Booker T. and the MGs bassist Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn: a look back at his life and death


Soul rockers Booker T. and the MGs are seen in this January 1970 file photo, from left to right: Al Jackson Jr., Booker T. Jones, Donald "Duck" Dunn and Steve Cropper. (AP)

Booker T. and the MGs began as the house band for Stax, the Memphis record label that signed artists including the Staple Singers, Otis Redding, Eddie Floyd and Isaac Hayes. Dunn will be remembered for his music — in addition to the band’s own singles, he contributed as a backup artist to hits like Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour,” Otis Redding’s “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,” and Sam and Dave’s “Hold on I’m Coming” — and for his band’s barrier-breaking integration. Booker T and the MGs was one of the first integrated soul groups, with two white members, including Dunn, and two black members.

A 1987 Washington Post article on the Memphis music scene after Elvis’s death, by Eve Zibart, consulted with Dunn for a glimpse at the then-contemporary Memphis scene:

Dunn and his band spend three nights a week playing “Memphis rock ‘n’ roll and R&B” on the roof of the Peabody Hotel. “That’s the Memphis sound now, if there is one,” Dunn says, “but I’m not doing a nostalgia thing. Thats' the seniors; tour, I hope.”

“We do ‘Green Onions’ and a could of old Booker [T. and the MGs] instrumentals, and from there on, it’s us. We’re out to get a new recording contract. Every once in a while someone will yell ’How ‘bout some ‘Soul Man!’ but that’s just not where we’re at now.”

His tune changed years later, when the band was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and did a reunion tour for the 50th anniversaryof Stax, stopping at the 9:30 club in Washington. Dave McKenna reviewed the show in 1999:

Booker T. & the MGs came to the 9:30 club stage with "Let's Stay Together" playing over the house PA system, and not by coincidence. Al Jackson, the band's former drummer, who was murdered in 1975, co- wrote that soul classic with fellow Memphian Al Green. Jackson's three survivors in perhaps the most acclaimed supporting cast in R&B history took the song's words to heart. Some 37 years after forming, they're still very much together.

The show, coming on the 40th anniversary of Buddy Holly's plane crash, brought in more gray hair than this relatively young nightclub typically sees. Fans of any age who came looking for proof that the music had not, in fact, died got what they came for as soon as Booker T. Jones, from behind his dinosaurish Hammond B-3, murmured "Green Onions" and his mates — fiftysomethings Steve Cropper on guitar and Donald "Duck" Dunn on bass, with Jackson's old seat filled by Steve Potts — launched into the cut's timeless riff. Many older crowd members dusted off their air guitars and air basses and even air- keyboards for that 1962 nugget, and kept them out for more of the band's instrumental wax from Stax, like the spaghetti-western theme "Hang 'em High" and "Hip Hug-Her."

Celebrities and musicians, including Tom Petty, Public Enemy’s Chuck D, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea, mourned Dunn’s death on Twitter, as well.

Legendary Donald “Duck” Dunn, bassist and friend of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, passed away in Tokyo today. He will be dearly missed.”

— Tom Petty (@tompetty) May 13, 2012

R I P Mr Donald Duck Dunn of the MGs a nice man & last week losing Mr Skip Pitts Memphis soul giants who I was happy to have met & honored..

— Chuck D (@MrChuckD) May 13, 2012

Wow, duck Dunn passed.. What a deep pocket that dude had, so glad I got to see him play, beautiful bass player we’ll be listening to forever

— Flea (@flea333) May 13, 2012

Watch a few of the band’s greatest songs (including “Green Onions,” which was a hit before Dunn joined), below:

Maura Judkis covers culture, food, and the arts for the Weekend section and Going Out Guide.

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