LOS ANGELES — As the bass player on dozens of the most soulful hits in the history of pop music, Donald “Duck” Dunn often found himself out on the road playing to fans who had assumed he was black like the stars he supported, notably Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Sam & Dave.
When audiences encountered a white bassist in the lineup, “A lot of people thought I was a pick-up bass player — they thought Duck Dunn was a black guy who couldn’t make the tour for some reason,” Dunn told an interviewer in 2005 about his best-known role as bassist for Booker T. & the MG’s, which had a string of instrumental hits apart from its status as the house band at Stax Records in Memphis.
“In Europe they’d ask me, ‘What’s it like to play with a black man?’ I never knew what to say; we didn’t think that way — we just played,” Dunn said. “We got the soul sound by blending our country and blues influences. I grew up with the Grand Ole Opry. When we mixed that feel with the blues, we got something new.”
Dunn was still playing that infectious blend of country, gospel, blues and rock with his longtime partner in the MG’s, guitarist Steve Cropper, in Tokyo last week when he died May 13 in his sleep at age 70. They had just completed 10 shows over five days with their Stax Revue. The shows had been postponed after last year’s earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan.
Dunn’s son, Jeff, said Monday that his father had complained to his wife, June, about not feeling well but thought it was no more than jet lag from the long trip to Japan.
“Today I lost my best friend, the world has lost the best guy and bass player to ever live,” Cropper wrote on his Facebook page.
MG’s leader and organist Booker T. Jones said Monday, “He was always there — Duck was very dependable and very steady, and that’s a good quality in a bass player. He wasn’t one to jump up and play solos on the bass. He was a background player, but at the same time he stood out.”
Booker T. & the MG’s were on the charts consistently for nearly a decade, putting 18 instrumental hits into the Billboard Top 100, from their first, “Green Onions,” in 1962, through their final appearance in 1971 with “Melting Pot.” Dunn came into the lineup after “Green Onions” established the group as a hit-making entity on its own (Lewis Steinberg was the original bassist), but Dunn cemented the lineup that continued until drummer Al Jackson Jr. was shot to death in 1975.
“When you look at all the bass players for Motown and Atlantic, the guys from Chicago, all the top bass players — when you start calling the names of all the top bass players, you’re not going to end the conversation without calling the name of Donald “Duck” Dunn,” singer Sam Moore said from London on Monday.
“Other players got more notoriety than Duck, but he could do things with the bass that maybe Larry Graham or Willie Weeks or Chuck Rainey or James Jamerson couldn’t do,” Moore said. “And he made it so simple, but you always knew he was there.”
It wasn’t unusual for Dunn’s bass lines to lead the way when the MG’s went to record. His sinuous, pulsing notes set a foreboding tone in their hit rendition of “Hang ‘Em High,” the theme from the 1968 western starring Clint Eastwood. His funky, hopping rhythmic melody line is featured at the start of the MG’s’ 1967 hit “Hip Hug-Her.” And Dunn nimbly doubled Cropper’s signature guitar lead on the propulsive “Time Is Tight,” adding low-end muscle to the song’s insistent groove.
Donald Dunn was born Nov. 24, 1941, in Memphis and got his nickname early on from the hours he spent watching Donald Duck cartoons with his father. He met future band mate Cropper in high school, where they teamed up with saxophonist Don Nix and played together as the Royal Spades.
Dunn, Cropper and Nix were soon joined by trumpeter Wayne Jackson, keyboardist Jerry Lee “Smoochie” Smith, drummer Terry Johnson and tenor saxophonist Charles Axton, changing the name of the band to the Mar-Keys, which scored a Top 10 hit with their 1961 instrumental “Last Night.”
“We were a little band making a little money, and we thought we were pretty hot,” said Wayne Jackson, who with saxophonist Andrew Love also was a signature part of countless recordings made at Stax. “Duck was a natural musician, and he was a great bass player. He played very melodically, and the rhythm stuff he did, he sort of held the rhythm section up by the lapels.”
After touring for three years without landing a follow-up hit, Dunn went back to Memphis and took Steinberg’s place in the MG’s, which had become the house band at Stax Records, playing on recordings for its growing stable of R&B and soul singers. The records that came out of Stax during the ’60s typically featured a grittier, funkier brand of R&B than the smooth, urbane sound favored in Detroit by Motown Records founder Berry Gordy.
Dunn and the rest of the MG’s figured prominently on Stax hits such as Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour,” Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” and Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Coming” and “Soul Man.”
Sam & Dave directly inspired John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd’s Blues Brothers comedy sketch on “Saturday Night Live.” The pair drafted Dunn and Cropper onto the big screen when they expanded the sketch into a feature film in 1977, saluting many of the R&B and soul greats they admired.
“That may have started as a joke,” Dunn told Bass Player magazine in 2005, “but we got a really good band together, and we got a lot of people interested in going back to the old records.”
Still, the Blues Brothers shtick rankled many R&B and soul music aficionados, some viewing their platinum-selling recordings as a pale imitation of the original sound they were mimicking.
But Dunn defended Aykroyd and Belushi, saying in an interview last year that they had “opened the doors for a lot of people that weren’t being thought of anymore. And I love that, because I just love to play for people. It is fun to, and I still think we can produce and play pretty much like we could.”
Booker T. & the MG’s were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 and recorded and toured with other Hall of Fame members including Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Tom Petty. In recent years, Dunn was semi-retired and lived with his wife near their son in Sarasota, Fla., but also played occasionally when Booker T. would reconvene the MG’s, or with Cropper and Stax singer Eddie Floyd in the Stax Revue.
“With age, I’ve lost some speed,” Dunn said last year, “but that is OK. I was always more about groove than speed.”
In addition to his wife and son, Dunn is survived by a grandson, Michael, named after Dunn’s other son, who died in a car accident in 1983.
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