Saturday, July 07, 2012

Hail to the Duck - Top Five Donald Dunn basslines

Here, as promised last month, is a celebration of the work of one of the all-time great bass players, Donald 'Duck' Dunn, who died in his sleep last month, at the age of 70, while on tour in Japan. 

In the early 1960s Dunn's childhood friend, the guitarist Steve Cropper, invited him to join him in Booker T and The M.G.s, the house band at the studio of the seminal Memphis label Stax Records. The label foundered in the 1970s, but The M.G.s continued to re-form frequently to play live shows, with and without Booker T. Jones, and also a little later became the backbone of The Blues Brothers Band. Steve and Donald made great music together for over fifty years. Although The M.G.s put out a number of albums and singles of their own, their finest work was in defining the Memphis soul sound - playing in relative anonymity behind great artists like Otis Redding, Eddie Floyd, Wilson Pickett, and Sam & Dave (these performers usually had all-black bands supporting them when they played live, but it was The M.G.s - a pioneer of integration in the American music scene - who played on their most famous recordings).

It's a little hard to know which basslines were originated by Duck and which just became associated with him: some of the Stax artists' hits were covers of earlier songs; Stax had complicated relationships with Atlantic and various other record labels, occasionally recording their artists for them, or using them to distribute Stax artists' records; and I've seen differing accounts of when Duck joined The M.G.s - '62, '64, or '65. And some of the songs with which he and Steve Cropper are now most associated were written by other people and first recorded much earlier; for example, She Caught The Katy and Sweet Home Chicago, two of the standout numbers from The Blues Brothers film, were written by Taj Mahal and Robert Johnson respectively.

It's also a little hard to narrow this selection down to just five picks. I may have to do another post on the Duck sometime.

But here goes....

Top Five Basslines played by Donald 'Duck' Dunn

5) Raise Your Hand (Eddie Floyd)
This bassline is rather similar to the one in Wilson Pickett's In The Midnight Hour (a Steve Cropper composition, and recorded, I believe, by Stax, with The M.G.s, but released by Atlantic in 1968), but I think I prefer this version accompanying an anthemic Eddie Floyd song (also co-composed by Cropper) that was later covered by the likes of Janis Joplin. (A wonderful live video, this, with a very young Duck and Steve in the background.)

4) Gimme Some Lovin' (Sam & Dave)
Another one of the highlights of The Blues Brothers film! I didn't discover Sam & Dave's stonking original until some years later.

3)  Can't Turn You Loose (Otis Redding)
Similar (identical?!) to the bassline in The M.G.s' instrumental Time Is Tight (which I posted a great live version of the other day), the opening of this Otis Redding track became known as 'The Blues Brothers Theme'.

2)  Soul Limbo (Booker T and The M.G.s) 
A tough call over the possibly more famous Booker T tune Green Onions, but this irresistibly upbeat number is dear to the hearts of most Englishmen of my age as a result of its being adopted as the theme music for the BBC's coverage of test match cricket in the '70s and '80s.

Ah, but in the top spot, it could only be....

1)  Soul Man (Sam & Dave)
A few days after I inaugurated this Great Basslines series, this track happened to come on in my favourite local bar, 12 Square Metres. I hadn't heard it in years, but after a handful of bars, Mike the barman and I looked at each other with a mixture of amazement and shame that we had overlooked this magical bassline in our review of the field. "Winner!" we sighed, in unison.

Further note:  Shortly after first posting this, I turned up another interesting history of the early days of Stax and of the formation of The M.G.s - well worth a look.


King Tubby said...

Really nice/killer stuff FROOG. There is an incredible and long version of Hold On I'm Coming by S @ D on youtube.

How 'bout Soul Chant No 9 by Wilson Pickett.

Stax definitely had a monopoly on bad taste covers ie The Incredible Dictionary of Soul by Otis.

Going thru a funk stage at the mo. Liberty Funk a French compilation. Totally killer brass riffs.


Froog said...

Good to hear from you again, KT. Glad you enjoyed this little roundup.