Donald "Duck" Dunn used to say that Al Jackson Jr. was the greatest drummer he'd ever heard. With the recent passing of both Andrew Love and Charles "Skip" Pitts, the guys have all the makings of a smokin'celestial soul combo. Add Isaac Hayes and Otis Redding to the mix, and they've got a full-blown Stax/Volt Revue going on for the Heavenly Host.
If you're inside the Memphis city limits and you've never heard of Duck Dunn, you must be a tourist. Dunn, who died last week in Tokyo at age 70, was one-fourth of Booker T. & the MGs, the house band during the glory days of Stax Records and among the greatest instrumental groups to ever record. Duck was in Tokyo for a series of gigs with his childhood friend, Steve Cropper, and Stax soul star Eddie Floyd. Cropper posted, "Today I lost my best friend and the world has lost the best guy and bass player to ever live." Booker T. Jones said, "I can't imagine not being able to hear Duck laugh and curse but I'm thankful I got to spend time and make music with him. His intensity was incomparable. Everyone loved him. None more than Otis Redding."
Duck's passing essentially ends the 50-year phenomenon known as Booker T. & the MGs. The band recruited another drummer to replace the late Al Jackson Jr. and played on for another 37 years, but nobody can replace Duck Dunn.
Listen to any track by Otis Redding or Sam & Dave. If Al Jackson Jr. was the pulse, then Duck's bass was the propulsion. He not only supplied the bottom but also the energy for some of the 20th century's most memorable recordings, like "Soul Man," "The Midnight Hour," and Otis' remarkable "Try a Little Tenderness." Watch those old, black and white videos of the Stax Revue in Europe, 1967, and you'll see Duck's characteristic neck-jerk in time with the music, increasing in fervor with the strength of the groove.
Duck's biographical information is familiar to friends and fans: a graduate of Messick High, where he and his friend Cropper had a band called the Royal Spades, which morphed into the Mar-Keys and had Stax's first monster hit with the instrumental "Last Night." When Cropper moved on to a fledgling label, he recruited his friend Duck to replace Lewie Steinberg in the MGs, and history was made. The MGs were Memphis' first interracial band, something unheard of in the early Sixties. But those of us who were younger and aspired to a music career took pride and inspiration from the group during those turbulent times. In segregated Memphis, an integrated group would most likely be denied the right to share the same bandstand, but in the recording studio, nothing could stop a group of teenagers who all grew up listening to Rufus Thomas and Dewey Phillips on the radio and Willie Mitchell and the 4 Kings, Bowlegs Miller, and the 5 Royales in the clubs of West Memphis.
It's worth noting that in his fellow musicians' remarks, in the same breath that they praise Duck's musicianship, they note that he was an even better human being. That's what his friends recall first: that Duck was a humble man, unaffected by his worldwide fame. He loved to laugh, either at your jokes or his own, and he very well could have put a bumper sticker on his bass guitar that read, "I'd rather be golfing."
Like most Memphians, I admired Duck from afar and regarded him as a soul icon, until 1981, when we became acquainted. That was the year Huey's restaurant made its first attempt at expansion with Louie's, a converted eatery on Poplar Avenue in East Memphis, and had hired my band, the Radiants, to play on Sunday nights. While other local bands were covering Journey and Foreigner, we were still performing a venerable list of R&B classics, with a healthy dose of Stax songs. When Duck began to show up and we asked him to sit in, everyone so enjoyed themselves that we reserved a regular spot for him every Sunday. Our long-time bassist, Steve Spear, was leaving Memphis and I was in a bind to find a suitable replacement. I asked Duck if he knew anybody and he answered, "What about me," and the next day, he was in the band.
Along with our Sunday gig, the Radiants began playing Tuesday nights downtown at Jefferson Square, and Duck propelled our band like he did the MGs. When our young saxophonist, Jim Spake, had to leave the band suddenly and I needed to replace him, Duck said, "I don't think Andrew Love is doing anything." The next week, one half of the Memphis Horns joined the band. Andrew stepped in seamlessly without need for rehearsal, and I suddenly found myself fronting the best soul band I ever had.
It couldn't last forever. Andrew and his Memphis Horns partner Wayne Jackson went on the road with Robert Cray, and Duck got the call from Eric Clapton. Shortly afterward, in a memorable night at the Orpheum Theatre, Clapton headlined with Duck on bass while the warm-up act was Ry Cooder, featuring Jim Dickinson on keyboard. Then there was the night a rejuvenated Booker T. & the MGs made their first homecoming appearance at B.B. King's on Beale Street. I was sardined into that packed house mainly to support my friends, but when the Hammond organ began a thunderous, roiling noise that ultimately became the introduction to "Green Onions" and the band kicked in, I leapt to my feet cheering like the Tigers had won the national championship. Duck found a groove and was snapping his neck sideways, always to the left, and a roomful of lucky patrons got to see the show of a lifetime. Duck was a cancer survivor and lived the past few decades in Sarasota, where he had moved for the golfing as much as for the nice weather. If Duck and Andrew had one thing in common aside from their music, it's that they both were supported by wonderful spouses. June Dunn and PeeWee Love are two of the kindest, yet strongest, women I know, and the love both couples shared made it a delight to be in their company. I'm proud to have known them.
In Tokyo, Duck had just finished two shows at the Blue Note Nightclub, when he called home to say he wasn't feeling well. Later that night, he passed away in his sleep. Like the true, musical road-warrior that he was, Duck Dunn died with his boots on.
Randy Haspel writes the blog "Born-Again Hippies," where a version of this column first appeared.