Donald 'Duck' Dunn's Quiet, Sweeping Influence

The late bassist, famous for his work at Stax Records, left a mark on nearly every genre of pop music.

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The bassist usually doesn't get much attention. Occasionally, a flashy player hogs the spotlight with slapping, popping, and soloing, but it's usually just a quiet guy holding down the low end and staying out of the way. For many listeners, Duck Dunn probably seemed like the latter sort of rudimentary player. That's probably the way he would have had it, too. But it would be a mistake to think of Dunn, who died in his sleep at 70 Sunday, as a background player. In fact, he is probably the most influential bassist of the last 50 years, with an impact in every pop genre save country.

Even if you've never heard of Dunn, you've heard a lot of his playing. That's him easing into Otis Redding's "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay." Those are his monster arpeggios chugging along under Wilson Pickett's "Midnight Hour." It's his syncopation at the bottom of Sam and Dave's "Hold On, I'm Comin'." And that's him in The Blues Brothers, too. As a member of Booker T. and the MG's, the house band at Stax, he played on most of the great Memphis soul hits. (Ironically, though, he didn't play on the band's most famous tune, "Green Onions"—he joined the band two years after it was recorded.) His most obvious peer was James Jamerson, a long-standing member of the Motown backing band. But Jamerson was melodic and intricate, relying on subtle passing notes and elaborate syncopation. Dunn was a riff-master, staying close to the triad of each cord and sticking to the bottom of the register. It's much simpler, but it's never blunt or bludgeoning.

But it's not just the inevitable head-bopping that accompanies the classic Stax sides that makes Dunn an immortal. It's his influence. Chalk it up to the MG's serving as a melting pot (to borrow the name of the band's 1971 hit, which features one of Dunn's greatest lines). Through the 1950s, black and white musicians increasingly borrowed from one another, with artists from each race recording the same songs (most often squarer versions by white artists of tracks originally recorded by black musicians). Record-buying patterns had begun to change, too, with people like Chuck Berry attracting white listeners.

The Beatles' "Taxman" centers around Paul McCartney doing his best impression of Dunn's repetitive bass riffs.

Still, the group was a serious rarity as an integrated band. Dunn and guitarist Steve Cropper, his childhood friend, were white; keyboardist Booker T. Jones and drummer Al Jackson were black. It gave the band a wider range of influences than the average soul group: Cropper and Dunn were a little bit country, an attribute they showed in their convincing Blues Brothers rendition of "Rawhide." It also gave them a wider audience, bringing soul music—the grittier, greasier Memphis version, no less—to white listeners as well as black ones.

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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