Donald 'Duck' Dunn: Bassist with Booker T and the MGs and one of Stax Records' 'Big 6'
Tuesday 15 May 2012
A mighty combination of groove and melody, the firm yet fluid bass playing of Donald "Duck" Dunn underpinned many of the Southern soul hits that came out of the Stax stable in the 1960s and early '70s. He backed Otis Redding on "Respect" and "I Can't Turn You Loose", Wilson Pickett on "In The Midnight Hour" and "634-5789 (Soulsville USA)", Sam & Dave on "Hold On! I'm Comin'" and "Soul Man", Eddie Floyd on '"Knock On Wood" and "Raise Your Hand", Albert King on "Born Under A Bad Sign' and Shirley Brown on "Woman To Woman".
In 1965, he joined the Stax house band Booker T & the MGs, and co-wrote and recorded the evergreen instrumentals and mod favourites "Soul Limbo" – the theme tune for BBC television's cricket coverage – "Soul Clap '69" and "Time Is Tight" which all made the UK Top 40. After leaving Stax, he freelanced for some of rock's biggest names, including notable stints with Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart and Neil Young.
In the late 1970s, Dunn and his lifelong friend, the guitarist Steve Cropper, helped John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd add musical authenticity to the Jake and Elwood Blues characters the comedians had created on Saturday Night Live for a series of concerts and best-selling albums. These and The Blues Brothers, the 1980 film directed by John Landis, became a worldwide phenomenon and introduced a new generation to Chicago blues and Memphis soul. Dunn enjoyed his musical and speaking part in the movie and delivered one of its best lines – "We had a band powerful enough to turn goat piss into gasoline". He returned in 1998 for Blues Brothers 2000, again starring Aykroyd with John Goodman as his new sidekick (Belushi had died in 1982).
Born in Memphis in 1941, Dunn owed his nickname to his candy-making father, with whom he watched Donald Duck cartoons on TV. "It was just one of those things that stuck. Most of my school friends and even of a few of my teachers called me Duck," he recalled.
He grew up on the same street as Cropper, who was a month older and more proficient on the guitar. "I started playing bass when I was 16," said Dunn who learned by playing along to records. "I tried the guitar but it had two strings too many. It was too complicated, man!" He bought a cheap Kay bass but moved on to a Fender Precision as soon as he could afford one in 1958. He always used an Ampeg B-15 amplifier and flat wound strings to achieve his distinctive and influential sound. "As the flat wound strings get older, they give more of a thud. They match the kick drum with more of a thud than a tone," he explained. "I like to keep things spontaneous. That's my way of playing. If I make the band smile, I made everybody smile."
His parents didn't exactly approve of music-making as a career, yet he teamed up with Cropper in the Royal Spades, a high school cover band which evolved into The Mar-Keys. In 1961 they scored a national hit with the infectious instrumental "Last Night"', their debut single for Satellite, the precursor of Stax, though Dunn missed the actual session. He then became their first white musician in the big band led by the saxophonist Ben Branch. By late 1963 he was back at Stax, and with Cropper and the drummer Al Jackson, Jr cut another instrumental, "The Honeydripper", subsequently credited to the Van-Dells.
In 1964 he jumped at the chance to replace Lewie Steinberg, the bassist who had co-written and recorded "Green Onions", the debut hit by Booker T & the MGs in 1962, and slotted alongside organist Booker T Jones, Cropper and Jackson to form the classic, racially integrated line-up of the prolific session group. Over the next six years, their instrumental prowess and production skills turned Stax into a soul powerhouse and the MGs and the songwriting team of Isaac Hayes and David Porter became known as the label's "Big 6".
"I would have liked to have been on the road more but the record company wanted us in the studio. We were recording almost a hit a day for a while there," Dunn reflected, though the MGs did travel to Europe in March 1967 to back Redding, Floyd, Sam & Dave, Arthur Conley and Carla Thomas on the Stax/Volt tour. "I never knew how popular that music was until we came to England," said Dunn, who also appeared with Redding at Monterey in 1967. "Us in our mohair green suits, and everybody else in their flower power!"
Following Redding's death in a plane crash in December 1967 and the purchase of Stax by Gulf + Western the next year, the atmosphere at the label changed. Indeed, Booker T & the MGs instrumental reworking of the Beatles' Abbey Road might have been entitled McLemore Avenue in a nod to the famed studio address at 926 East McLemore Avenue in Memphis, but Cropper recorded his guitar overdubs in Los Angeles, and the group made its next album, 1971s Melting Pot, in New York.
Dunn was supposed to defect but he and Jackson stuck around Stax long enough to work with Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis and cut The MGs album without Cropper and Jones in 1973. A planned reformation of the classic MGs line-up was cancelled after Jackson was murdered in October 1975.
The three surviving members made two more MGs albums and billed themselves as Booker T & the MGs when they excelled as the house band for Bob Dylan's 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration at Madison Square Garden in 1992. Guests included several artists Dunn had collaborated with: Richie Havens, Levon Helm of The Band (obituary, 21 April) and Tom Petty.
Booker T & the MGs were inducted into the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 and received a lifetime achievement Grammy Award in 2007. Dunn resigned from Stax before the label's bankruptcy in 1975 but felt the financial rewards didn't match his contribution. "I always look back and say I should have made more," he said. "It should have been more lucrative, but it wasn't. We were cheated a little bit. But with the music and what I learned ... it doesn't matter. I have no regrets."
Dunn was semi-retired but still performed occasionally. He died after a double show with Cropper and Floyd at the Blue Note club in Tokyo.
Donald Dunn, bassist, songwriter and producer: born Memphis, Tennessee 24 November 1941; married (one son); died Tokyo 13 May 2012.
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