I’ve long been a passionate fan of the sound of Stax, but today I’m obsessed: the passing of Donald “Duck” Dunn at age 70 has really taken me home, in a good way.
Certain musicians congregate in a certain area, drawn together by community roots and a common sonic passion. Happy accidents, you could call it. You could also call it fate. Soon their location and sound are synonymous: Liverpool means The Beatles and Gerry and the Pacemakers and the 1960s British Invasion; New York means The Ramones, Talking Heads and Blondie and 1970s punk and art rock; Memphis means Stax Records and the sound of Memphis Soul.
The organist Booker T. Jones, the guitarist Steve “The Colonel” Cropper, the bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn and the drummer Al Jackson congregated in Memphis in 1962, and formed Booker T. and the MGs. With supplemental help from The Memphis Horns (Wayne Jackson on trumpet and the recently-deceased Andrew Love on tenor sax), the MGs became the house band for Stax Records, appearing on hundreds of albums from artists that defined a generation: Sam & Dave, Wilson Picket and, most prominently, Otis Redding.
The sound was raw and immediate. When I hear the word “soul,” I think of Stax: Sam & Dave, “Hold On I’m Comin’” and “Soul Man”; Otis Redding, “I Can’t Turn You Loose” and “Shake.” Sure, I also passionately love the soul proffered by Aretha and Stevie and Marvin on Motown (Detroit means Motown). But to my ear, the Memphis sound is a bit more of the real deal. A little edgier, a little more stripped-down and less produced. Cropper’s guitar is clear and bright, just on the edge of overdriving the amp. Duck’s bass lines are solid, never flashy or out of place (the role of the bass is to provide sonic color to the kick drum; to feel the groove and be felt, as it were). Together, they formed a rhythm section that, in the immortal words of Donald “Duck” Dunn, playing the role of Donald “Duck” Dunn in The Blues Brothers, could “turn goat piss into gasoline.” So damn true.
The music is timeless and immortal. But the real lasting legacy of Duck and the MGs goes well beyond the grooves in the vinyl.
Hyperbole is our natural default setting. We as humans, especially when talking about great art, have a grand passion for understating, and overstating, the obvious. The MGs were so understated that it’s easy to overlook what can’t be overstated enough.
In mid 1960s America, Booker T. and the MGs was a band that was fully integrated.
This amazing band, which hailed from the Deep South, was evenly integrated, and they made nothing of it. No soapbox, no billboards or telethons. In a time when far too many good young Americans were dying in war and dying in their own neighborhoods over the issue of race, Booker T. and the MGs was an even mix of black and white, and they led by example, making great music without a word of protest or acknowledgement.
I can think of few other cases of such unconscious racial interaction from that time period (the St. Louis Cardinals of Bob Gibson and Tim McCarver come to mind, but that’s another story), and I can only imagine the impact it had. The rise and fall of President Kennedy, the rise and fall of Dr. Martin Luther King, the striving for consummation of the radical dream that all men are equal and deserve an equal shake…this is the backdrop against which Booker T. and the MGs set out. The fact that they set out and did their jobs with such quiet professionalism cements a proud legacy well beyond the music.
I’ve long been a passionate fan of the sound of Stax, but today I’m obsessed: the passing of Donald “Duck” Dunn at age 70 has really taken me home, and really made me think of the impact one can have merely by doing their job and doing what is right.
Pt. 1 of 6: do yourself a favor and watch the rest