Reggie Lucas, Versatile Guitarist and Producer, Dies at 65
May 20, 2018
The guitarist, producer and songwriter Reggie Lucas in Japan in the early 1970s, in a photo provided by his family.Julian and Lisa Lucas
Reggie Lucas, a guitarist, songwriter and producer who was a member of Miles Davis’s electric band of the early and middle 1970s and who produced the majority of Madonna’s debut album, died on Saturday at a Manhattan hospital. He was 65.
The cause was advanced heart failure, his daughter, Lisa Lucas, said.
The versatile Mr. Lucas was present for some of the most divisive music of the 1970s and some of the most unifying music of the 1980s. He played on “On the Corner,” one of Mr. Davis’s most difficult and, in its day, critically derided albums. And he produced six of the eight songs on Madonna’s 1983 debut album, including the breakthrough hits “Lucky Star,” “Borderline” (which he also wrote) and “Burning Up.”
Reginald Grant Lucas was born on Feb. 25, 1953, in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens, to Ronald and Annie (Parham) Lucas. His father was a physician, his mother a teacher and administrator in the New York City public school system.
As a child he took piano lessons and, later, taught himself guitar. He attended the Bronx High School of Science, where he embraced the radical politics of the day, taking part in protests and writing articles in left-leaning student publications. He was featured in Robert Rossner’s book “The Year Without an Autumn: Portrait of a School in Crisis” (1969), which chronicled the 1968 New York City teacher strike and its fallout.
Mr. Lucas met Nile Rodgers, the future disco and pop producer who went on to co-found the band Chic, at a Vietnam War protest in Union Square when the two were both New York City high school students. They became lifelong friends.
Mr. Lucas in 2016.Julian Lucas
After dropping out of Bronx Science, Mr. Lucas moved to Philadelphia, where he began playing in nightclubs and soon joined the band of the soul singer Billy Paul. By the time he was 18, he was accomplished enough to be invited to join Mr. Davis’s band.
He stayed for around three years. His playing can be heard on “On the Corner” — the signature release of Mr. Davis’s fully freaky period, reflecting influences as diverse as Sly Stone and Karlheinz Stockhausen — and on the live albums “Agharta,” “Pangaea” and “Dark Magus.”
“We were all writing and composing onstage — continuous collaborative compositions and improvisations,” Mr. Lucas said of his tenure with Mr. Davis in an interview for The Fader in 2016.
Among his colleagues in Mr. Davis’s band was the percussionist James Mtume. The two joined Roberta Flack’s band in 1976 — the same year Mr. Lucas released “Survival Themes,” his only solo album — and went on to become an in-demand R&B songwriting and production team in the late 1970s. (Mr. Lucas was also, for a few years, a member of Mr. Mtume’s band, Mtume.)
Mr. Lucas and Mr. Mtume specialized in a kind of regal disco-adjacent R&B, including hits for Phyllis Hyman (“You Know How to Love Me”) and Ms. Flack (“The Closer I Get to You”). In 1981, they won a Grammy Award for best R&B song for writing the Stephanie Mills hit “Never Knew Love Like This Before.”
In 1982, Mr. Lucas began production work on the debut album of a then little-known singer, Madonna. Released in 1983, it would go on to be certified five times platinum and set the table for one of the most singular careers in modern pop. But he and Madonna had creative differences.
Mr. Lucas, in an undated family photo, in his studio in Jersey City.via Julian and Lisa Lucas
“She had her way of wanting to do things,” he told J. Randy Taraborrelli, the author of “Madonna: An Intimate Biography” (2001). “And I understood that. So we had to have a meeting of the minds, from time to time.” (Some of the songs Mr. Lucas produced were remixed to Madonna’s tastes by Jellybean Benitez.)
The album, Mr. Lucas told The Atlantic in a 2013 interview, was “a hybrid of her interests and mine”; Madonna was a nightclub denizen steeped in dance music and new wave, and Mr. Lucas was hired to bring R&B authority and texture. (Madonna’s early singles were marketed to black radio and played by influential R & B disc jockeys including Frankie Crocker.) He even used an introduction for “Borderline” similar to the one he had used on “Never Knew Love Like This Before.”
Mr. Lucas did not work with Madonna again; it was Nile Rodgers, his childhood friend, who took over production duties on her follow-up album.
The 1980s were a busy decade for Mr. Lucas. He released an album as part of an electro-funk trio, Sunfire, and he produced albums — some with Mr. Mtume, some on his own — for Lou Rawls, the Spinners, the Weather Girls, Rebbie Jackson and the Four Tops. He also opened a recording studio, Quantum Sound, in Jersey City.
In 1991, Mr. Lucas suffered a severe heart attack, and he had consistent heart problems in the years since. He continued to work on music for personal projects and briefly taught music at Montclair State University in New Jersey.
In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his mother, Annie Wolinsky; his wife, Leslie Lucas; his brother, Gregory; and a son, Julian. His first marriage ended in divorce.
A version of this article appears in print on May 21, 2018, on Page B6 of the New York edition with the headline: Reggie Lucas, 65; Made Strange Jams and Pop Legends. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe