuff and older Del Fuegos stuff. And that was my main gig for a couple of years.”

Shortly thereafter, Levine received a call from Mary Chapin Carpenter in 1995, and ended up working with her for about six and a half years. “And I still work with her today,” he said.

[Editor’s Note: Duke is on Mary Chapin Carpenter’s new album due out in February].

Most of the work was tour-based – on the road for weeks or months at a time.

“I’ve been lucky enough to bypass some of the crappy conditions that we [musicians] hear about. When I was with Mary Chapin, she was at her peak of her career. We had a tour bus and road crew throughout Europe and the U.S. tours, and that’s pretty ideal. Basically it was pretty cushy.

“Sometimes we’d be on the road for four to six weeks. But that first year with Mary, it was about nine months. But it was back and forth. We’d be off for a few weeks, and then back out again. It was steady and that was a big year. I hadn’t done anything like that, so it was different for sure,” Levine recounted.

After a particularly difficult European tour during Levine’s Chapin Carpenter years, the two had had enough of the road, and decided to go in different directions.

“I turned down some gigs only because I didn’t want to travel as much anymore,” Levine said. “Plus, I always had my studio session work and that picked up after I stopped touring as much. I had already been doing a fair amount of studio work, which is pretty much of a word-of-mouth connection. A lot of it is from developing relationships with different artists or producers who will hire you and call back.

“At this point (after touring), I was starting to go to New York more once I was off the road, and that was fun to go there and not have to live there. Plus there was work here in Boston, too,” Levine said.

Playing with Peter Wolf

Levine said he started to get more involved with Peter Wolf’s band in the early 2000s, and is still active today. He’s a very good friend, Levine added.

Wolf rose to fame as the lead vocalist for the J. Geils Band. Known as Snoopy and the Sopwith Camels when John Geils formed the group at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in the mid-60s, the trio (including Danny Klein and “Magic Dick” Salwitz) pirated Wolf and drummer Stephen Bladd from The Hallucinations in 1968. The band peaked in the early 80s with hits like “Love Stinks,” “Freeze Frame” and “Centerfold,” before Wolf split in 1983.

“He’s amazingly gracious and generous with the band … always looking out for the band at all times … and he really wants to have a personal connection as well as a musical connection. He’s very rare.

“He works really hard on the music, is disciplined, and he wants to get it to be as good as it can be,” Levine said of Wolf.

“Every musician who is great wants to get better. But if you view perfection as an ideal, it can be really frustrating. Personally, I don’t think it is supposed to be perfect – ever.

“I’ve come to that conclusion. You should always strive, but perfect is a whole other story. I would say he [Wolf] is really dedicated in every way. And he wants to make the show great for the people, as well as for himself. He’s all in.”

Wolf also supports local musicians who are trying to earn a living by showing up to their gigs and by giving advice.

“I can’t say enough of good things about him,” Levine said. “And I’m proud of the records that I’ve been involved with over the years. I really think they came out cool.”

New project

Levine’s latest project features an all-instrumental show featuring music from the 1970s. “Some of it will be obscure, and some of it will be easily recognizable. Some might be something that I liked … but it’s really fun and we’re doing two of those this month (January) at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge.

“It could be anything … but most of it tends to be on the early ’70s side. We tried to come up with arrangements so that it just wasn’t a rote version or simply and instrumental cover of those tunes. And there will be different combinations of instruments on songs that you’ll recognize.

“And I’m thinking about possibly recording it, too. It’s really enjoyable for me,” Levine said.

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