R.I.P. Donald "Duck" Dunn: The Bass That Held Stax Soul Together
There's a glorious sense of mystery, a rightfully rarefied air, reserved for the masters of American soul. It's not just that the genre is called "soul," although that's got to be part of it. The greats of the music are held in special regard because playing soul well is something akin to magic, a little more so than other genres. Soul musicians get the same notes as everyone else, of course, but the best practitioners shade them differently, imbue them with a raw humanity that comes through disarmingly clear, probably because the music is purpose-built to exhibit it.
The power of the music is expressed most clearly through soul singers, like Otis Redding, or Sam Cooke, or Stevie Wonder. But soul instrumentalists deserve to occupy this realm, too. As the longtime bass player for the house band of Stax Records, Donald "Duck" Dunn -- who died Sunday in Japan at age 70 -- lent low notes to the songs of Redding, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, Carla Thomas, and others. An instrumentalist for some the genre's greatest moments, it's no surprise that Dunn's recordings, at least, will be remembered. But what's notable about Dunn's playing wasn't how well it stood out -- his bass rarely announced itself -- but the superlative job it did of blending in, of holding together the rhythms and melodies that made those songs so powerful.
Dunn's playing was confidently spacious and perfectly supportive, the work of an ideal sideman. Like the indelible image of him lingering at the back of the stage in sunglasses, puffing away casually on a pipe, his fretwork filled in the edges of the music, serving as an essential frame to the work of those at the front of the stage. You may not think about him being there, but you would certainly notice if he were gone. On Redding's "That's How Strong My Love Is," Dunn's bass signals a chord change, and the rest of the music follows. In the moments when guitarist Steve Cropper isn't spitting out licks, it almost sounds like Dunn is leading the band from below, rolling out ahead to support things when they get there:
Otis Redding, "That's How Strong My Love Is"
Dunn wasn't only a soul player. As a session man, he went on to work with Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, Steve Nicks, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi (as the Blues Brothers' backing band), and many, many others. It was with blues great Albert King that Dunn recorded the classic "Born Under a Bad Sign" for Stax, where his tight playing helps give King's lament a funky sprightliness:
Albert King, "Born Under a Bad Sign"
This is one of many recording where one feels Dunn's bass more than hears it, in the way the band snaps from one chord change to the next, but still lingers behind the beat. In the genres Dunn played, bass is rarely a solo instrument, as it often is in jazz. Instead, bass works as an interface between the percussion of the drums and the tonality of the guitars, brass, and vocals, helping tie them together.
That makes its importance easy to overlook. Bass is essential to the soul-ness of soul (and blues, and rock 'n' roll), crucial to building a cohesive sonic backdrop on top of which the singer or other leader can perform their part. The neatness of the chord changes, the sturdiness of the rhythm, and the hugging warmth of the low notes were what allowed singers like Redding or singer-guitarists like King the freedom to fly into the stratosphere and stay there. So while the pantheon of soul greats will always include those frontpersons who left their hearts on the stage, it ought to reserve a place for bassmen like Dunn as well.
The Mar-Keys, "Last Night"
Carla Thomas, "I'll Bring it on Home to You" (Sam Cooke cover)