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As a member of Rock'n'Roll Hall Of Famers Booker T. & The MGs, Donald "Duck" Dunn was house bass player at the legendary Soul/R'n'B label, Stax, where his meaty playing helped define one of the most distinctive and enduring sounds in popular music. Among the timeless recordings Dunn held down the bottom end of, are Respect, Dock Of The Bay and I've Been Loving You Too Long, by Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett's In The Midnight Hour, and Hold On I'm Coming by Sam and Dave, not to mention sessions with Neil Young, Eric Clapton and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Dunn kept the classic Stax sound alive and kicking as part of The Blues Brothers Band. Originally hand picked by John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd - the Jake and Elwood characters in cult film, The Blues Brothers.
"I like to keep things spontaneous," said Dunn of their live show. "That's my way of playing. Even though we were playing the same songs every night I like to think I can change it a little bit and use my input or creativity or whatever in any way that makes the band feel better. If I make the band smile, I make everybody smile."
Born in Memphis in late November, 1941, Dunn was given his nickname by his father as the two watched a Donald Duck cartoon on TV. "It was just one of those things that stuck," he recalls. "Most of my school friends and even a few of my teachers called me Duck."
Although a grandfather he never knew played fiddle, there was no music in Duck's immediate family. "My father was a candy maker. He made peppermints and hard candies. He didn't want me to go into the music industry. He thought I would become a drug addict and die. Most parents in those days thought music was a pastime; something you did as a hobby, not a profession." Duck tried to conform: "I worked for my dad in the candy factory for a while. I also had a job with an electrical company repairing long range air raid sirens." In his heart, though, Dunn always knew where his talents lay. I picked up a ukulele when I was about 10 and I started playing bass when I was 16. I tried the guitar but it had two strings too many. It was just too complicated, man! Plus, I grew up with Steve Cropper. There were so many good guitar players another one wasn't needed. What was needed was a bass. I mostly learned just by listening to records. I don't know how to explain it but I knew if I could do it, I'd be good at it! My first bass was a new Kay, one of the cheaper models."
And, of course, it was slightly less than Duck wanted. Smiling at the memory, he adds: "When I used to look in the music store windows and see the Fenders hanging there, I was like a kid at Christmas. The Kay was fine but you knew if you could get your hands on a Fender you would do better. I bought my first Fender in '58 and I still have it at home. I lost it once and I got it back," he pauses. "It's a Precision, with a maple neck. I just always took it for granted, never worried about the setting or action. It was a Fender, man, I didn't care!"
Influenced by blues and R&B stars like BB King and Ray Charles, Dunn and Cropper formed their first band, The Royal Spades, in high school. "The name came from poker; a royal spade flush," explains Duck. "We played anything from Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard to Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley stuff. We were a white band trying to play rhythm and blues music, kinda the first in Memphis to do that. We used to play for, like, five dollars and a few free beers. It was just a joy to play."
The Royal Spades evolved into the Mar-Keys, who had a hit with Last Night soon after Dunn graduated from high school. Cropper subsequently left the band to become a full-time session musician at the Stax studio. He urged Dunn to follow him and the two became part of Booker T's MGs, which in turn become the house band at Stax.
"I would have liked to have been on the road more but the record company wanted us in the studio. Man, we were recording almost a hit a day for a while there. But I never knew how popular that music was until I came to England with Otis Redding in 1967." He adds with a chuckle: "I think most of the English people thought I was a pick-up bass player. Without being racist they probably thought that being affiliated with that music, Donald 'Duck' Dunn was black!"
What else does he remember of that visit? "Otis would follow Sam and Dave and he would peak through the curtain during their set, worried as he could be, to see if he could outdo Sam and Dave. I used to watch him do that every night! Before that tour, though, we were all in admiration of Motown. We were thinking why don't our records sound like Motown? Now we listen to them and they hold up real well today."
Like many recognisable sounds from Sun to Motown, the Stax sound evolved by happy accident from a blend of musicians who worked well together. "Everyone contributed," remembers Duck. "Sometimes, if I couldn't find something to play maybe Booker found the bass line. Or maybe Steve Cropper. It was a real family-orientated company. No one had any particular ego. We were a
In many instances, plenty of song riffs and rhythms famously emerged from spontaneous jam sessions on the play-out of the previous recording. "When we came to the fade-outs, almost everyone would change their rhythm or the notes they were playing. That was the fun part of it. When we got to the end we all knew we could relax and do what we wanted to do."
In common with most musicians from that era, the people who created the Stax sound came away with less money than they deserved. "I always look back and say I should have made more," sighs Duck, slowly. "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."
One session that stands out for Dunn was backing Jerry Lee Lewis on his early '70s soul slanted album, Southern Roots. The sessions have passed into rock lore as a four day drug-soaked party with hangers-on passing out on the studio floor and the world and his wife sitting in.
"It was just craziness!" concurs Duck. "All it needed was Keith Richard! One song I particularly remember was When A Man Loves A Woman. If you listen to that record, he's incredible. And that was one take. Jerry Lee is crazy, he's outrageous, but I think he's the best rock'n'roller that ever lived."
Dunn's greatest pleasure, however, came from the music he created with the MGs. Dunn joined the MGs when bassist Lewis Steinberg left the band after having scored a million seller with the instrumental Green Onions in 1962. The MGs continued to hit the charts well into the '70s. Among their biggest successes were Hang 'Em High and Time Is Tight, both from movie soundtracks, also Soul Limbo, a Caribbean-styled number later to become very familiar as the cowbell-intro'd theme tune of the BBC's test cricket coverage.
When Booker T. disbanded the MGs and left Memphis for California, Dunn and drummer Al Jackson, Jr., kept the band's name afloat with an album, MG's, although it was released to little interest. In autumn 1975, Jackson was shot dead when he disturbed an intruder in his home. The incident left a deep impression on Dunn, who today opines: "I think the gun issue is the biggest issue. When I came to England in 1967 and saw the bobbies, as they used to call them, with no firearms... That's the way it should be. I'm really a firm believer in no guns."
1977 saw the first of several reunions of Booker T. Jones, Dunn and Cropper and the band recorded two more albums during the next 20 years, eventually receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1995 Rhythm & Blues Pioneer Awards. Since his appearance in the hit 1980 movie The Blues Brothers, Dunn has also been part of popular R'n'B revue, The Blues Brothers Band, which also featured Steve Cropper. Of his lifelong musical relationship with Cropper, Dunn says: "Steve and I are like married people. I can look at him and know what he'll order for dinner. We don't hang out as much as we used to. I moved to Florida and he moved to Nashville. We used to play a lot of golf together and we've kind of separated. But when we play music together we both know where we're going."
A new chapter in Duck's life began in 2005 as he celebrated the arrival of his first grandchild, Michael in October.
Though semi-retired Duck continues to do shows with Booker T & the MGs at clubs and music festivals around the U.S.
In 2007 Duck and Booker T. & the MGs members Lewie Steinberg, Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, and wife of deceased member Al Jackson - Barbara, were awarded a Lifetime Achievement Grammy during a Special Merit Awards Ceremony in Los Angeles.