SKF NOTE: This backgrounder phone interview with drummer Al Duncan is among several I did for a multi-part Modern Drummer feature series, The History of Rock Drumming. The entire interview is published here for the first time. And you can read more of the background story to the series here.
I was interested in speaking with Al Duncan because I knew — from printed sources and from other musicians, like Willie Dixon — that Mr. Duncan had played on several early rock recording sessions for Chess Records and Motown.
A quick Google search today shows Al Duncan on records by The Orioles, The Spaniels, The Dells, Little Junior Parker, Priscilla Bowman, Dee Clark, The Falcons, The El Dor ados, among many others. Thank you to the internet discographers for doing yeoman’s work filling in these blanks.
The Chess brothers were Phil and Leonard. Leonard produced the Chess records recording sessions I had in mind during this interview. He is the “Chess” referred to by last name only in this interview. Now, since Al Duncan and I never clarified which Chess brother we were talking about — my assumption was we were both talking about Leonard.
Final points. First, I cannot find a photo of Al Duncan! If someone will be so kind as to email me one I will include it in this post. Second, the language here is coarse in spots, but I’m leaving the transcript intact. Forewarned is forearmed.
Scott K Fish: Could you tell me about your contribution to the music that came out of the ‘40s and ‘50s? Particularly your involvement with the Chess sessions?
Al Duncan: Well…. If I can think of it! It’s been so damn long ago, man. The little shit I can remember — I’d be glad to do it. I was involved with quite a few of them.
SKF: I don’t want to depend on hearsay or liner notes. So, could you run down the musicians you were involved with?
AD: Recording-wise or working?
SKF: Both. Mainly recording, but also performing.
AD: My era started around 1958 or ’59 when I came to Chicago from Kansas City. I came there with Jay McShann’s Orchestra. We had just put out a hit called Hands Off in 1955 and we went and made a tour. And when we got back to Chicago I spoke to some people — that was when Vee-J ay Records was just getting started. And Chess records was just getting started. I got in on practically all the beginning Vee-Jay rock records — and most of Chess’s beginning stuff. Then I just freelanced all the way with just about every company you could name. I did something for somebody, you know?
Then I would up in the Regal Theater with Red Saunders Orchestra as the house drummer. I’d sit there for two-and-a-half to three years. And everybody that had a hit record at that time came through there. I played with just about everybody you can name back in them days.
I kept freelancing. A lot of companies wanted me to come with them like Maurice White, Morris Jennings, [Fred] Below, and all of them cats. They worked with different companies as house drummers. And I kept freelancing.
About that time, for a ten year span, Chicago was pretty well known for it’s recording studios. So, a lot of artists, instead of going to New York or California, they’d come to Chicago. I recorded for just about every known label that out at the time.
In 1970 I left and came out here [Los Angeles] and I’ve been kind of quiet since then. I’m gigging now, but I’m in school taking advanced theory and harmony and percussion at LACC [Los Angeles Community College]. I took kind of a vacation from the scene, but I’m ready to come back now.
SKF: Willie Dixon told me he thought you were on some of the Chess Chuck Berry sessions.
AD: I didn’t do too much for Chuck. I worked with Chuck, but I didn’t do too much recording with him. I can’t remember who Chuck’s [session] drummer was. I did a couple of things with him, but I’m not sure what they was.
I did so many things at that time that I can’t remember none from the other.
But I did a whole lot of stuff with Willie Dixon. And a lot of them people that I was recording [with] — I didn’t even know their names. Back in those days I was pretty busy. I’d go in the sessions, do the session, and I’d just leave out of one studio into another. From one place to another. And a lot of these people I recorded, I don’t even remember who they were.
A lot of them that didn’t quite make it big. Just kind of mediocre like. Then a lot of them didn’t make it at all.
SKF: If you were playing with Jay McShann, would it be safe to say you came from a jazz background?
AD: Oh yeah. I’m a jazz drummer. But, I play both of them, you know? I prefer jazz. But, I kind of got off on the rock thing and it was paying off, so I stuck with it. I worked with [Count] Basie and Duke [Ellington] and all the cats for a short while.
