As a member of Booker T. And The MGs, Donald "Duck" Dunn played with one of the best bands in rock, soul, and plain old human history. As the band's bassist, he was buried way down deep in a groove made famous by singers like Otis Redding, Sam And Dave, Wilson Pickett, and countless other greats of the '60s and '70s. Dunn was the one who made songs, and then millions of people, move. This perpetual forward motion was eloquent, undeniable, and sexy, but it was not inexhaustible. After playing two shows at the Blue Note Night Club in Tokyo, Japan, with his old MGs bandmate Steve Cropper once again at his side, Dunn retired to bed late Saturday night and never woke up Sunday morning. He was 70.
Booker T. And The MGs wasn't just as studio band, like Motown's Funk Brothers or Phil Spector's Wrecking Crew. The MGs were among the crown jewels in Stax's sparkly collection, scoring some of the coolest and hardest soul records of the '60s, starting with the million-selling 12-bar blues of "Green Onions" and carrying on through jukebox favorites like "Hip Hug-Her" and the immortal "Time Is Tight," a song absolutely carried by Dunn's bassline. But the group staked its reputation by its expert backing of other artists, perfecting a lean, austere sound that kept the spotlight on the greatest vocalists of southern soul. Whether playing ballads that fell down gently like deeply felt, man-sized tears, or smoking ravers that would make the kids absolutely rip out their chairs and throw them exuberantly at the stage, Booker T. And The MGs was a band intended to be felt, not necessarily noticed.
It was a band Dunn was practically born into. A native of Memphis, he hooked up with Cropper when they were in high school. They first played together in The Royal Spades, which later became The Mar-Kays, another studio group integral to the history of Stax. Dunn didn't join the MGs until 1964, so he missed out on "Green Onions." But he got in right as the MGs became the best-known house band for Stax artists. Like so much about the MGs, the racial makeup of the band—Dunn and Cropper were white, organist Booker T. Jones and Al Jackson, Jr. were black—wasn't treated as anything extraordinary at the time, even though integrated bands are still a rarity in rock and pop music. For Dunn and his peers, being a musical and social trailblazer was merely a nice side benefit to the real work that was being done, day in and day out, in the studio or on the road. The music took precedence above all else, and the music deserved such slavish devotion.
Once the MGs broke up in 1971, Dunn kept on working. He played with musical monuments like Muddy Waters and Jerry Lee Lewis. He backed up living legends Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Eric Clapton. He played on the Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks duet "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around," and re-joined Jones and Cropper for a rendition of "I Ain't Got Nobody" for the soundtrack to 2008's Be Kind Rewind. His highest profile gig was joining the Blues Brothers band, which helped to re-popularize many of the songs he originally played on. All the while, Duck Dunn remained in the background, not always seen but definitely heard, supplying the pulse that's enlivened some of the very best that American culture has produced in the past century.