Threnody for a Waterfowl
Donald Dunn, whose old man named him “Duck” when the both of them were sitting around watching cartoons in their modest house in Memphis, was touring Japan with his old friend the Colonel, backing up Eddie Lee Floyd as they’d done so many times before in the past. After last night’s show at Tokyo’s Blue note, “Duck” headed back to the hotel, hit the hay, and that was the last we’ll see of ol’ Donald Dunn.
“Duck” was a little fella and even at the towering height of his career, when he was laying down unforgettable, implacable bass lines for some of the greatest songs of the ’60s and ’70s, sometimes seemed like he was a little kid someone had handed a grown man’s guitar. He offset that impression by being pure salty: his scraggly red beard and brokedown hippie clothes marked him as something of a disreputable character, and his language was full of piss and vinegar (though he managed to class up even that low mystique with the fancy pipe that often dangled from his lips, as if held in place by sheer groove). When he was a boy, he palled around with the hulking Steve Cropper, playing football and baseball and clowning around; but their real passion play was music.
Steve (who would become “the Colonel”) and Donald fell in with the Memphis soul crowd, and their instrumentals were, well, instrumental in providing much of the flavor that made up that unforgettable stew. Dunn tagged along with Cropper in the nightclubs and juke joints just as he had on the ball fields; unable to keep up at first with his friend’s guitar playing, he picked up the bass, and showed the intense, untraceable talent of a pure autodidact. They played in the Royal Spades, the Mar-Keys, and finally, legendarily, the MGs along such colorful names as Jerry “Smoochy” Smith, Ronnie “Stoots” Angel, Charles “Packy” Axton, and Charlie “Red Man” Freeman. (Why have rock bands ceded nicknaming to hip-hop? I miss it.)
Speaking of color, Dunn helped integrate soul music without even trying. Though later held up as a Great Example, Cropper & Dunn — who strode freely across the borders of pop and soul, blues and country, bringing what they liked from each stopping point into the Stax sound — simply loved the music, and wanted to play what they wanted to hear. They weren’t out to make a grand statement when they helped bring rough hillbilly dirt into sweet soul grooves; they were just doing what felt right in the only environment that would allow it. The Mar-Keys got their first record deal through a bit of nepotistic finagling (Packy Axton’s mom owned a record label), but it was raw talent that kept Dunn carrying on. His granite-hard grooves were a hallmark of the instantly recognizable Stax signature, and his speciality was pure bottom: filling in the empty moments of a song with a low, belly-shaking, ass-bumping roll that couldn’t be knocked over with a wrecking ball.
Dunn played on practically every Stax single that mattered and plenty that didn’t. His booming, skipping low-end Fender Precision bass can be heard on the best songs of Wilson Pickett, William Bell, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, and Albert King, and with the Colonel, Booker T. Jones, and Al Jackson Jr., he put out what are indisputably some of the greatest albums of instrumental rock, funk and soul the genres have ever produced. He was, of course, a Blues Brother, and our present generation, which seems to have trouble processing any information except through a lens of joking pop-culture references, remembers him primarily, if at all, in that respect. But Dunn never stopped working, and never let himself become a nostalgia-vending cartoon. He was up until the day he died what he was for the majority of the time he lived: a working professional musician, with the emphasis on professional.
Dunn appeared on dozens and dozens of tracks, many of them unexpected even to casual fans: he lent his legendary low end to the demanding likes of Muddy Waters and Freddie King, put in his time paying bills in a pop idiom with Rod Stewart and Eric Clapton, and served exceptionally well in a long stint with Tom Petty in the late 1970s and early 1980s. His muscly, stand-aside bass lines were almost as sought-after by hip-hop producers and beat-miners as were Clyde Stubblefield’s drum breaks. Some of his best latter-day work was with Levon Helm, who left us only a month ago. Looking at his vast industry credits, it can seem as if there’s almost nobody he didn’t play with: as a session man, he appeared alongside Jerry Lee Lewis, Mavis Staples, Mitch Ryder, Bill Withers, Herbie Mann, Moms Mabley, Duane Allman, Richie Havens, John Prine, Joan Baez, Diana Ross, Natalie Merchant, Ronnie Hawkins, Stevie Nicks, Bob Dylan, Willie Dixon, Guy Sebastian. Roy Buchanan, John Fogerty, Ray Charles, Isaac Hayes, and Elvis motherfucking Presley.
And that’s just his studio work. As a live performer, he played every chance he got, with everyone he admired. In 1993, Neil Young asked Booker T. & the MGs to serve as his backing band on the Harvest Moon tour; I saw them when they came through Arizona. Young, who at that point in his career could have asked pretty much anyone to be his backup — and, indeed, would do so later that year with the still shit-hot Pearl Jam — made the right choice; Dunn was in his mid-50s, but he and the rest of the group played as if they were heedless, hyper-energetic kids in their early twenties. Even with Young following his usual pattern of abandoning anything like a rational setlist to play whatever songs popped into his addled mind, Dunn and his comrades jumped in with both feet first, locked it down, and held it tight as a noose from first note to last. It remains one of the finest shows I’ve ever seen, not only for the astonishing precision and skill of the band, but how seamlessly they adapted to the material, playing on their very first tour with Young as if they’d been backing him up for decades.
Booker and the Colonel soldier on. Al Jackson, the human timekeeper, was the victim of a bizarre contract murder plot almost 40 years ago; and now Donald “Duck” Dunn is dead. What may be the tightest band to come out of the south is now without both its anchors. “Duck” left behind a wife, a son, a grandchild, and some of the sweetest music you’ll ever hear, if you have an ear to lend.