RIP Duck Dunn, 70, bass mover of American vernacular music
Donald “Duck” Dunn, bassist for Booker T. and the MGs, most all the grits ‘n’ greens soul voices who emerged from Memphis’ Stax Records in the 1960s, and dozens of major blues-rock-pop stars during his subsequent career as an LA-based studio musician, died in his sleep at age 70 in the early morning of May 13 while on tour in Japan with his guitarist partner and childhood friend Steve Cropper. He’d performed two shows the night before at the Blue Note Tokyo.
Dunn was among the handful of electric bassists who motivated dancers to rock ‘n’ soul’s brand new beat during the heyday of vernacular music miscegenation (Jerry Jemmott and James Jamerson are two of his peers) . Self-taught by playing along with records, Dunn was as steady and self-effacing as bassists were supposed to be back in that day, while providing the bouncy, accented lines that held together and pushed forward a band grooving on a backbeat. Using a Fender Precision bass (he designed a signature model in 1998), Dunn created syncopated, independent lines that made millions of people shake their booties to the hits of Booker T., Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, the Mar-Kays, the Memphis Horns, Albert King, Wilson Pickett, Creedence Clearwater and, later, the Blues Brothers, Bob Dylan, Stevie Nicks, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, most recently Neil Young, countless others.
I find Duck Dunn’s well-articulated low-octave underpinnings fascinating in themselves, though it was his synchronization with Cropper (especially) and drummers including Al Jackson, Jr. of the Stax house band that made his career what it was. As rock bassists like Jack Casady, Phil Lesh and Jack Bruce became more flowing and r&b/soul/funk bassists more emphatic with thumb-popping, Dunn epitomized (at least for me) quick, cool melodies bumping along almost beneath the radar but actually shaking
the Sacral Chakra, which according to Hindu tracts governs sexuality and creativity. Thanks to Duck Dunn and his colleagues, listeners from the ’60s on enjoyed an extra burst of energy. Gotta thank the Quiet Guy with the Pipe for some of that.