Remembering Donald "Duck" Dunn

Monday, May 14: 2 p.m.
Donald "Duck" Dunn (11.24.41 – 5.13.12)

As one half of Booker T. and the MGs’ rhythm section, Donald "Duck" Dunn was house bass player at the legendary Stax label, where his artistry helped define one of the most distinctive and enduring sounds in popular music. Among the recordings for which Dunn laid down the bottom end: Otis Redding’s “Respect,” “Dock of the Bay” and “I've Been Loving You Too Long;” Wilson Pickett's “In the Midnight Hour” and Sam and Dave’s “Hold On I'm Coming” and “Soul Man.” He also played on sessions with such artists as Neil Young, Eric Clapton and Jerry Lee Lewis, to name but a few.

Born in Memphis on November 24, 1941, Dunn was given his nickname by his father as the two watched a Donald Duck cartoon on television. Although one of his grandfathers played fiddle, there was no music in Dunn’s immediate family. He recalled: "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."  

Dunn picked up a ukulele when he was about 10 years old and started playing bass when he was 16. Influenced by blues and R&B stars like B.B. King and Ray Charles, Dunn and his childhood friend, guitarist Steve Cropper, formed their first band, the Royal Spades, in high school. "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 & blues music, kinda the first in Memphis to do that. We used to play for, like, $5 and a few free beers. It was just a joy to play,” Dunn said. The Royal Spades evolved into the Mar-Keys, and Cropper subsequently left 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 MG’s, which, in turn, become the house band at Stax. Dunn joined the MG’s when original bassist Lewis Steinberg left the band. After reaching Number Three with the instrumental “Green Onions” in 1962, the MG’s continued to hit the charts well into the Seventies. Among their biggest successes were “Hang 'Em High” (Number Nine, 1968) and “Time Is Tight” (Number Six, 1969).

When Booker T. disbanded the MG’s, Dunn and drummer Al Jackson Jr. kept the band's name afloat. In 1975, Jackson was shot dead when he disturbed an intruder in his home. The incident left a deep impression on Dunn, who said: "I think the gun issue is the biggest issue….I'm really a firm believer in no guns."

In 1977, Booker T. Jones, Dunn and Cropper reunited. The band recorded two more albums during the next 20 years, eventually receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1995 Rhythm & Blues Pioneer Awards. In 2007, the MG’s were awarded a Lifetime Achievement Grammy. After his appearance in the 1980 movie The Blues Brothers, Dunn became part of the Blues Brothers Band, which also featured Steve Cropper. Of his lifelong musical relationship with Cropper, Dunn said: "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."

Dunn died in Tokyo on May 13, 2012, only hours after playing his final show with Cropper. Donald “Duck” Dunn was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Booker T. and the MG’s in 1992. 

WATCH: Paul Shaffer organized an all-star jam of Booker T. and the MGs classic "Green Onions," with bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn, Booker T. Jones, guitarist Steve Cropper, as well as U2 guitarist The Edge, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, guitarist Neil Young and more during the 1992 Hall of Fame Inductions Ceremony.



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