Donald “Duck” Dunn, who died Sunday at age 70 in Tokyo only hours after playing his final show with longtime friend Steve Cropper, was part of one of soul music’s greatest rhythm sections.
Dunn was a self-taught bass player who had been playing in bands with Cropper since they were both in high school together in Memphis. A call from Cropper brought Dunn to Stax Records in 1964, where he become part of Booker T and the MG’s, a biracial quartet that played on some of the era’s biggest hits.
With Cropper, Dunn, keyboardist Booker T. Jones and drummer Al Jackson Jr., the MG’s were self-effacing masters of groove and melodic concision. Jackson had a habit of playing slightly behind the beat, giving the rhythm a swinging feel while building tension that would resolve with a well-placed fill by any one of the musicians, or an interjection from a vocalist. Dunn’s bass playing served the song just as selflessly, bridging melody and rhythm without ever calling attention to itself.
Though not often heralded as the singers whose names were featured on the singles and album covers, Jackson’s drums and Dunn’s bass were critical elements in virtually every track cut at Stax, including hits by Otis Redding (“I Can’t Turn You Loose”), Wilson Pickett (“In the Midnight Hour”) and Eddie Floyd (“Knock on Wood”). Dunn’s willingness to serve the song, rather than his ego, led to an endless array of job offers in the decades since he left Stax. He contributed to recordings and tours by artists including Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks, among others.
Dunn, like the rhythm section he served, was a largely unsung musical hero. Here are the best soul rhythm sections of all time:
Booker T. and the MG’s: The house band on countless hits for the Stax label out of Memphis, the MG’s provided a harder edged response to Motown’s more refined chart dominance during the ‘60s. The bass-drums interaction of “Duck” Dunn and Al Jackson Jr. remains the gold standard in soul.
The Funk Brothers: The Motown rhythm section during the ‘60s and ‘70s had a busier but no less potent and influential style than the MG’s, with more of a jazz background bubbling through in the playing of bassist James Jamerson and drummer Benny Benjamin.
The J.B.’s: James Brown’s backing band in the ‘70s included bassist William “Bootsy” Collins and drummer John “Jabo” Starks on the deepest funk of the singer’s career, including "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine" and “Super Bad.”
The Meters: Bassist George Porter Jr. and drummer Zigaboo Modeliste defined New Orleans’ funk, slicing up beats and syncopations for classic sides by the likes of Dr. John and Lee Dorsey.
Muscle Shoals: The northern Alabama town of Muscle Shoals became a soul epicenter in the ‘60s and ‘70s, thanks to the work of the studio’s peerless house band, which included bassist David Hood and drummer Roger Hawkins. Their work can be heard on hits by everyone from the Staple Singers to Paul Simon.
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