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The story of Al Duncan

Al Duncan

Long before I knew his name, I was hooked on Al Duncan’s playing. In the autumn of 1963 the Impressions’ “It’s All Right” came on the radio, with its beautiful drum fills. Over the next couple of years there followed a procession of Curtis Mayfield-written songs by the Impressions and Major Lance, driven — like “Delilah” and “I Need You” — by that very distinctive drumming, so clean and relaxed.

Along with Motown’s Benny Benjamin in Detroit and Stax’s Al Jackson Jr in Memphis, Duncan propelled the cream of mid-’60s soul. Eventually I discovered his name, along with the information that he played a lot of blues, R&B and soul sessions in Chicago for Vee-Jay, Chess and other labels before being supplanted by a younger man, Maurice White (later, of course, the co-founder of Earth Wind & Fire). But I didn’t know anything else until this week, when I bought the new issue of Blues & Rhythm, the fine British monthly magazine, and there he was on the cover.

The story is an interview taped in 1975 in Santa Monica by the writer Bill Greensmith, and never previously published. Duncan talks at length about his entire career, from his early days as an aspirant jazz drummer in Texas and Kansas City, playing with the bandleaders Ernie Fields and Jay McShann, to his collaborations with Mayfield, Little Walter, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed, Willie Dixon, Phil Upchurch and many others, and his move in the 1970s to Los Angeles, where he played with people like Red Holloway but seemingly failed to break into the session scene.

He died on January 3, 1995, aged 68. For me, this interview is priceless testimony from a man whose playing has been part of my life for more than half a century. So thanks, Bill Greensmith, for disinterring it, and to the editors of Blues & Rhythm for not only publishing it but making Al Duncan their cover star.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Richard Harris #

    “I consider Odie Payne and (Fred) Below as the best two drummers we had in that time. You couldn’t skip Al Duncan because Al Duncan was raising hell too in those days. He came in my way after Below and Payne because he came out of Kansas City.” – Willie Dixon, quoted in Drummerworld.

    You’ve now made me want to buy that magazine and read the full interview! Wonderful. And that’s always a fabulous Impressions track, for the drums, vocals and arrangement. AND that “clipped guitar”, Curtis?

    March 23, 2018
  2. mjazzg #

    The Impressions, at the top of their game, peerless

    March 24, 2018
  3. GRAHAM ROBERTS #

    Wonderful interview, lovely magazine – but how sad to learn, in the same issue of ‘Blues and Rhythm’, of the death of Terry Evans, a great singer who graced so many recordings and concerts by Ry Cooder, including a couple of unforgettable gigs I saw at the Hammersmith Odeon in the early 80s.

    Apologies for posting a comment unconnected with your piece on Al Duncan.

    March 26, 2018

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