Donald "Duck" Dunn: An Appreciation
Dunn alongside Steve Cropper – photo by Dino Perrucci
There is something especially poignant about the fact that Donald “Duck” Dunn, the legendary Booker T. and the M.G.’s bassist, who passed away yesterday in Japan, died so far from his hometown of Memphis. He had just finished playing two shows at the Blue Note in Tokyo, according to Steve Cropper, his best friend and band mate. In other words, Dunn was doing the same thing he had done nearly a half-century earlier, when he and other members of the absurdly talented Stax family set off for a tour of Europe in the late 1960s. As of this past weekend, he was still flying around the world, personally delivering deep-fried Southern soul.
If you haven’t seen it already, the Stax/Volt Revue footage from an April 7, 1967 show in Norway should be your first stop in a memorial tour for Dunn. Trim, clean-shaven, and looking like he was plucked out of high school Chemistry class, Dunn, nevertheless, had a booming sound that filled the room. He and the MGs’ drummer, Al Jackson Jr., propel the band a scorching version of “Green Onions” before the Stax horns (The Mar-Keys) and an all-star lineup singers (Eddie Floyd, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding) file onto the stage. The evening ends with a drawn out version of “Try a Little Tenderness” which, understandably, sends the auditorium to the brink of anarchy.
As a bassist, Dunn was not known for the mind-bursting virtuosity of a Jaco Pastorius or a Victor Wooten. He was a studio musician, not a star — a man who simply showed up, plugged in, and cut some of the greatest songs ever recorded. “Man, we were recording almost a hit a day for a while there,” he once said. He wasn’t exaggerating. That’s Dunn at the bottom of Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” That’s Dunn, laying the scaffolding for Wilson Pickett’s raspy wails on “The Midnight Hour.” That’s Dunn, shoring up the rising chorus of Sam & Dave’s “Hold on, I’m Coming.” That’s Dunn on Johnny Taylor’s, “Who’s Makin’ Love,” Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood,” and Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign.”
Flip on the radio today and you’ll probably to hear a few sincere dedications of the MG’s “Green Onions,” in Dunn’s honor. That won’t be appropriate, in the strictest sense. Though he played the song hundreds of times onstage, Dunn he wasn’t there in those famous moments of downtime when the band stumbled on that divine groove. The bass credit for that track goes to his predecessor, Lewie Steinberg.
A better tribute to the man would be any of the tunes from when Booker T. and the M.G.’s stepped out from behind the studio became a marquee act in their own right. These guys simply didn’t record bad songs. Their gritty, stripped-down aesthetic wouldn’t allow it. Dunn wields his bass like a shovel in many of these tunes, digging a trench in the first beat of the measure to create the lurching funk of “Hip Hug-Her” and “Booker Loo.” In other songs, like “Melting Pot” and “Time is Tight,” he plods along patiently while the organ and guitar swirl to ecstatic crescendos above him.
Dunn was perhaps at his best when steering the band through of songs written by other artists. The M.G.’s were not only the greatest house band of all time, they were also one the greatest cover bands. They kept their ears trained to the radio through the 60s and 70s, plucking songs that caught their interest and Stax-ifiying them with a formula of slower tempos, Booker T.’s greasy organ, Cropper’s firebrand guitar, and Dunn’s sledgehammer bass. Listen to the way they take the Beatles’ “Day Tripper” – a clean, peppy, candy bar of a song – and churn out something recognizable, but entirely distinct. The catalog of these covers is expansive, from “Wade in the Water” to “Mrs. Robinson” to, my personal favorite, the theme song from the Clint Eastwood western, Hang ‘Em High.
In addition to his career with the M.G.’s, I haven’t even mentioned Dunn’s second career backing up Elvis, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Freddie King, and a list of other musicians that reads like a guest list for a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame banquet. But I’ll let Eric Clapton, Neil Young, and any of the other artists whom Dunn played with to speak to that in the upcoming days.
For now, I’ll just say rest in peace, Duck. Bassist. Pipe-smoking ensemble player in the Blues Brothers. And esteemed American ambassador to Norway and Japan.
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