“Paul McCartney was one of my favorite bass players. I didn’t do him justice”: Paying tribute to the Beatles turned out to be a humbling experience for Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn

Donald "Duck" Dunn of Booker T. & the MGs
(Image credit: Getty Images)

As a member of Booker T. and the MGs, Donald “Duck” Dunn was house bass player at the legendary Stax Records. His credits include Wilson Pickett's In A Midnight Hour, Respect and Dock of the Bay by Otis Redding, and Hold On I’m Coming by Sam and Dave, not to mention sessions with the likes of Neil Young, Eric Clapton and Jerry Lee Lewis. 

Dunn also kept the Stax sound alive as part of the Blues Brothers Band. Originally handpicked by John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd – the Jake and Elwood characters in the cult film The Blues Brothers

Dunn's greatest pleasure, however, came from the music he created with Booker T. Having scored a million seller with the instrumental Green Onions in 1962, the MGs cut an instrumental cover version of the Beatles’ Abbey Road in 1970. The name, McLemore Avenue, was a reference to the address for Stax Records. The MG's even imitated the Abbey Road album cover.

It was a humbling experience for Dunn: “I tried to duplicate it and I couldn't do it. Paul McCartney was one of my favourite bass players, and I didn't do him justice. For me, his basslines were about 75% of that music. The reason I think he plays it so well is because the bass notes complement the notes he sings, and me not being a singer, it was hard for me.”

Like many recognisable sounds, from Sun Records to Motown, the Stax sound evolved by happy accident, from a blend of musicians who worked well together. “Everyone contributed. Sometimes, if I couldn't find something to play maybe Booker found the bassline. Or maybe Steve Cropper. It was a real family-orientated company. No one had any particular ego. We were a real team.”

Influenced by blues stars like B. B. King and Ray Charles, Dunn and Cropper formed their first band, The Royal Spades, in high school. “The name came from poker; a royal spade flush. We played anything from Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard to Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. We used to play for five dollars and a few free beers. It was just a joy to play.”  

The Royal Spades evolved into the Mar-Keys, who had a hit with Last Night soon after Dunn graduated from high school. Cropper subsequently left the band to become a full-time musician. He urged Dunn to follow him and the two became part of Booker T. and the MGs, which in turn became the house band at Stax. “Man, we were recording almost a hit a day for a while there, but I never knew how popular that music was until I came to England with Otis Redding in 1967.” 

One session that stood out for Dunn was backing Jerry Lee Lewis on his early ‘70s soul slanted album Southern Roots. The session has passed into folklore as a four day drug-soaked party, with hangers-on passing out on the studio floor. 

“One song I particularly remember was When a Man Loves a Woman. If you listen to that record, he's incredible. And that was one take. Jerry Lee was crazy. He's outrageous, but I think he's the best rock and roller that ever lived.”

In common with most musicians from that era, the musicians who created the Stax sound came away with less money than they deserved. “It should have been more lucrative, but it wasn't. We were cheated a little bit, but with the music, and what I learned… it doesn't matter. I have no regrets.”  

Dunn died in his sleep Sunday 13 May 2012 after finishing two performances at Tokyo's Blue Note Night Club with guitarist Steve Cropper. He was 70.

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Nick Wells

Nick Wells was the Editor of Bass Guitar magazine from 2009 to 2011, before making strides into the world of Artist Relations with Sheldon Dingwall and Dingwall Guitars. He's also the producer of bass-centric documentaries, Walking the Changes and Beneath the Bassline, as well as Production Manager and Artist Liaison for ScottsBassLessons. In his free time, you'll find him jumping around his bedroom to Kool & The Gang while hammering the life out of his P-Bass.