When it comes to popular music, Marin County has its share of household names  — Huey Lewis, Sammy Hagar, Santana, The Grateful Dead, and so many more.


But if you’ve ever studied the liner notes on a Huey Lewis album, know your Seventies Dixie Rock history, or enjoyed the house band at Rancho Nicasio, the name Mike Duke may ring a bell.  Duke has been a part of the inner-fabric of the Marin music scene since the early ‘80s, playing piano and singing at New George’s in San Rafael, the Sweetwater in Mill Valley, and writing hit songs for Huey Lewis and the News.

Originally from the South, Duke played with the Seventies Dixie Rock band Wet Willie before it broke up, and with The Outlaws, a Florida-Southern Rock band.  One day while recording an Outlaws record in LA during the early early ‘80s, a music executive heard Duke playing his song “Hope You Love Me Like You Say You Do” on a piano and exclaimed, “Hey, that’s a hit!”


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Huey Lewis & The News’ version of Mike Duke’s “Hope You Love Me…”

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Mike Duke’s Version of “Hope You Love Me”

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Listen to an audio clip of Mike’s original demo copy for “Hope You Love Me Like You Say You Do.”


Duke didn’t think much of the compliment but gave the exec a demo just in case.  Before long, the song made it into the hands of Marin’s Bob Brown, manager for Huey Lewis and the News, and the band included it on their 1982 release Picture This.  The single reached #12 on the pop charts.

Duke was just getting warmed up.  His follow-up song Doing It All For My Baby was released in 1986 on the News’ album Fore!.  That song reached #4 on The Billboard Hot 100 and the album reached number 1 on The Billboard 200.  “Huey was about to have a baby at the time,” explains Duke of the impetus for the song.  “It wasn’t specifically about that…but it didn’t hurt!”

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Now listen to Mike Duke’s original demo tape for “Doin’ It All For My Baby”:

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Originally, just before The News catapulted to fame and fortune, Lewis encouraged Duke to move out from Texas to Marin so the two could write songs together.  Duke accepted the offer but when he arrived here, Lewis and the band were nowhere to be found.  “They had just sky-rocketed,” says Duke, “So they were almost never home anymore.”

The only time the two could meet was when the band came back to The Plant in Sausalito to record new material such as their 1983 hit album Sports.  “Huey and I wrote some lyrics in the back ping pong room by the Galaxian machine.”

Adjusting to his new life in Marin, Duke joined the local music scene and played for fun at The Sweetwater.  He sometimes found himself thrust into the company of some of music’s finest performers.

“One time Jeannie Patterson (owner of The Sweetwater at the time) calls me up and says ‘Help!’” Duke remembers. “’Billy Preston’s coming tonight and I need your piano.’  She wanted me to be his opening act and let him use my electric piano.”

Duke was a bit intimidated.  “I thought, ‘Oh God, Billy Preston, ‘The Fifth Beatle’, Piano Player Extraordinaire! He was Ray Charles’ protégé for awhile!’”.   Nevertheless, Duke obliged and considers it a career highlight.  Not only did he open the show for Preston but he sat in with the band and their special guest, Clarence Clemmons, who had lost his saxophone strap that night and had fashioned a new one out of a coat hanger.  “He called it his ‘Ghetto Strap’” chuckles Duke.

Today, Duke is one of the managers at the Rancho Nicasio bar and restaurant in Nacasio. He runs its general store, plays piano and sings in the Rancho All-Stars house band.  He’s also the Rancho’s resident music expert and helps educate the public about the club’s upcoming music acts.

“People will call up say, ‘What is Zie Day Co?’ and I’ll say ‘Zydeco is …’ and I’ll describe what the music is.  But it’s getting harder and harder to describe (the music) because all these styles are blending together,” says Duke.  “We recently had a rock and roll band that plays bluegrass with a blues twist.  They were using a banjo but they sounded like Rock ‘n Roll.  The singer had a pierced nose and pierced ears — big wooden pieces in his nose and ears — and I asked these guys, “Is it okay if I tell people you’re sound is ‘Weird Ass Blue Grass’?  They said ‘Yeah, that sounds funny’.”

Although Duke left Marin for a period to tour around the country with Delbert McClinton he says he’s lived in Nicasio and Novato for a total of about 15 years.

I asked him if there was anything about Marin he really misses since first moving here in the early ‘80s.

He says, “It seemed like the music scene was a little bit more open and there were more places to go.  New George’s is gone.  Sweetwater is collapsing.  So the venues that you could play music at are collapsing or gone.  It’s more expensive to run a night club with music.  It’s harder to book acts because professional acts can’t work for nothing and they’ve got to go where the gigs pay.  It costs a lot to take a band on the road.   There’s no longer a club in San Rafael to go see bands play music.  The Mystic Theater in Petaluma is soaking up the acts that would have come here.  We can cross our fingers and hope that the Larkspur Theater works and the Throckmorton Theater works, although they’re not doing music primarily. And we can hope that other Marin venues will be music-friendly and that people can go out and see music there.”
Don’t forget to check out Duke and The Rancho All-Stars at Rancho Nicasio.