But, most of the stuff that I did around Chicago was all with the rock cats. I mean, being in the Regal Theater I did The Miracles, The Temptations, and all of them. Marvin Gaye. Everybody came through there. Back in those days they had the Black theaters for the Black artists who had to work the Black circuit.
By me being the house drummer at the Regal Theater, just about everyone you could name came through there.
SKF: Those artists wouldn’t come through with their own bands?
AD: Some of them would. None of them hardly had their own bands. Most of them had their own rhythm section. Most artists would have to have somebody to kind of direct the band. I recorded The Miracles and The Temptations and just about all of them cats on their very first recordings.
See, Berry Gordy, on his first recordings, he made his masters in Chicago. Before he got his studio he did most of his masters in Chicago and took them back to Detroit to peddle them. Then, after he had a few hits out and got ahold of some money, he built his own studio. But most of the first artists were really recorded in Chicago. I was on these sessions with Smokey [Robinson] and all them cats.
So I did all of them things.
SKF: Do you remember what records you did with Wolf?
AD: No I don’t. I can’t name the name of nothing. (laughs). The only thing I remember that stays in my mind was John Lee Hooker with Boom, Boom, Boom.
I did most of Etta James’ first stuff, but I don’t remember what the name of the tunes was. I didn’t have time, man, at that time. I was working around the clock doing the theater, doing sessions. I was making a lot of money back in them days.
SKF: It’s sad, in a sense, because there was so much great drumming on those records. And who knows who the drummers were?
AD: Well, see, back in those days they didn’t list musicians. They listed them on jazz records. But, on rock records they didn’t’ list the musicians. In fact, they didn’t put nothing on the record but the name of the artist and the name of the cat that wrote the tune. Back in them days they didn’t even tell who the producer was! Or the engineer! Because it was mostly 45s. And they didn’t take the time to put the name of nobody on nothing. Just the name of the artist and the name of the person that wrote the tune.
AD: Well, it wasn’t so much the ideas. Because back in those days everything was just left up to the drummer. It was all total creation in those blues things, of course. I read music, but them cats, most of them didn’t read. Most of that stuff was just left to their own creativity. Below, Odie, and all them cats — it was just left up to them as to what they thought. And the cats had great big ears, man! And they had the blues feeling. So they could hear something and just about adapt to what it should be just by total creation. On the spot.
SKF: You were on some Sonny Boy Williamson dates with some pretty big horn bands. Were there rehearsals or charts for those dates?
AD: Yeah, they did.
Now, here’s what would happen: Johnny Pate and Riley Hampton — and all of them different arrangers around there — they would make arrangements. They go in the studio and they’d have competent musicians when they were going to use horns and things. There weren’t too many horns on the blues things. But, on the other things, they went into the strings bit.
There’s a lot to be told about the Chicago story. Nobody’s seemed to every been interested in it. Most of the time the stuff was left up to the creativity of the rhythm section. They’d give them cats a skeleton guide. And you go by that and do what you feel. If there was some specific thing, then it would be stipulated musically. But most of the blues stuff was just strict impromptu stuff.
They wouldn’t just go in the studio cold. They would have rehearsals in somebody’s house, down in the basement. And they’d rehearse it and get it down and then they’d go in the studio and record it.
And the cats had big ears and a good memory. When they’d go in the studio the arrangement might not be on paper. But it was in the cats’ heads. And they’d go in the studio and record it.
SKF: What was it like at the Chess Studios?
AD: Chess progressed very rapidly. He started out in a garage. In a barn, really. Then he left there and moved to Michigan Avenue into a building. At that time, Michigan Avenue was Record Row. He moved into a building and stayed there on 21st and Michigan in a little small building. He had two studios up there. And he hung right there, man, and just got rich as hell.
Then he turned around buying an eight-story fucking building. The cat was a genius. At one time, the way Chess was going, he was just about to have a musical record monopoly. He did everything from discovering the artists, to developing them and recording them, to playing them on his own stations, his own distribution and everything.
There’s a hell of a story behind Chess, man. There’s a good story behind Vee-Jay.
SKF: Was Chess an easy man to work for?
