This drummer is one of less than a half-dozen key studio legends from the '50s and '60s who have sometimes been called "the grandfathers of groove." They are basically the forefathers of all modern timekeeping in rhythm & blues music or any nuts from its branches. Chicago's Chess Records was the most famous, but not the only homeground for these drummers. It is aesthetically possible to own a superb electric blues collection with only sides on which Al Duncan plays drums. But it would be a technical impossibility, because most of the album releases of vintage material from blues giants such as Little Walter, John Lee Hooker, or Jimmy Reed were not originally recorded as full sets featuring a single band. Accordingly, our man is usually featured as one of several drummers. There is no loss in quality between an Al Duncan and a Fred Below in any case. This is blues mastery, these are the Old Testament of blues drum feels and simply the way blues drumming is supposed to sound, despite the tendencies newer generations of drummers have to get busier and busier. In the case of Duncan, it is a wide terrain indeed as it includes the agitated, aggressive punch of Buddy Guy, as well as the ultra-relaxed, swinging feel of late-period Reed, by which time the leader's son, Jimmy Reed Jr., was rounding out the rhythm section on bass. Another one of the drummer's most-famous session partners is bassist Phil Upchurch. Duncan also had a presence on doo wop and gospel sessions, bringing some of this feel into his blues projects, such as the wonderful Reed track "Shame Shame Shame" cut in 1962. It is not a long way from this feel to that of the soul group the Impressions, with whom Duncan drummed in early days. Thirty years later, he was still going strong as part of the Rob WassermanTrios project. Combined for an interesting track with Wasserman and yet another old rhythm section mate, bassist and songwriter Willie Dixon, it would turn out to be one of the drummer's final recordings.
He was born with the amazingly prophetic although uncommon name of Alrock Duncan; no one would deny that the one thing his drum tracks have in common is that they all rock. He was one of the regular drummers in the employ of bandleader Al Smith, an enterprising soul whose efforts spanned the imaginary barriers between blues and jazz music in Chicago in the '50s. Eventually, many of the players working for Smith defected to the new Vee-Jay label in the mid-'50s. Duncan was the first choice drummer in housebands under the direction of guitarist Lefty Bates, also featuring players such as saxophonist Red Holloway and pianist Horace Palm. There is no exaggerating the amount of musical activity that took place involving players such as this on the Chicago scene up until rock & roll's death punch. Multiple recording sessions in a day followed by a three or four set club gig, winding up at an after hour's jam session; this might have been a typical day at the beach for Duncan, and as a result avoiding him on any walk along the urban blues shoreline is about as impossible as not getting any sand on your feet. Blues fans can speculate about what might represent his best grain of playing, but one choice for sessions deserving of wider recognition would be the early-'60s sides by vocalist Billy "the Kid" Emerson. The drummer's six-string shooting sidekicks for these recordings include the late Roy Buchanan and the "Suzie Q" man, Dale Hawkins. Drummers also rave about the brushwork on sides by the not-too-well-known vocalist Camille Howard, such as "Rock and Roll Mama." Duncan also had a bit of a career off the drum set as a songwriter, including numbers such as "It's Too Late, Brother," which has remained a blues bar band staple. While he could have avoided confusion completely if he had left his first name Alrock, the drummer hasn't done too badly in terms of other Al Duncans fuzzing up the details of his career. The obscure rockabilly dude who led a combo called the Twisters and made singles such as "Bawana Jinde" and "Gossip" is a different guy, as is the Al Duncan who was a background singer for the Sons of the Pioneers. ~ Eugene Chadbourne