Debbie Duncan, ‘Minnesota’s first lady of song,’ dies at 69 after a series of strokes

Melissa M. Munoz

If she wasn’t on stage, she might be sitting at the bar, or standing in the back of the room. Debbie Duncan was out in the clubs most every night, sporting some creative headwear and a look-at-me outfit. “She loved to hang. She believed in supporting her fellow artists,” said […]

If she wasn’t on stage, she might be sitting at the bar, or standing in the back of the room. Debbie Duncan was out in the clubs most every night, sporting some creative headwear and a look-at-me outfit.

“She loved to hang. She believed in supporting her fellow artists,” said Andrew Walesch, a singer-pianist and music director of Crooners supper club in Fridley.

Sometimes Walesch would hear the grumbling when Duncan got ushered to a front-row table a half-hour after the musicians took the stage. But that’s where she belonged. “She’s Minnesota’s first lady of song,” he said. “She was a queen to all of us. Period.”

Duncan, a vocalist extraordinaire, died Friday in a Golden Valley nursing home after a series of strokes. She was 69.

“She was an artist who could have been well known worldwide,” said well-traveled Twin Cities singer Patty Peterson. “But she was also a caretaker for members of her family and people in the community, especially younger people who were learning music.”

Calling Duncan “the heart and soul of the Twin Cities music scene,” Walesch said that while she “never expected anybody to go see her play, she would always be out to check out the newest singers in town, and she would show up to see old friends. If she saw someone showed promise or potential, she’d be the first one to come up and encourage them. She never said a bad word about any other artist. If she didn’t like it, she’d just keep her mouth shut.”

But when it came to her own work, she was outspoken.

“I’m picky, picky, picky, picky, picky. Ridiculously picky,” Duncan said in 2018 when talking about her first album in 12 years, a jazz collection called “Full Circle.”

That wasn’t always the case. She used to accept nearly every gig that came along. In the mid-1990s, she was “the workingest” singer in town, performing nearly every night in a variety of styles. But, in recent years, gone were regular gigs with Dr. Mambo’s Combo and the old Rupert’s Orchestra, a variety band that brought her to Minnesota in 1984.

In her 60s, she viewed herself as a jazz singer: “I don’t think about screaming anymore. I’m sorry.”

Duncan always spoke her mind. Twin Cities singer Julius Collins discovered that in 1988 in Atlanta. He was supposed to sing with her group, but the promoters “felt they needed a white singer to keep the Black-to-white singer ratio,” Collins said in a Facebook post. “I heard Deb cussing out the owners of Rupert’s from the next room over. She didn’t even know me. But there she was putting her gig on the line, fighting for me. She was fierce!”

Doris Haynes met Duncan at Wayne State University in her native Detroit. Not only did they perform in bands together (Sweet Thunder was signed to Warner/Curb) but for several months they ran a Detroit diner given to them by an underworld character who had won the joint in a poker game.

“We opened at 6 o’clock and closed at 3, and Debbie and I had to learn how to split eggs,” Haynes recalled. “We had eggs all over the floor and on the ceiling, but by 11 o’clock we were flipping those eggs. We had a ball.”

Haynes said her best friend was “the craziest woman I ever met,” a social butterfly with a contagious laugh. Haynes became Duncan’s manager in recent years because “she wouldn’t toot her own horn.”

Inspired by musical parents, Debbie pursued the flute before taking up singing in college, said her younger brother William Duncan.

“It was magical to perform with her,” said the pianist-singer, who moved to Minnesota in 2006. “The first thing you’d notice was her outfits. They were often glistening. She was a great attraction — vocally and to look at.”

She would collaborate with all kinds of musicians. “When Debbie was onstage with you, there was nothing to worry about,” said Walesch. Even though things seldom went as planned.

They could rehearse multiple times to get a tune just right and then she’d wing it onstage. “The music was to be created in the moment. And she was going to take chances,” he said. “She was a true jazz musician. And that’s a very rare thing.”

Duncan is survived by her father William, in Canada, two sisters and her brother. Services are pending.

Twitter: @JonBream • 612-673-1719

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