As a young man, Donald Dunn looked at his friend Steve Cropper and knew he could never match him as a guitarist. Few could. Thankfully, Leo Fender had recently invented the electric bass. Four strings? Dunn’s clunkier flunky fingers could manage that. “I bought a 1958 Precision,” he once recalled, “and started working.”
Yeah, he did.
Donald (Duck) Dunn died this past weekend, and that’s a drag. He was 70 years old and on tour in Japan. You might not recognize his name, as alliterative as it was. But you should identify him as the bass player with Booker T. and the MG’s, and the bottom end to so many Stax Record hits. Those are his imaginative pulses and memorable riffs, deeply embedded into many of our hearts and minds. There was the melodic bedrock to Albert King’s Born Under a Bad Sign; the two-note percolation to Sam & Dave’s I Thank You; the toe-tapping bounce to Wilson Pickett’s In the Midnight Hour; the thickening doubling of Steve Cropper’s notes on Booker T.’s Time Is Tight; and the slow, underlying current to (Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay – an unfailing duet partner to that song’s seagulls, whistling and Otis Redding’s outstanding melancholia.
The Memphis-based Booker T. and the MG’s were one of soul music’s three greatest house bands, comparable to the Meters in New Orleans and the Funk Brothers at Motown. Like the Funk Brothers, they not only helped create a label’s signature sound but, with a biracial lineup, gave visual and aural proof that integration could work in a segregated city.
Dunn wasn’t with Booker T. and the MG’s when the group hit it big with the hipster crowd thanks to the greasy soul instrumental Green Onions in 1962. However, it wasn’t until 1964, when Dunn came aboard, that the band really hit its stride. The interplay between Dunn and drummer Al Jackson Jr., was the key. Theirs was a deeply rhythmic groove – a funky, whopping pocket with a just-right delayed feel.
Dunn, the pipe-smoking bassist in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers, gave the lion’s share of the credit to Jackson. “I just stuck with him,” he explained in Otis!, the biography of Redding by Scott Freeman. “If the bass and drums aren’t happening, nothing’s happening.
Jackson, the human timekeeper, was shot to death in 1975. Now Dunn is gone. To paraphrase Stax singer William Bell, a well has gone dry, and we will surely miss that water.