Donald “Duck” Dunn

Memphis Blues Legend
Donald “Duck” Dunn

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Donald “Duck” Dunn at the Lakland 10th Anniversary celebration. Photo: Chuck Cherney.

In the history of popular music, the story of Memphis-based Stax Records stands as a unique, enduring legacy.

Memphis was the focal point of the gritty, greasy southern soul music in the 1960s, and Stax was the label. And two bands – the Mar-Keys, and Booker T. & The MGs – were especially important to the “Memphis soul” sound. The latter group not only garnered numerous hits of its own, it was a notable backing band for Stax artists, in the studio and onstage.

Memphis native Donald “Duck” Dunn was not only the bassist for the MGs, he took part in other Stax projects, including recording famous tunes such as Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” Otis Redding’s “Dock Of The Bay” and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” and Wilson Pickett’s “The Midnight Hour.” He also backed Isaac Hayes in a piano/bass/drums jazz trio on Hayes’ first album, Presenting Isaac Hayes and Jerry Lee Lewis on his 1972 album, Southern Roots.

In the ensuing decades, Dunn worked with a number of other artists, including guitarists Mike Bloomfield and Duane Allman. His resumé also includes a four-year stint with Eric Clapton and being hand-selected by John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd for their band, the Blues Brothers, which scored a major hit in ’78 with its cover of “Soul Man.”

We recently sat with the legend of low-end to discuss his long and laudable career.

Vintage Guitar: An early picture of The Mar-Keys shows you with an upright bass. Did you have any formal music training.

Donald Dunn: I didn’t play an upright (chuckles)! I had an upright at one time, and tried to learn how to play it. But I was working in the studio so much I didn’t have time. I didn’t have my electric bass in the studio the day of the photo session, but that upright was there, so I picked it up.

When I left the Mar-Keys and went into the studio with Steve (Cropper) and Booker, I didn’t have time to play it anymore. It was a blond Kay (upright); later, I loaned it a friend’s son, and it was destroyed in a car wreck.

So you’ve always been an electric bassist?
Yeah; the first one I had was a Kay, I believe. I had a Silvertone amp, but I was never happy with the Kay as long as I saw Fenders hanging in the music store window (chuckles)! One day, my brother went out on a limb for me and co-signed for a Fender, because I wasn’t of age to buy it. I knew once I got it in my hands, I’d be a better player.

For lack of a better term, didn’t you “integrate” Ben Branch’s band?
I sure did. I had the P-Bass. And it was all music to me – Ben’s band played the music I grew up on – the 5 Royales, Hank Ballard, Ray Charles stuff.

The most well-known Booker T. & the MGs lineup included Booker Jones on keyboards, Steve Cropper on guitar, Al Jackson on drums, and you on bass. But you weren’t the original bassist, right?
No, that was Lewis Steinberg. He was a great “walking” bass player, but the R&B scene started getting syncopated. And that’s what happened at Stax. I did syncopated bass more than walking lines; I usually held my thumb on the top edge of the pickguard and played with my first two fingers, and I wore the finish down to the wood where my thumb was.

I had one P-Bass that went down with Otis Redding, and I had a ’58 maple-neck. There’s a picture of me with Booker T. & the MGs where I’m holding Lewis’ bass, with his initials on it! Again, I didn’t know they were takin’ pictures that day, and I didn’t know I was going to be in the picture, so I grabbed Lewis’ bass.

What amps did you use in the ’60s?
In the studio, I used an Ampeg B-15, but the one I really wanted – which everybody wanted – was a (Fender) Bassman. I got a piggyback Bassman, but I never liked it much. In ’67, I got a Kustom tuck-and-roll amp, and I’ve still got it.

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Donald "Duck" Dunn with his Duck Dunn signature model Lakland bass. Photo: Paul Natkin.

How about at the Monterey Pop Festival?
(pauses) It was probably a rental amp; I don’t think I carried anything out there. I don’t remember putting an amplifier on an airplane, but if I did, it probably would have been the Kustom. We probably ran through a backline that was already there.

Judging by the “Monterey Pop” documentary, you were fairly well immersed in the moment.
I’ve seen some old videos and pictures from that night, and I was amazed at how much I moved, with the notes I was playin’. I guess it was kind of a way of keepin’ time instead of pattin’ my foot!

The music at Monterey was quite diverse, wasn’t it?
Well, I think we were the only ones there in mohair suits (laughs)! A lot of the rest of ’em were in that tie-dyed, psychedelic stuff. Years later, I bumped into Tommy Smothers at the San Francisco airport. He remembered introducing us and Otis Redding at Monterey.

Didn’t Otis play guitar?
Yeah, but he tuned to open strings. I can’t recall that he played on any recordings, but he would sit down and show us a song on guitar.

There were numerous other pop festivals in those times, most larger than Monterey. Did the MGs play any others?
We played at a racetrack in Atlanta, and one in California – somewhere near L.A.

When Booker T. & the MGs broke up the first time, you did a lot of sessions until the Blues Brothers brought you back into the public eye.
My son is putting together a website on me, and I can’t believe some of the stuff I did, including a lot with Levon Helm. That’s actually how I got into the Blues Brothers – the horn section played some stuff with Levon on “Saturday Night Live.”

