Booker T. and the M.G.'s in 1970. From left to right: Al Jackson, Jr., Booker T. Jones, Donald 'Duck' Dunn, and Steve Cropper.
Last Saturday, the mail brought a copy of a belated compilation focusing on Charles "Packy" Axton, a somewhat forgotten man from the early days of Stax Records who died far too young in the mid-1970s. Smiling out from many of the vintage Polaroids througout the album's artwork was another one of the architects of the Stax sound, Donald "Duck" Dunn. It felt a bit more shocking on Monday morning when I heard that the ever-smiling Dunn had also departed this world over the weekend, while on tour in Tokyo.
Longtime musical compatriot Booker T. Jones calls it "totally unexpected" and shared these thoughts with his fans: "God is calling names in the music world. He gave us these treasures and now he is taking them back. Duck was too close to me for me to at this point realize the full implications of his passing. I'm just trying to pray for those who were closer to him -- his wife June, and his son Jeff, and his brothers and sister."
It would take a book, or a set of them, to tell the whole story of Dunn's musical endeavors and influence on other players. Here are only a few snapshots along the way throughout the last half century.
The Mar-Keys: Last Night
By 1961, Stax forerunner Satellite Records had already produced a pair of national hits, aided by a lease arrangement with Atlantic/Atco: "Cause I Love You" by Rufus and Carla Thomas, and "Gee Whiz" by Carla on her own. For some reason, the label's next hit remained on the Satellite label, with a distributed-by-Atlantic credit after it took off, rather than graduating to one of the national marques. "Last Night" was a monster crossover hit, making the Top Five on both the pop and R&B charts in Billboard. If one looks online for information about the Mar-Keys, there's mostly jumbled half-true or misinformation about the group. As is usually the case with Stax history, the best place to look is Rob Bowman's informative (and heartbreaking) book Soulsville, U.S.A..
To make a long story short, the band had gradually coalesced around a group of Memphis high schoolers, including Duck Dunn and Steve Cropper. Axton entered the picture when he told the already locally popular group that his family was running a record company. Add one major hit single -- helmed by another legend, Chips Moman -- and suddenly the Mar-Keys and associated players became the house band for a hot new record label. Ironically, according to Bowman's book, only a couple of the actual band members (not including Dunn) played on "Last Night." There are no credits on the album, but I'd guess at least some of the follow-up LP was recorded by the standard group. It's probably a good representation of what they were up to as a live band, containing a few originals, covers of standards such as "Ebb Tide" and "Misty," and even Paul Anka's "Diana!" (Atlantic 8055, 1961)
Wendy Rene: After Laughter Comes Tears
Wendy Rene's debut album -- all tracks recorded in 1964-65 -- almost certainly contains some bass work by Duck Dunn. The 22 tracks offer a microcosm of the early Stax sound: There's a strong lead vocalist (often aided by some girl-group style backing), Booker T.'s burbling organ, Cropper's chugging guitar, and that unbeatable bottom anchored by drummer Al Jackson and (I'm guessing, since there's no specific player credits) a combination of Dunn and prior M.G.s bass player Lewis Steinberg. Rene's vocals definitely show the influence of Memphis star Carla Thomas, but unlike some of Thomas' efforts of the era, these sides don't make any concessions to pop. Up to now, the 45s issued by Rene and her group The Drapels have been partially missing in action as the Stax catalog has been reissued, with only five tracks on The Complete Stax/Volt Singles box set. From sound quality to packaging, this comp is top shelf all the way, and an essential purchase for anyone interested in the '60s Memphis soul sound. (Light in the Attic LITA 080, 2012)
Charles "Packy" Axton: Late Late Party
Axton was the tenor sax man for the Mar-Keys, playing on their records and likely various other Stax discs until around the time Duck Dunn took over bass in Booker T. and the M.G.'s, and that group became the label's main house band. Frowned upon at Stax for his hard-partying ways, Axton forged ahead on his own, helped by another left-field hit featuring the Stax house band under an alias: "Hole in the Wall" by the Packers, which may or may not have been released with the players' permission. Like "Last Night," the single was from a session apparently missed by Dunn (Earl Grant is listed in the credits on bass), so while his picture is all over the liner notes, he may or may not actually play on this album; most of the sides with credits listed include players from the Hi Rhythm Section of Willie Mitchell's Royal Studios.
Whether Dunn plays here uncredited or not, these 1965 to 1967 sides show how influential his sound already was by the mid-'60s; whoever is playing bass is channeling Dunn's Stax low-key but hypnotically heavy groove. Axton and compatriot Johnny Keyes grabbed the Packers name for some touring and picked right up where Axton left off at Stax in the studio. Another recent Light in the Attic release, Late Late Party documents the recordings, a collection of rare R&B instrumentals under various "band" names along with some sides by the writers/producers backing vocalists. Musically, it's like Stax with a more sideways sense of humor, from the kazoo solo on "Hip Pocket" to the notorious "hurling" break in "Hung Over." As with the Wendy Rene set, Light in the Attic has done a top-notch job on this reissue, and I can't recommend it highly enough. (Light in the Attic LITA 067, 2011)
Booker T. and the M.G.'s: Soul Limbo
When Stax distributor Atlantic was sold to Warner/Seven Arts, the label heads discovered in re-negotiating their contract that they had inadvertently signed away the rights to all their master recordings. Understandably, they did not re-sign with Atlantic. Stax ended up being sold outright to a different corporation and reorganized, returning in 1968 with an all new logo and record numbering system. The first single and LP, Soul Limbo, were rightly by label stalwarts Booker T. and the M.G.'s. By 1968, Dunn had been in the band for a few years, and on this album they are operating at the top of their game with a seemingly telepathic tightness. Side note: The original LPs use the title Over Easy on the record label itself. (Stax STS-2001, 1968)
Rita Coolidge: Rita Coolidge
One of the most distinctive voices of the '70s, Rita Coolidge is a Tennessee native whose first solo discs were issued by a small Memphis label. A couple years later in 1971, her debut album was an all-star production featuring players that include: guitarists Clarence White, Stephen Stills, and Ry Cooder; drummer Jim Keltner; bassist Chris Ethridge, and, piano/organ by Leon Russell, Spooner Oldham and Memphian Booker T. Jones (who also arranged most of the album). That list is just the beginning, however ... start looking deeper in the credits, and there he is: Donald "Duck" Dunn. While Dunn and drummer Al Jackson remained at Stax after the initial demise of Booker T. and the M.G.s, he also popped up on many outside projects and can be found in the credits of countless albums right up to the present day. The most well-known sideman project is probably still his and Steve Cropper's participation in the Blues Brothers band and movie. (A&M SP-4291, 1971)
Neil Young: Are You Passionate?
This album was somewhat overshadowed when it came out due to the furor generated by "Let's Roll," Young's response to the 9/11 attacks. Other than that track and one song with Crazy Horse, though, Are You Passionate is something of a Booker T. and the M.G.'s album, albeit with Young's vocals and guitar replacing Steve Cropper. Jones and Dunn are even listed as co-producers. As part of a career filled with detours, it's interesting hearing Young operate in a soul mode, as well as the chance for more interaction between Dunn and Jones. The M.G.s (minus Cropper) had toured with Young previously in 1993, and with CSNY (including a show at Milwaukee's Bradley Center) in 2002. (Vapor Vinyl, 2002)