He was the backbone, part of the nerve center of a great rhythm and blues band that made the music of a bygone era live, breathe and jump again. But Donald "Duck" Dunn's musical accomplishments went far beyond the scripted praise he earned from John Belushi playing the fictional Jake Blues in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers.
Dunn, who died Sunday while on tour in Tokyo, had already played an integral role in the seminal R&B music of the 1960s. As a studio bassist for revolutionary Stax label, he put a distinctive stamp on the music of artists like Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Isaac Hayes and Sam & Dave. As a core player in integrated soul groups like the Mar-Keys and Booker T. & the MGs, he helped pen some of the most memorable instrumentals of modern pop music.
Dunn's musical roots had a lot to do with where he grew up. Born in 1942 in Memphis, Tennessee, Dunn spent his childhood in a place that would come to define pop music in the 1960s. Against the wishes of his father -- who gave him his nickname after the Disney cartoon character -- Dunn made music an early ambition, hanging out as a teenager at the refitted movie theater with the words "SOULSVILLE U.S.A" spelled out on the marquee. Jam sessions with Stax musicians like guitarists Charlie Freeman and Steve Cropper, Packy Axton and sax player Don Nix would quickly turn from a casual hobby to a professional career.
Dunn's path quickly aligned with the growing scene at Stax. He added work for his brother Bobby at the King Records distributorship to his role as a backup bassist. He eventually left high school to become a member of the label's house band, playing bass on decisive cuts like "Last Night" by the Mar-Keys and other tunes for Booker T. & the MGs. His role in the band would win him a lifetime achievement Grammy in 2007.
Dunn was also the bassist for nearly all of Otis Redding's discography, a stunning oeuvre that includes seminal soul classics like "These Arms of Mine," "Respect," "Try a Little Tenderness" and the haunting intro line to "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay." Add to that studio credits for tunes like Sam & Dave's "Hold On, I'm Comin,'" Wilson Pickett's "In the Midnight Hour" and other revolutionary Stax singles, and Dunn's role as an innovator and trend setter is inescapable.
After the dissolution of one of the many lineups of Booker T. & the MGs in the 1970s, Dunn kept up his role as a sought-after studio player; he'd garner credits on records by Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Levon Helm and others. His appearance in The Blues Brothers in 1980 along with his fellow Stax alum Steve Cropper, served as a reminder of his critical role in the history of American R&B music. While his role wasn't as prominent as the string of impressive cameos by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Cab Calloway and Ray Charles, he was the constant bass player giving the dynamic soundtrack its backbone and nerve center. Like he'd done at Stax, Dunn helped steer the shape and direction of the film's unforgettable score.
His final shows echoed his roots as a studio musician for one of the most influential labels of the 20th century. He was in Tokyo on tour with legendary soul singer Eddie Floyd and his old compatriot, Steve Cropper, who went on Twitter to declare, "Today I lost my best friend, the World has lost the best guy and bass player to ever live." Even at the age of seventy, Dunn was keeping up his role as the music's bedrock, as the player who shied away from the brightest limelight while contributing some of the music's most important features. As he observed in his role in The Blues Brothers, Dunn helped make countless bands that were "powerful enough to turn goat piss into gasoline."
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