You played with some legendary guitarists; you were on the live double album Fathers and Sons, which included Mike Bloomfield.
Buddy Miles played on that album, too. I was on an Allman Brothers album, and of course, I spent about four years with Eric Clapton.

The Blues Brothers was a band of veteran musicians backing actors/comedians, like Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi. How did you feel about that?
The band was so sincere that it didn’t matter. How could anybody not want to work with John and Dan? I was really kind of hesitant to do that show, but my wife talked me into it, and other than Booker’s band, that’s the most fun band I’ve ever been in.

How do you describe the moviemaking experience?
It was different. You had to get up at 4:30 every mornin’, and then a lot of times you’d wait around until 10 and they’d say, “Okay, we’re not gonna need you today.” (chuckles) And I had a few speaking parts. I don’t remember what bass I was using in the movie, but it wasn’t my regular ’58. When they did the second movie, Fender had come out with a Duck Dunn signature model, and I used that.

After the Blues Brothers came your affiliation with Clapton.
He was really fun to play with; I was with him from ’83 to ’86. I did two albums with him, Money and Cigarettes and Behind the Sun.

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Dunn gets into the groove in 1979 with Bill Black’s Fender Precision at Cherokee Studios, Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of Donald "Duck" Dunn.

Clapton recorded the excellent “Live Now” concert video in 1985. Was there any talk about releasing it as a live album?
I didn’t hear anything about that. But that gig was right around the time we were wrapping up that tour, and it was a good show that night.

At one point you played at Peavey Dyna-Bass…
I played a Peavey from ’84 to ’86. I had a band called the Coolers, and I was playing one when Dan Ackroyd sat in with us. I never had any problems with it, but I’ve always been a Fender person. Then Dan Lakin came along and made one I liked even better.

What about amps in those times?
I was using a Gallien-Kreuger top, with Ampeg SVT cabinets; I like the ones with eight 10″ speakers. Those sound really good.

Another item you usually had onstage in those times was a pipe.
Yeah, but I gave that up 10 or 11 years ago, when I had a bout with throat cancer. I’m now cancer-free.

Booker T. & the MGs were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. What do you remember about that event?
It was wonderful. I got a call from the Hall of Fame; they told me we’d been voted in on our first nomination – it don’t get any better than that! Little Richard was there; I loved him when I was in high school.

Touch on the Duck Dunn signature model Fender Precision Bass.
That was around 1998; it was a Japanese-made limited edition. It was Candy Apple Red with a maple neck. I have the first two made.

You’ve got a new signature bass from Lakland, and you played – along with Bob Glaub, Joe Osborne, and Darryl Jones – at an event last March sponsored by Lakland in Chicago.
I had another 1961 Candy Apple Red Fender, and the Precision neck was kind of thick, so I put a Jazz neck on it. That one was kind of used for the Duck Dunn model that Lakland is about to release. Dan Lakin saw a picture of it, and he designed one for me. I played (the Lakland prototype) down in Dallas at that Eric Clapton Crossroads festival. The first one he gave me is a natural finish, and I’ve been playing it ever since; I’m extremely happy with it. I like the white block markers; some of the shows I play, they turn the lights down, and I’ve got to see that neck! (chuckles).

What other instruments do you own?
I’ve got three other Laklands, two other Fender Precisions and a Travis Bean, which was a gift from Steve Cropper. I think it really sounds good on ballads in the studio. I also have a 1966 Gibson Firebird, which was a gift from Cliff Williams with AC/DC.

Have you still got your original ’58 P-Bass?
Yeah, and I only use that on special occasions. I take that out when I tour with people like Neil Young, because they put it on a truck, and I won’t fly with it ’cause they give me so much crap about putting it in the overhead.

I actually traded it once, years ago, for a five-string Fender with a high C string, which I hated. I went back to a Precision with a rosewood neck, and the guy that took Bill Black’s place in the Bill Black Combo, Bob Tucker, got my bass, and when he got out of the business, he asked if I wanted it back, and he charged me three hundred bucks.

I also had Bill Black’s old bass, which I – like an idiot – decided to sand down with a natural finish. I later painted it metallic blue, and it now hangs in one of the Hard Rock restaurants.

The MGs are still receiving accolades as well; a fairly recent award in Memphis is exemplary.
We won the Governor’s Award for Performing Arts; that was really nice.

You now live on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Why there?
I came down here to live on a golf course. I was touring so much with the Blues Brothers in Europe in the summer that when I’d go home to Memphis, it’d be winter! And I love to play golf, so one day me and my wife visited a pro golf buddy down in Fort Myers, and on the way back, we found a place in Bradenton, and decided to move to Florida. I still play golf, but kinda backed off on it, but I’ve got a boat, too, and my wife found this property on a canal leading into the Gulf of Mexico. She bought it, then we put a house on it.

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Dunn displaying his Fender signature model in a 1998 photo. Photo: Rich Morava, courtesy of Donald "Duck" Dunn.

Do you think the story of Stax Records and its place in the history of popular music has been accurately presented?
Some it has, some of hasn’t, I think. I didn’t do it all down there, but I know some things that went on. I’d rather remember the good ones. I know some people that claim they did some things, that didn’t. As for the music, it holds its own. When you’re recording music, you take it for granted. We didn’t know how popular it was until we did that (1967) tour in Europe.

And those records still hold up today. To have been able to play with Otis Redding and all those other artists was just phenomenal.

This article originally appeared in VG February 2006 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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