Donald 'Duck' Dunn: Honoring a Stax master -- and 'Time Is Tight'
Who was Donald "Duck" Dunn? Among many other things, he was the creator of one of the great basslines of the last half century, the propellent run that pushes "Time Is Tight," Booker T & the M.G.'s classic 1969 instrumental, into the stratosphere.
Dunn, who died Sunday in Tokyo at age 70, may often have been overshadowed by bandmates organist Booker T. Jones and guitarist Steve Cropper, but remove the bassline from "Time Is Tight" and dozens of other soul classics that he played on in the 1960s, when Memphis, Tenn., was the hub of rhythm & blues and Stax was its shining light, and much of the momentum that pushes those songs vanishes.
Dunn understood how to remain as the rudder, guiding songs while adding just enough flair to create waves. You can hear it on Otis Redding's version of "Respect," where, unlike on Aretha Franklin's better-known version, Dunn's bass roams around down below, creating a turbulent bottom-end swirl. His funky bassline on "Hip Hug-Her" arrives with a fuzzy distortion whose presence echoed through funk jams in the decade following its arrival in 1967; it and other Dunn lines foretold the more groove-oriented R&B of the early 1970s as practiced by Curtis Mayfield, Sly & the Family Stone and Funkadelic.
One wonder of music is the often magical ways in which it makes its way through the culture and into our ears. For example, I first heard "Time Is Tight" not through the classic Booker T version, but on "Black Market Clash," the Clash's 1980 EP.
The Clash's version is faster and has a little bit of a post-disco feel to it. I heard it while living just up the Mississippi from Memphis in southern Illinois, and despite the proximity, the song had to travel across the Atlantic and into the ears of a bunch of punks before making its way back to the heartland and denting my consciousness. Ever since, "Time Is Tight" has been one of my jams, a song that I turn up every time it comes on.
And while there's no denying the genius of Jones, Cropper and drummer Al Jackson Jr., one listen to the the spare precision of Dunn on another Booker T classic, "Slim Jenkins' Place," from their 1967 album "Hip Hug-Her," is to appreciate how much the bassist's tone guided the band. It illustrates Dunn's quiet impact -- how a bassist can be a model of restraint while still transforming the entire feel of a song.
-- Randall Roberts
Photo: Booker T & the M.G.'s are seen in a 1970 file photo, from left: Al Jackson Jr., Booker T. Jones, Donald "Duck" Dunn and Steve Cropper. Credit: Associated Press.