AD: Chess had a way of adapting. See, I think he was a Jew, you know, and he had a way of adapting to get himself to get pulling out of the Black musicians what they had. Because when he was around Black people he acted Black. He knew all of the different things that the Black people did and they way they’d think and everything. So, he was just like another brother — although he was the boss.
But, like, you’d go in the studio [and] he’s just another brother. You know, it’s “Hey, motherfucker. Get your shit together.” One of them things, Scott. He was a cool cat in that area.
SKF: So, bandleaders liked working for him?
AD: There was no hassle. Chess had his own family. He had a way of doing things. See, in the beginning Chess did the shit himself. Then as he made money and progressed he hired people to do it for him. Engineers and all that stuff. But when we first started out there in the garage, man, he just had a little old four-track, man, and he was doing the shit himself.
Between him and Willie Dixon…. Willie Dixon was the genius behind all of the blues shit. Somebody should really take that cat and put him on the front page of every major United States paper, man. Because Willie Dixon has created more shit in the blues idiom than any one man that I know. The story’s never been told. But, if the story of Willie Dixon was told, that would be fantastic. He’s a blues genius, man.
SKF: If Willie Dixon was on a date, would he take control? Even when he wasn’t the bandleader?
AD: Willie was the man. Most of the stuff that all those artists was doing was Willie’s stuff. He wrote the shit. You understand? So naturally he would have control.
Like, some of the blues cats would come in there and they would have tunes that they wrote. Everybody recorded their own shit. And they would have tunes that they wrote and Willie Dixon would be the one that would take it and put the arrangement behind it.
And all of that shit was done orally. There was no [written] music. It was, “You do this and you do that.” And just add what you feel, and keep your ears open and think of what you’re doing.
We’d go in there and do a tune and everybody knew what they wanted to do just from memory.
SKF: How was it different working for Berry Gordy and Chess?
AD: I never really worked with Berry Gordy. Berry Gordy always had different arrangers from Chicago do arrangements for him. Or he would send his arrangers. They would get the shit together in Detroit the same way that we did in Chicago in the beginning. then they would come to Chicago. Because Chicago had Universal Studios, and most of the Motown stuff was done at Universal and RCA Victor.
When they’d get the time, they got their shit together. And Johnny Pate or some other arranger would throw the charts out there and we’d play the charts.
SKF: So, with the Motown stuff you would use charts?
AD: Yeah. But, Berry Gordy did very little of the directing, himself, in Chicago when we were doing it. He’d get the shit together in Detroit and then when they’d get to Chicago, they’d just record it. It was quite a thing.
SKF: Did you have to change your style when you shifted from playing the way you were playing in Kansas City to playing rock and blues?
AD: No, I never changed, because I’m a versatile drummer. I had to condition my mind because I love to play drums, and I learned the old-timey way to play all kinds of drums. All phases of them.
There were instances where I’d have three or four recording sessions in a day. And I’d go in the studio and maybe I might be doing a blues artist with this session. The next session I might be doing a gospel group. I recorded all them gospel groups, too. Then I might go and do a jazz thing with Ahmad Jamal or some of them cats. I might would leave that and go in with Dave Carroll and do some commercials.
So I had to learn how to condition my mind to play all styles. But, when I was in a studio for one session, I would totally involve myself in that type of thing. Then I’d just have to leave it there and go in another studio and just start all over again.
There wasn’t too many drummers that was doing that sort of thing — versatile type stuff — that was making it. But, I was making it in all different areas. I was playing jazz gigs and recording blues stuff, playing rock gigs and recording gospel stuff. I was working the Regal Theater in front of five to six thousand people with all the different artists. Then I would do recording sessions and I was doing miscellaneous engagements. Working around the clock for eight to ten years.
I was a young man. I was alert then. I started doing a lot of that stuff when I was about 30 years old. And it lasted about ten years. I’m 54 now.
SKF: Why did you stop?
AD: I just got totally disgusted, man. I got musically disgusted. I hung up for almost four years. I gave away everything I had, musicaly, man. Just, “Fuck it!” I said, “Forget it.”
But it came back and I said, “What the hell.” So here I am again.
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