Having spent a fair amount of ink perusing the early-’60s Motown/James Jamerson archives, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at what was happening in other parts of the country during that time. While Motown acquired the trademark “Hitsville, USA,” Memphis was also a major hot spot for R&B music, earning the sobriquet “Soulsville, USA.” We looked at some of “Memphis Boy” Tommy Cogbill’s work last month, but undoubtedly the most well-known 4-banger from that hallowed city is Donald “Duck” Dunn. Born in Memphis in 1941, Dunn’s high school band, the Royal Spades, would eventually change its name to the Mar-Keys and have a national hit with their recording “Last Night.” The Mar-Keys also featured guitarist Steve Cropper, who would eventually bring Duck into the legendary instrumental outfit Booker T. & the MG’s in 1965.
While most people know Duck from his appearances in the Blues Brothers movies, his significance to the world of music was established long before then. The Duck-fueled MG’s were the default house band for Memphis’ Stax label, playing on a slew of Southern soul/R&B cornerstones, such as Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour,” Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay,” Sam and Dave’s “Soul Man,” and Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign.” Although not as technically oriented as Jamerson, Duck’s simple directness and his magical lock with drummer Al Jackson were a perfect recipe for hit-making grooves. His tone was thick and round, but with a clear top end that brought out the attack. Duck attributed this in part to the Stax studio’s room dynamics: “I thought we sounded terrible in that room—I hated it,” he told Bass Player. “They were always asking me to play with a lot of highs, and it sounded too trebly for me. The drums never sounded right, but then we’d walk out and listen to the playback, and the bass would be as round as it could be. Somehow, our sound always made it to tape.”
While there are many classic MG’s tracks to check out, one that caught my ear is the relatively unknown non-album track “Be My Lady” from 1965. The mix is particularly favorable to the bass, and you can really hear Dunn’s muscular right hand pushing the amp into the brown zone. The track is based on a 1–b3–4 progression that reeks of groovy ’60s vibe, and the agile bass part is well played by Duck. Example 1 is the basic idea behind “Be My Lady”: This riff moves to the IV chord to give the A section a blues-like feeling. The B section (Ex. 2) cuts back to a simpler, dotted-quarter-note rhythm over a b3–b7–b6–5 progression, but Duck is pumping the crap out of each note, creating an almost square-wave-like distortion. The amp sounds like it’s going to bust a gut! Pure awesomeness. By the way, to avoid the nightmare of reading Cb’s and Fb’s, I’ve notated the b3 of the key enharmonically as a B natural, and the b6 as E natural.
Another great, underappreciated Dunn performance is on Don Covay’s “See Saw.” Covay got his start as a member of the Little Richard Revue and had a minor hit in 1957 with “Bip, Bop, Bip” under the name Pretty Boy, but he is best known as the writer and original performer of “Mercy, Mercy” (featuring a young Jimi Hendrix on guitar), which was later covered by the Rolling Stones. “See Saw” was also covered mightily by Aretha Franklin on her 1968 disc Aretha Now, but the Queen Of Soul also hit paydirt earlier that year with Covay’s “Chain of Fools.” The Covay version of “See Saw” has a rougher, less polished feel, but Duck holds the line with an insistence that makes up for the rushed drum fills. Once again, we can hear the distress coming though the amp as Dunn digs into his La Bella flatwound-strung Fender Precision Bass with ferocity. Example 3 is similar to the song’s chorus—it’s a great example of locking in with the kick drum.
Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” is part of the bedrock of soul/R&B, and Duck’s presence on that track alone places him in the Hall of Greats. But another less-covered track with “The Wicked Pickett” is “Ninety Nine and a Half (Won’t Do).” It’s a must-know tune for your deep R&B repertoire, and while essentially simple, it has a quirky intro that is frequently played wrong. Example 4 sets the record straight, but examining the melody/harmony relationships, it’s easy to understand the confusion. The first chord is an Em11 on the guitar, with the bass outlining a Bm triad—not too weird, but the guitar voicing makes it ambiguous. The second chord is an Edim7 on the guitar with the notes Bb–D–Gb on the bass, which could be interpreted as a Gb, Bb, or Daug triad. Any way you slice it, the D doesn’t completely gel with the E diminished chord, but it’s not fatal. Next comes a straightforward G major triad, with the bass playing the first inversion (B–D–G–B), which walks down to the IV chord, an A that sets up the tune’s verse (Ex. 5). Notice that while the verse chords are dominant 7’s, Duck uses the E major scale to walk back up to the E7, playing a D# to approach the E7 chord.
Much has been written on Duck Dunn; in fact, you can read details of his gear and setup, analysis of his style and technique, and see other transcriptions of his work in my book The R&B Masters: The Way They Play. The official Duck Dunn website announces that an authorized biography, Soul Fingers by Nick Rosaci, is scheduled for release May 1, 2017. While his early work weighs in at several tons of R&B Gold, once he was unchained from his Stax chair, his career carried him far and wide. The Blues Brothers became a multi-generational cultural touchstone, and his recording career also included work with Tom Petty, Ray Charles, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Buffett, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Bob Dylan, John Fogerty, Albert King, Freddie King, Levon Helm, Herbie Mann, Jerry Lee Lewis, Rod Stewart, and many more. Duck left this planet in 2012, but his vast recorded legacy will continue to influence and inspire for generations.
Ed Friedland is currently touring with Grammy Award winners the Mavericks. edfriedland.com