Stax Bassist Duck Dunn Remembered In Memphis

May 14, 2012
Originally published on September 18, 2012 2:49 pm

Donald "Duck" Dunn played bass with Booker T. and the MGs, who backed many of the hits Stax Records put out in the 1960s. He was 70 years old when he died Sunday in Tokyo. At the audio link, you can listen to a remembrance of Dunn's life and career that aired on All Things Considered.

For the third time in a month, the marquee at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music is eulogizing a fallen alumnus: On April 12, it read "R.I.P. Andrew Love." May 1, it marked the death of wah-wah guitarist Skip Pitts. Today, it pays tribute to Duck Dunn, the bassist who, as a member of Booker T. and the MGs, laid the foundation for so many of the hit records that put Stax on the map.

Although I've lived in Memphis since the mid-1980s, I came late to the MGs. I knew Dunn first from The Blues Brothers; despite the fact that I'd heard songs like "In the Midnight Hour" and "Try A Little Tenderness" thousands of times, I was a straggler to the party that is Memphis soul. Anchored by equal parts blues, country, gospel and jazz, Memphis soul music is more fatback than lean, typified as "gutbucket" in comparison with its sophisticated counterparts in Philly or Detroit. Dunn's finger-poppin' instrumental oeuvre — created with guitarist Steve Cropper, drummer Al Jackson Jr. and organist Booker T. Jones — led, in a roundabout way, to my career as a freelance music journalist.

Interviewing musicians made for an incredibly fun gig, but it was also nerve-racking to ask tough questions of my idols. Calling Dunn was easy — like talking to a neighbor who just happened to be a living link to the world beyond the microcosm of the Memphis soul scene, a compatriot of The Beatles and Neil Young. Dunn was a source I relied on. We'd talk fishing, then make an easy segue into the topic of the moment: Jerry Wexler, the revival of Stax Records, Otis' legacy, or the mysteries of Dylan. When it came to music history, Dunn was the uncomplicated, almost goofy man in the midst of the maelstrom, and he always offered an unfettered point of view.

"The Beatles came to the club we were playing in, the Bag O'Nails in London, and bowed to us," Dunn remembered with a chuckle when I quizzed him about the Stax-Volt Revue's triumphant 1967 European tour. "It made me feel like a million dollars, I guess. To tell you the truth, when the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan, the Dave Clark Five appeared the following week, and I turned to my wife and said, 'Now there's a good band.' She was going crazy over the Beatles, and I didn't want to like them."

Simplifying my conversations with Dunn was the fact that he was one of us: a Memphis boy who, even though he had long ago relocated to South Florida, could often be spotted at a table at Pete & Sam's. He was also my friend Melissa's uncle, which made him even more accessible. On a higher plane, Dunn's success as the member of an apolitical, integrated band helped to overcome our city's troubled past. Thanks in part to the MGs' grit and grind through the tumultuous '60s, 30 years later I could happily dance my ass off in a sea of black and white audience members while Melissa's Uncle Duck bobbed up and down onstage, the neck of his electric bass swaying with the beat.

The last time I talked to Dunn, I was writing liner notes for a reissue project on Packy Axton, who played sax with him in his high school band, The Mar-Keys. For the first time, it was a difficult phone call to make — I was consciously digging up old memories of Axton, an alcoholic who died at the tender age of 32. Dunn was distracted. His wife, June, was undergoing cancer treatment, and he didn't have time or energy to revisit that chapter of his past. We talked about Melissa, and about which fish were biting, then he gently suggested I try him again in a month. We didn't reconnect, but June went into remission and Dunn was able to get back on the road, most recently for a stint in Tokyo with Cropper and soul singer Eddie Floyd.

Most Memphians were asleep when Cropper tweeted the bad news from Japan, but by Sunday morning, the city's musicians were in mourning.

After a monthlong heat wave, the weather had turned unseasonably chilly. Clouds hung low as Marty Speak and Joshua Greenlee, the facilities crew at the Stax Museum, updated the marquee that overlooks the intersection where the MGs once re-enacted the cover photograph of Abbey Road. Friends and fans took to the Internet, posting videos on Facebook and stories on the comments page for the Commercial Appeal obituary that was hastily written.

No word yet on whether or not there will be a public service for Dunn, but it's more fitting to see him praised in the clubs rather than from a pulpit or a funeral parlor. "I love to play live," Dunn once told me. "That's the reason most musicians play. It's just fun seeing people liking what you do."

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Today, we mark the passing of a musician whose bass line laid down the groove for countless hits in the 1960s and on.


Bass player Donald Dunn - known as Duck, as in Donald Duck Dunn - died this past weekend. Dunn and his bandmates in Booker T. and the MGs made up the rhythm section as Stax Records in Memphis.


BLOCK: Behind Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Albert King or Sam and Dave, you could hear the syncopated bass belonging to Dunn.


SAM AND DAVE: (Singing) ...river of trouble, your about to drown. Hold on. I'm coming. Hold on. I'm coming...

SIEGEL: Duck Dunn was born in Memphis. He started playing in clubs and joined a number of bands, crossing color lines. Dunn told an interviewer in 2007 that when he joined the Ben Branch Big Band in 1962, he was the first white guy in the musicians union in Memphis to be in a black band.


DONALD DUNN: My brother-in-law was a captain on the police department, and he said, just be careful. And I said, well, I will be. But all - everyone of those guys - even when they played in the club at night, they were - 85 percent of them, except for maybe me and the drummer - they were all high school musical teachers. And, man, that's the greatest lesson I ever learned in my life playing. How can anything wrong? You know, they just took me on their wing, and God love them.

BLOCK: In the mid '60s, Dunn's old friend Steve Cropper invited him to join Booker T. and the MGs. And Dunn continued on as a studio musician in Memphis, and later in Los Angeles. He backed singers and bands who were looking for that Southern soul sound: Rod Stewart, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty.


SIEGEL: Dunn was a true session musician. He largely stayed in the background. But his fame got a bump when he played himself in a movie.

BLOCK: Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi had formed The Blues Brothers Band as part of a "Saturday Night Live" sketch in 1978. They used real-life soul musicians, including Dunn and Cropper from the MGs. In 1980, they released "The Blues Brothers" movie.

SIEGEL: In this scene, they're trying to get the band back together, and the players are skeptical. Then Dunn speaks up.


DUNN: (as Himself) Jake ain't lying, though. We had a band powerful enough time to turn goat piss into gasoline.

BLOCK: And Dunn was powerful enough to keep performing until this weekend. He was on tour with Steve Cropper in Tokyo when he died in his hotel room. Donald Duck Dunn was 70 years old.


JOHN BELUSHI: (Singing) Coming to you on a dusty road, good loving - I've got a truckload. And when you get it, you got something. So don't worry, 'cause I'm coming. I'm a soul man. I'm a soul man. I'm a soul man.

SIEGEL: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.