DUCK DUNN AND THE STAX ATTACK
Revisitation Rights 14
Duck Dunn was one of the lucky ones – he had a name right from the start.
By now, plenty of words have undoubtedly been written extolling the musical contributions and significance of Dunn, the bass anchor of the Stax attack who died in Tokyo on Sunday. I’ll leave it to others to delve deeply into the distinct musical elements that went into fashioning his sound, what Stax meant in the ‘60s musical and social context, the reasons connected to the appropriateness of all that happening in Memphis and why it happened where and when it did. I’m sure quite a few Top 10 Duck Dunn tracks are making the cyberspace rounds, too, or should be, anyway, so I’ll pass on trying to sift through all the great songs that prominently featured his bass playing. Well, okay, surprisingly enough, I can throw the spotlight on two specific songs that do stand out for me for what he plays – “Wrap It Up” by Sam & Dave and “Liberty”, the opening track from The Detroit-Memphis Experience, an under-the-radar collaboration between Booker T & MG’s and one post-Detroit Wheels/Bob Crewe Vegas disaster and immediately pre-monster Detroit band Mitch Ryder. Yes, the latter would be one pretty appetizing proposition and both songs do feature one seriously funky Duck.
I never interviewed Duck Dunn, and I first knew of him as everyone else knew of him – as the architect of the bass lines on innumerable great songs that came out of the radio in the ‘60s. Not that I knew what he was playing was soul music or Memphis soul or anything, any more than I knew that “El Watusi” was a style called charanga, or “My Boy Lollipop” was ska, “The Israelites” was rocksteady, and “She’s About A Mover” was Tex-Mex or conjunto/norteño. They were just great songs. I didn’t start finding all the rest of that stuff out until ’74 or ‘75, somewhere around there, when I also first became consciously aware of how much I heard the music I loved most through the bass lines that played an integral part in them. Duck Dunn and Stax were fundamental to that Eureka light bulb moment (a rather extended one in this case), and when I began playing along to records to learn the rudiments of bass, you can bet greatest hits albums by those Stax records were in heavy rotation, as they always have been and will be whenever/if ever I go back and brush up on bass again in the future.
And as they always should be for any aspiring bassists who want to craft seriously creative lines that push and prod from behind, drive up from the bottom, and/or work the middle with fluid and never overly flamboyant fills. All three are essential, but that last trait was particularly important when dealing with a fundamental backbeat drummer like Al Jackson, Jr. and the impeccable spartan guitar of Steve Cropper. But then that’s why they called it a rhythm section – the elements have to achieve their own kind of internal balance and interplay one way or another and when they do, you have what you call your chemistry for creating memorable music. Duck Dunn’s style is a lot different than Motown’s equally (maybe even more) legendary James Jamerson, but both are absolutely crucial figures because their individual approaches fit their musical contexts and studio partners so perfectly. And you can slot in the name of any of the fundamental studio session players from that era and it will be just as true.
But Duck Dunn was one of the lucky ones because he had a name from the very start. And that was only because Booker T & the MG’s became recording artists in their own right, and having your name listed on credits was a privilege reserved for artists in the soul music era of the ‘60s. King Curtis was another who benefited from that dual artist/sideman status but everyone knows the Motown Funk Brothers situation, where Jamerson and company had to wait for the ‘70s and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On LP to get a name check for their dozen-odd years of labor in the Hit Factory.
I’m bringing all this up because discovering the story of these behind-the-scenes figures – not only the session groups but engineers and producer, or the East L.A. Sound scene of the ‘60s, basically anyone involved in the music world who wasn’t part of the “It’s star time, ladies and gentlemen” marquee artist spotlight – developed into one of my prime areas of interest in writing about music. It played into the born historian in me (and certainly a host of others), a graduation from scouring liner notes and album credits (once they started providing them) to find out details and flesh out the back stories. There was also some desire and impulse to try and give credit where due and expand the (his)story to whatever small degree that was possible by putting names, contexts and perspectives to those under-the-radar slices of musical history.
One of great appeals of writing about Willie Dixon was the chance to find out more on the behind-the-scenes-characters and history in early Chicago blues. And the rhythm sections born and bred in the day of the 4 songs-in-3 hours aesthetic, where those label sessions were the preferred gig because it was a steady, paying one where you stayed at home instead of busting your butt on the road were particularly fertile ground for that kind of exploration. The U.S. was full of small but vibrant regional scenes bubbling under the mainstream industry in the ‘50s and ‘60s – as everyone knows, that’s exactly what Stax and Memphis soul was when Duck Dunn came onboard but you could take that example and multiple it any number of times over. Take it down to New Orleans and you find the ‘50s R&B crew responsible for Fats, Fess and Little Richard, bring it ahead to the late ‘60s / early ‘70s and you have Toussaint and Meters second-line funk. Bring it back to Memphis in the early ‘70s and it’s Al Green/Hi rhythm section time and that’s just a very small sample confined to the U.S. and of styles that I happen to like.
Take it international and you can head down to Jamaica for ‘70s roots variations with various Sly & Robbie aggregations, the Barrett brothers in Upsetters/Wailers worlds, (plus Soul Syndicates, Leroy Sibbles/Studio One, Skatalites and who knows how many other golden age crews). Shift language and go continental, you can plug into that Desvarieux-Decimus-Kassav crew in mid-‘80s Paris. As you might guess, I once seriously toyed with idea of writing a book on classic session rhythm sections, taking it up through the Chic axis and Sugarhill/On-U Sound/Tackhead crew in the ‘80s until the whole thing seemed to nosedive and basically die off in the ‘90s. The one exception since then would be the Roots, between their own records and filling that studio group function for hip-hop artists who want the occasional live musician touch. At least as far as I know, but then I am pretty much out of touch.
So Duck Dunn was one of the lucky ones in that respect, because he had a name and rep that could be found without any historical digging. Not that it prevented him from slipping back into the obscurity that greeted most players from that era until the he was re-introduced to next generation as part of the Blues Brothers Band. At the time, that felt utterly loathsome – the movie and Belushi/Aykroyd shtick still is, and you do have to realize I live now in a country where the Blues Brothers were/are considered near-gods and standard bearers cum ambassadors for U.S. roots music. But it did get Dunn and Cropper back into the spotlight before the Stax sound could cycle around and become classic again and gigs could open up. Just like I hope Mark Ronson taking the Meters’ Zigaboo Modeliste on to David Letterman with Erykah Badu to perform “A La Modeliste” on U.S. TV earlier this year plants a seed and has the same effect for the King of the Funky Drummers (I wear the T-shirt with pride, for about 15 or 20 years now).
From the reports I’ve read so far, Duck Dunn died in Japan at the end of a five night, two-sets-a-night stand playing with Eddie Floyd and Steve Cropper. That sounds like music that would have mattered to him, no indications of misadventure so far and I certainly hope it stays that way on both counts for a man who contributed so much to what Dave Alvin labeled American music and indirectly my own music-loving life. Most of us already know that Duck Dunn didn’t actually play on the original recording of “Green Onions,” but we also all know that it’s one of those perfect grooves that could go on forever without ever getting old or tired. And it’s the groove I hope Duck Dunn is riding as he moves on into the next phase.