The first time Duke Levine picked up a guitar was when he was 8. The youngest of five kids, his older brothers all played, and Duke (real name Robert) and his sister soon developed an interest. That first one was an acoustic that belonged to his brother Rick. After just one strum, Duke thought something along the lines of, “Hey, I’m making a pretty good sound!” What he didn’t know was that Rick, who did a lot of fingerpicking folkie stuff, had the guitar tuned to an open chord, so anyone strumming it would have sounded good.
Levine, 57, a Worcester native and Malden resident, has come a long way since then. After being part of many bands, and developing a strong reputation as a go-to session man, he’s currently fronting a series of shows called Super Sweet Sounds of the’70s, with Duke and Kevin Barry on guitars, Mike Rivard on bass, Paul Schultheis on keyboards, Dean Johnston on drums, and percussionist Yahuba performing instrumental versions of ’70s pop and rock tunes.
Duke had previously been down many different musical paths. His earliest teachers were his guitar-playing brothers Rick and Elliot, who showed him basic chords. He also studiously listened to and learned how to play the records in his brothers’ collection. By 12, he was playing guitar with some 13-year-olds in the rock cover band Cloudy Heaven (later name-changed to Landslide). At 15, he began lessons with the jazz guitarist Rich Falco. Right after high school he joined Walter Crockett’s band Crockett, playing Crockett originals and some covers that ranged in genres from bluegrass to punk to ska.
Throughout the years (and this is only a partial list), Levine started the country band The Trailers, was part of a latter-day version of the Del Fuegos, toured with Mary Chapin Carpenter, played in the J. Geils Band, and is still a member of Peter Wolf’s Midnight Travelers. He also built up a detailed knowledge of guitars in his high school days while working at Union Music in Worcester, and has a degree in jazz performance from New England Conservatory.
“My first cool guitar was a Gibson SG Special that I got when I was around 14,” he said. “But it was stolen out of our parents’ house. That house got broken into twice. I think it was because my brother’s band The Prairie Oysters used to rehearse in the basement, and later my band Landslide rehearsed there, too. I think people got the idea that there was some good stuff down there.”
There were many other guitars after that, and Levine became known as a Stratocaster guy who would also often pick up a Les Paul. These days, he’s almost always seen with a Telecaster.
“I don’t know what happened,” he admitted. “I got a Telecaster in the early-’90s, and I just loved it. For quite a while I would play both the Strat and the Tele on gigs, go back and forth between them. But eventually I just took to the Telecaster. Though on the Sweet ’70s gig, I do sometimes play a Les Paul.”
Regarding the wide variety of styles that he’s dipped into, he said, “I would say I’m open to every kind of music. I had a period of playing on the blues scene more than others, but by the time of my first album Guitar Talk, which I think is a blues-fusiony kind of sounding record, I already knew I wanted to try an instrumental band that played more roots and country music.”
Told that no matter what genre he tackles, and no matter how complex the music, he somehow makes it look easy to do, he offered a shy, reserved, very modest thanks, then attempted to explain it.
“I think there are certain of us that have a natural ability,” he said. “I believe there’s a reason that you take to an instrument, because there’s a certain thing that you’re born with, and then it’s up to whoever gets that to work on it and get as good as you can with it. I took to it early on and it felt like it was something I could do. Also, I really loved figuring it out, learning and teaching myself. Most players I know that have the natural ability also have that natural instinct to know what they need to work on and the curiosity to want to learn.”
He candidly admitted that the idea for his ’70s shows came out a patch of boredom, partially caused by his own music.
“I make original instrumental records, but I don’t write very prolifically,” he said. “I thought it would great to have a whole other gig with a whole other body of music, and at some point, I got the idea to use ’70s material for a whole show. There was a lot of cool stuff in my memory of it from when I was growing up. Some was stuff that everybody knows, some was stuff that might be obscure. I just wanted to bring it to life and make some arrangements out of it so that it could become something new or at least fresh.”
The set lists go in all sorts of directions. Levine and the band often cover King Crimson’s “The Court of the Crimson King,” but easily switch gears to do a rock version of David Grisman’s “newgrass” song “Fish Scale.”
“One of the first tunes that got the concept going for me was Janis Ian’s ‘At Seventeen’,” he said. “The idea was what if this was on Jeff Beck’s album Blow by Blow? What if he covered this song? So, I made a version that almost sounds like it could be a tune from that record. That was the creative part of the whole thing that I got a kick out of.”
But Levine is never sure if his audience is sure about what to expect.
“I think anybody who hears the name of the show can have an idea of what it might be,” he said. “But even if people have another idea of what it actually is, they usually have a good time when they come to the show. I think they’re pleasantly surprised.”
(by Ed Symkus)