Donald 'Duck' Dunn: Bassist with Booker T and the MGs and one of Stax Records' 'Big 6'

 

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
News
election 2015
Sport
Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates his goal for Real Madrid against Juventus
football
Voices
Ed Miliband and David Cameron are neck and neck in the polls
voicesArmando Iannucci: on how British politics is broken
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)
film
Life and Style
Great minds like Einstein don't think alike
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
health
News
Fans take a selfie with Ed Miliband in Kempston, near Bedford, on Tuesday
election 2015
News
science
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
News
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
people
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: IT Support Engineer - Leeds

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Support Engineer - Leeds This i...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Bristol

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

Guru Careers: Project Manager / Business Analyst

£40-50k + Benefits.: Guru Careers: A Project Manager / Business Analyst is nee...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power