R.I.P. Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn
“Look at you in those candy-ass monkey suits!”
if you’re ’round mine an Randy’s kinda age then this is probably how you first came to be aware of Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn – bein’ yelled at over matters of fashion by John Belushi in some no-hope lounge act in The Blues Brothers. He had a comedy name, a comedy pipe and a bemused demeanour. As I recollect it, it was sorta a revelation that he actually was a real musician, not just a comic playin’ a bit part. After we got over all the car crashes and gags and stuff, we started to realise there was a lot of cool old musicians in the movie. It was this guy Danny’s older bro’ who knew ’em all and told us ’bout it…
“Him and the guitarist were in Booker T & The M.G.’s”
“Y’know ‘Green Onions’?”
“Oh yeah. Really? That’s pretty cool.”
We knew ‘Green Onions’. It would be a while before we learned he was the bass player on loads of other great records we all knew like ‘Dock Of The Bay’. Even longer before we found out he wasn’t actually even playing on ‘Green Onions’. Although Dunn had started a band in high school with Cropper, he was slow to jump ship with him for the Stax studio band that became the M.G.’s (for Memphis Group, easy now guys). Check this picture of the duck…
now, I never knew or met the guy or nuthin’ but did you ever see someone look less like an actual musical legend? Every picture you ever see of this guy he’s just grinnin’, havin’ a time, lookin’ like ‘what’s next?’. Maybe in the early days, when they had the suits and stuff like at the top there, he looked sharp but basically he never looked cool and never looked like he gave any kind of a shit about that neither. Another thing about ’em for us was if Cropper in the beard years had had Dunn’s pipe, and come on now, he musta took that and fooled about with it some at some point right? anyway if he’d had the pipe he would looked like our science teacher. For real. Still, this guy was intergratin’ the memphis music scene when it weren’t even legal and he played bass on a pile of the coolest music ever made anywhere, ever. I mean, these guys are the studio backing band ain’t they? The Funk Brothers? come on now.
So, I know this post is a little late in the coming, but it was tough to choose the tunes and stuff, and then it nearly got put together with that Robin Gibb one (Booker T. & the B.G.’s – the horror!) and so on. I mean there’s a whole soundtrack-Travolta thing goin’ on here too y’know right? Years later Travolta stars in ‘Get Shorty’ – great film with a great soundtrack put together by John Lurie that features the M.G.’s heavily plus a lot of stuff inspired by them, Travolta’s hair, probably now a wig, still looks good. Also, like the Bee Gees, the M.G.’s made a Beatles record. 1970’s ‘McLemore Ave.’ is their reading of the Beatles’ Abbey Road. It’s ok. Some people will tell you it’s great but I just can’t quite get with that, the musicianship is impressive as you’d expect and they get through most of the record in just two medleys and segue two other tracks together leavin’ just ‘Something’ on there as a stand alone tune. Here it is for y’all to check out, they give it a lil’ run through then ’bout half aways in seems they get bored and break out with the handclaps and the funky to get ’em on through.
The next year they made ‘Melting Pot’, the last album they done for Stax and the title track off of it the last single. By this point in things Steve Cropper was away recording elsewhere a lot and Booker was looking to change musically and fed up with all the shaky business bull at Stax. I know that don’t sound a promisin’ situation for them to bow out on but it’s a really great record. It’s also one you might not know, ‘Melting Pot’ sometimes makes it onto double -disc best of’s but that’s about all. It’s not the super-sharp arrangements and stripped back economy of their 60’s sound, it’s warmer, more relaxed sounding, the band stretchin’ out some, especially Booker. There’s no covers either, it’s sorta the opposite of ‘McLemore Ave.’ tell the truth. If’n you see that record as the ultimate end of their fierce studio based competence and inter band telepathy.
These guys were so in tune, they’d often get sessions for other Stax artists wrapped up with time to spare and could work up a version of a tune they was diggin’ and record it in the left over time. They cut a whole bunch of these extra tunes that never got released and only eventually come out in the 90’s on a collection called ‘Play The Hip Hits’. This sweet version of The Box-Tops ‘The Letter’ is off of that, it’s also got a couple of Beatles numbers at least as good as off ‘McLemore Ave.’ and I reckon it’s easy to see them knock that record out in a day y’know? Maybe not, Booker just loved ‘Abbey Road’ apparently. So anyways now, ‘Chicken Pox’ is a crackin’ funky tune off of the Melting Pot album, Booker really wailin’ on the organ. ‘Kinda Easy Like’ which was also the B-side, is a hazy-hot rewrite of ‘Green Onions’ simmering real slowly in the pot, it stretches way on out – to almost 9 mins – but it’s gorgeous. Out of the steam rise some formless and unexpected Anita Kerr Singers type vocals, it’s almost like you’re imagining them at first, but trust me, it works. Memphis Soul Stew, if you will. So, that guy with the funny lookin’ hair and the pipe? He done pretty good didn’t he?