Duck’s Soul

From left to right: Donald “Duck” Dunn, Booker T., Steve Cropper, and Al Jackson

On May 13, 2012, Donald “Duck” Dunn, who played bass on innumerable recordings for the Stax label in the 60s and early 70s, passed away.  Duck was born in Memphis, and along with his fellow Stax musicians, he personified the democratic possibilities of American music.  Dunn was a working class kid who loved music and worked tirelessly at the bass, often without expectation of reward or success, hoping merely to have fun in the local music scene and to make some extra money.  Ultimately, he went on to play bass on some of the best soul recordings in history, immortalizing Memphis and southern soul all over the world with his bass lines.

Duck married young and worked several jobs to earn a living, including one for his brother at a record distributorship.  But at night he played shows with Steve Cropper and other Memphis musicians who loved soul and blues, several of whom would go on to become his fellow Stax players.  According to Peter Guralnick’s book Sweet Soul Music, Duck was “an easygoing sort,” but his work ethic was determined and non-stop:  “I started playing with Ben Branch [a Memphis bandleader]. . . I had my daytime gig five and a half days a week, Ben was working Tuesday through Sunday. . . we had Mondays off, but on Monday we had to rehearse.  And if I did have a few hours off, we went over to Stax to make a demo.”  Even a few years later, when Stax was becoming more successful as a label, Dunn continued to play gigs at clubs, bars, and dances, almost leaving the studio the first time Otis Redding showed up to cut a record because he thought Otis, “sounds like Little Richard.  Who wants another Little Richard?”, and he had another show he needed to play that night to get paid.

In 1961, Duck was playing bass in the Mar-Keys, who had a top ten hit with “Last Night” – a raucous, scintillating dance tune.  Not only successful in the US, it was used in 1964 to soundtrack a groovy cafe scene in the French movie La Bande Aparte:

“Last Night” was Duck’s – and Stax’s – first real taste of success.  In 1962, Duck left the Mar-Keys, playing with other bands until he joined Booker T. & the MGs, the Stax house band, in 1964/65. Duck’s furious schedule of gigs had turned him into a powerful, adaptable bassist, and this was crucial for Stax.  The MGs played on a lot of records, but they are likely most famous for their support of Otis Redding.  Otis Redding had an explosive, textured, imperialistic voice, the kind of instrument that could overpower a weak backing band and leave it panting in the dust.  But the MGs, led by Duck’s sturdy bass, were about as indomitable a group of musicians as Otis was a singer.  Dunn was unfailingly modest, claiming that “He[Otis] brought out the best in you.  If there was a best, he brought it out,” but this enabling of greatness clearly swung both ways.  Few other bands playing in the 60s could’ve conceivably held it together behind Otis. (The Beatles purportedly tried to set up a jam session once, but it didn’t come to be; one wonders how they would’ve fared).  You can hear Duck’s potent playing on any number of recordings, songs like “Rock Me Baby,” a B.B. King cover from Otis Blue, where Duck plays a simple blues riff with a punishing power, corralling, containing, and driving Otis and the whole song.

But Duck was more than just sturdy and modest, he anchored songs in the truest sense of the word.  He never sounded rushed; even when pounding through a number in double-time, he had a workman-like plod, a reassuringly heavy tread.  It was not flashy playing, flash was left to vocalists.  But Duck distilled soul to its purest form, the kind of purity that comes from incessant repetition and a belief in the medium.  This is best illustrated on slower, sadder songs like “For This Precious Love” from The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads. Duck would play just a single, large, lingering note per measure (or two).  Viewed individually, each single note is as lonely as Otis, magnifying the singer’s despair and alienation.  Viewed collectively, Duck’s bass plays the entire melody of the song in a small handful of notes.  On “Ole Man Trouble” from Otis Blue, it takes Duck more than one more note to capture the essence of the song, but the effect is the same.  Everything else – guitars, horns, organ, even the drums — is a pretty embellishment around Otis and Duck.

In addition to blues and southern soul, Duck played other kinds of material as well.  He gave the bounce to “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” a posthumously released Otis tune that was one of his funkiest (from The Immortal Otis Redding), and played a mixture of funk, soul, and pop for two instrumental MGs’ albums from the early 1970s: Mclemore Avenue – which contained re-workings of the Beatles’ Abbey Road – and Melting Pot.  Mclemore Avenue is a fine showcase for his variable skills, since the Beatles happened to have a bassist with a fair amount of talent in his own right.  Duck holds his own in comparison to Paul, and on some songs, like “Mean Mr. Mustard,” Duck’s cut is leaner and meaner — with a little extra mustard.  Melting Pot shows Duck and the MGs at their most wide-ranging.  “L.A. Jazz Song,” is three different songs smushed together, containing a basic two note groove, a descending piece of over-the-top proto-disco, and a cool bit of Latin-inflected funk; Duck powers them all.  “Sunny Monday,” from the same album, is almost folk.

Donald “Duck” Dunn defined southern soul with his bass playing – not only with his work for Otis, but also on his sessions with Sam and Dave, Eddie Floyd, Carla Thomas, and others.  He embodied the American dream – a working class guy who hit it big, played on huge hits and travelled to Europe, adored by musicians, fans, and critics alike.  According to Guralnick, Duck never seemed entitled; even after he had some steady success, he said: “. . . I still never thought it would last.  I always wondered if I was doing good enough. I kept waiting for them to get someone else.”  And Duck’s was an inclusive American dream.  Many of the musicians — both white and black — that he had been playing with in Memphis for years came along for the ride with him, gaining success of their own even while playing second fiddle to singers.  Finally, by cementing the simple formula for southern soul that makes it so affecting, Dunn helped establish a path for hardworking, soulful musicians that exists to this day, even in the face of soul’s relative decline in popularity.

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