Without the booming bass of Donald “Duck” Dunn, who died in his sleep on Sunday May 13, soul music would neither sound, nor, crucially, feel the same. Call to mind almost any classic Stax cut from the label’s mid-‘60s-to-early-‘70s heyday and it’s probably got Dunn’s deep-digging grooves at its core. It all came naturally to the man called Duck, a Memphis native who grew up with another future Stax stalwart, guitarist Steve Cropper. The pair began as part of the Royal Spades while still in high school, becoming one of the first white bands in Memphis to play R&B. The teen band eventually changed their poker-derived moniker to the Mar-Keys and scored a 1961 hit with “Last Night” on Satellite Records, soon to be redubbed Stax.
Dunn and Cropper’s biggest contribution to Stax, however, came as members of Booker T. & the M.G.’s, serving up sizzling slices of instrumental soul behind organist Booker T. Jones while doing double duty as the Stax house band. In the latter role, the fearsome foursome of Jones, Cropper, Dunn, and drummer Al Jackson, Jr. cranked out an endless stream of greasy, gritty, funky-as-hell Memphis soul grooves for tunes that came to define not just the Stax sound, but soul music itself. The slamming-but-slippery syncopations pumping blood through Otis Redding’s “Can’t Turn You Loose,” Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man,” Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour,” and Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood,” among other iconic R&B hits, came courtesy of Booker T. & The M.G.’s, with Dunn’s visceral, sometimes slightly overdriven bass sound as the funky foundation. In the mid-‘60s South, the band was also important for featuring an integrated lineup, still a rarity in that place and time.
Booker T. disbanded the M.G.’s in 1971, after the band cut their seminal swan song, Melting Pot, whose title cut would eventually become sample fodder for countless hip-hop acts. Dunn stayed on as a Stax sessioneer for a while, but the label shut down in ’75. Once he stepped outside the Stax stable’s all-consuming agenda, Dunn soon discovered an entire world of artists influenced by his work and clamoring for his bottom line beneath their tracks. From the second half of the ‘70s on, a jaw-dropping array of artists soon benefited from Duck’s mighty bass. When Rod Stewart, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, John Fogerty, and Neil Young are just the tip of the iceberg on your list of credits, you know you’re sailing in some deep waters.
In his later years, Dunn went into semi-retirement, though he continued to work with a reunited Booker T. & the M.G.’s, and the band received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 2007. The 70-year-old bass pioneer went out like the soul soldier he was, passing away after an evening onstage in Tokyo with Cropper, Eddie Floyd, and others in a Stax revue. Booker T. lost little time paying tribute to his longtime friend and bandmate, issuing a sorrowful statement on his own website, in which he observed, “God is calling names in the music world. He gave us these treasures and now he is taking them back.”