Happy Birthday to Donald “Duck” Dunn – born November 24, 1941 – May 13, 2012!
Donald “Duck” Dunn was an American bass guitarist, session musician, record producer, and songwriter. Dunn was notable for his 1960s recordings with Booker T. & the M.G.’s and as a session bassist for Stax Records. At Stax, Dunn played on thousands of records including hits by Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, William Bell, Eddie Floyd, Johnnie Taylor, Albert King, Elvis Presley and many others. In 1992, he was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Booker T. & the M.G.’s.
Dunn was born in Memphis, Tennessee. His father nicknamed him “Duck” while watching Disney cartoons with him one day. Dunn grew up playing sports and riding his bike with fellow future professional musician Steve Cropper.
1960s: First bands
After Cropper began playing guitar with mutual friend Charlie Freeman, Dunn decided to pick up the bass guitar. Eventually, along with drummer Terry Johnson, the four became “The Royal Spades”. The Messick High School group picked up keyboardist Jerry Lee “Smoochy” Smith, singer Ronnie Angel (also known as Stoots), and a budding young horn section in baritone saxophone player Don Nix, tenor saxophone player Charles “Packy” Axton, and trumpeter (and future co-founder of The Memphis Horns) Wayne Jackson.
Cropper has noted how the self-taught Dunn started out playing along with records, filling in what he thought should be there. “That’s why Duck Dunn’s bass lines are very unique”, Cropper said, “They’re not locked into somebody’s schoolbook somewhere”. Axton’s mother, Estelle, and her brother Jim Stewart owned Satellite Records and signed the band, who had a national hit with “Last Night” in 1961 under their new name “The Mar-Keys” The bassist on “Last Night” was Donald “Duck” Dunn, but he left the Mar-Keys in 1962 to join Ben Branch’s big band.
Booker T. and the M.G.’s was founded by Steve Cropper and Booker T. Jones in 1962; Al Jackson, Jr. served as the band’s drummer. The original bassist, on early hits such as “Green Onions”, was Lewie Steinberg; Dunn replaced him in 1964.
Late 1960s–1970s: Session musician
Stax became known for Jackson’s drum sound, the sound of The Memphis Horns, and Duck Dunn’s grooves. The MGs and Dunn’s bass lines on songs like Otis Redding’s “Respect” and “I Can’t Turn You Loose”, Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Comin’”, and Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign” influenced musicians everywhere.
As an instrumental group, they continued to experiment with McLemore Avenue (their reworking of The Beatles’ Abbey Road) and on their final outing, 1971’s Melting Pot, which featured basslines that to this day serve as a source of inspiration for hip-hop artists. In the 1970s, Jones and Cropper left Stax, but Dunn and Jackson stayed with the label. He worked with Elvis Presley on his 1973 RCA Album Raised on Rock.
In 1971, when rhythm guitarist Tom Fogerty left Creedence Clearwater Revival, the remaining members discussed with Dunn the possibility of his joining the group, with current CCR bassist Stu Cook moving to guitar. However, it was ultimately decided by CCR to remain a trio from that point on. Booker T and the MGs had performed in concert and jammed in the studio with CCR in the past, and Dunn in particular had become good friends with the band members.