Bass guitarist with Booker T & the MGs, the band at the heart of the Stax soul sound
The soul music created at Stax Records in Memphis, Tennessee, was an indelible part of the soundtrack of the 1960s. The magisterial and hypnotic bass-guitar lines on hits by Booker T & the MGs, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Isaac Hayes and many others were created by Donald “Duck” Dunn, who has died aged 70. Dunn died in his sleep at a hotel in Tokyo, where he was on tour with the MGs guitarist Steve Cropper. Dunn and Cropper also immortalised the Stax sound on screen, as members of the Blues Brothers band in the 1980 hit film starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd.
Dunn made a vital contribution to the hits Hip Hug-Her (1967), Time Is Tight and Hang ‘Em High (both 1969) and many other recordings by Booker T & the MGs, a rare example of an integrated group, made up of himself and Cropper and the African Americans Booker T Jones (on organ and piano) and Al Jackson (on drums). One of their most enduring tracks is Soul Limbo, for many years the theme of the BBC’s Test cricket coverage. Cropper said of his colleague’s playing that its uniqueness sprang from the fact that he was mainly self-taught, rather than learning from tutor books. Dunn also used flat wound strings that created a thudding timbre which matched Jackson’s kick-drum sound.
Dunn was born in Memphis, the son of a confectionery manufacturer, and gained the nickname “Duck” from the Disney cartoon character. Although his was not a musical family, Dunn took up the ukulele at the age of 10, soon graduating to the guitar. He grew up on the same housing precinct as Cropper, and at Messick high school the friends decided to form a band. It was then that Dunn began his lifelong relationship with the bass guitar. He said self-deprecatingly that he was unable to match Cropper’s skill with the six-stringed instrument, so he settled for a four-stringed one.
The high school band evolved into the Royal Spades, a group of white kids trying to emulate their rhythm & blues heroes such as Ray Charles and BB King. “We played for five dollars and a few beers,” Dunn said later. One band member, Packy Axton, was the son and nephew of the owners of Stax Records, Estelle Axton and her brother Jim Stewart, for whom the group recorded as the Mar-Keys, scoring a big hit in 1961 with Last Night.
Cropper was soon hired by Stewart as a session musician and a founder member of Booker T & the MGs. After that group’s first hit, Green Onions, the bass player Lewis Steinberg was replaced by Dunn, at Cropper’s insistence. Between 1964 and 1969 Dunn was the first-choice bassist not only for the MGs but for most of the recordings made at the Stax studios on McLemore Avenue. Dunn can be heard on Redding’s I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (1965) and (Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay (1967), Eddie Floyd’s Knock on Wood (1966), Albert King’s Born Under a Bad Sign (1967) and In the Midnight Hour (1965) by Pickett. Booker T & the MGs took part in the Stax tour of Europe in 1967, and backed Redding at the Monterey pop festival. Dunn recalled that, at Monterey, “we were in our green mohair suits and everyone else in their flower power” and in 1969 the group missed the chance to play at the Woodstock festival because Jackson refused to travel to the site by helicopter. While in Britain, Dunn was impressed by the fact that the police were unarmed, something that made him a fervent advocate of gun control after Jackson was shot and killed in 1975.
By the early 1970s, Stax was in corporate and financial turmoil and Dunn increasingly took on freelance session work, accompanying a wide variety of singers from Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis to Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Rod Stewart. There were occasional reunions of Booker T & the MGs, but his career took an unexpected turn with the global success of the Blues Brothers film. Dunn also appeared in the 1998 sequel, Blues Brothers 2000.
In 2007, Dunn and the other members of Booker T & the MGs were given a lifetime achievement award at the Grammys ceremony in Los Angeles. His fame as a bass player led to the creation of signature instruments by the Fender and Lakland companies.
He is survived by his wife, June, a son, Jeff, and one grandson.
• Donald Dunn, musician, born 24 November 1941; died 13 May 2012
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