Last week it was MCA of the Beastie Boys, this week a legend from another generation went down. The man was Donald “Duck” Dunn, who was second only to the great James Jamerson in the pantheon of R&B bass players. But whereas Jamerson was the house bassist for Motown Records, Dunn held down the low end down in Memphis at Stax.
Artists from those labels dominated the soul scene in the 1960’s, but whereas Motown leaned more toward the polished and the funky (Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Jackon 5), the Stax sound was raw and all about gospel and blues roots. Memphis soul, in other words. Notables from the 60’s Stax heyday included Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and Wilson Pickett. Dunn backed all of them as part of the Stax house band, Booker T. & the M.G.’s (which recorded plenty of hits in its own right).
Most people know Donald Duck Dunn as the pipe-smoking bassist from The Blues Brothers. Indeed he and fellow Booker T. & The MG’s alumnus Steve Cropper both played in the Saturday Night Live house band in the early days. Here they both are backing the Blues Brothers live (Steve Cropper wasn’t in the movie). Appropriately the bass is way up front in the mix, making it easier to appreciate Dunn’s contribution.
Quite a coup it was for Belushi and Akroyd to have landed those two ringers as part of their act. Quite an irony it must have been for Dunn to have helped write and recorded these classic tracks, only to see them butchered by a couple of clowns! Then again there’s no denying what the Blues Brothers did to popularize R&B generally.
So so long Donald Duck Dunn, we hardly knew ye. Thanks for everything you did to help make Memphis sound so sweet. And thanks for all the great bass riffs that I spent hours and hours copying as a kid, hoping to one day grow up and master.
UPDATE: Reader Lyle points out that I neglected to mention that Levon Helm also died last week. Very true, and a terrible omission on mympart. Helm was also a Stax recording artist and a cornerstone of The Band. He will be missed!