When I was a boy on Beale Street, we had no electric street lamps. It was the era of the gaslight, and every evening towards dark, the lamplighter would come along with his cart. Frequently, night would overtake him as he proceeded slowly down the street, so that as you looked after him, he would vanish in the blackness, and you could not see where he was, but by the glowing light of the lamps, you could see where he had been. Now these boys have gone from us into the darkness where we can no longer see them. But when we hear a certain melody and rhythm, when we hear that soul sound — then we will remember, and we will know where they have been.
A church elder at the Clayborn Temple in Memphis gave a eulogy at the memorial service for the members of the Bar-Kays, Otis Redding’s touring band, that died with the singer in a plane crash in December, 1967 (As quoted by Stanley Booth in his essay, “The Memphis Soul Sound,” for The Saturday Evening Post.) The sentiment is applicable today, as Donald “Duck” Dunn, bassist for the Bar-Kays’ “older brothers” the Mar-Keys, and the legendary Stax Records house band, Booker T. and the MGs, died in his sleep after playing two shows on Saturday night in Tokyo. He was 70.
I first came to know Dunn from the movie The Blues Brothers, wherein he played himself, sort of, or close — he was the bassist for the band that John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd reassembled on a mission from God. It was Dunn who came up with the idea to play the theme from Rawhide in the key of A (because that was a “good country key”) when they needed to quell an angry, bottle-throwing crowd in the honky-tonk bar whose owner they had tricked into hiring them. It worked.
As Booth described him, Dunn, who had grown up in Memphis with MGs guitarist Steve Cropper, was “more of a good old boy than anyone at Stax.” But also “the only one who has been influenced by the hippies.” (That essay is really good. As are many of the essays collected in Booth’s book, Rhythm Oil.)
The MGs were an interracial band — Dunn and Cropper being white, organist Booker T. Jones and drummer Al Jackson being black — and so represented the nexus of country and blues traditions that has fueled Memphis’s storied and glorious musical history. In an essay in his book Mystery Train, Greil Marcus wrote of Sun Studios owner Sam Phillips’ thoughts after recording Elvis Presley’s first commercial release, “That’s All Right” in 1954. “…Phillips is perplexed. Who is gonna play this crazy record? White jocks won’t touch it ’cause it’s nigger music and colored will pass ’cause it’s hillbilly. It sounds good, it sounds sweet, but maybe it’s just… too weird? The hell with it.” In 1967, Steve Cropper and Otis Redding wrote “(Sittin’ On the) Dock of the Bay” together inside the converted movie theater that was Stax Records headquarters. “Soulsville, U.S.A.” it said on the marquee out front.
When I was in high school in New Jersey in the ’80s, the local alternative rock station, WHTG, would play Booker T. and the MGs while the DJs were reading weather reports or announcing upcoming concerts or whatever — because most of the MGs’ songs are instrumentals. This led me to buy my first Booker and the MGs album, a greatest hits collection, and also to associate the music with the mopey British post-punk WHTG specialized in at the time: the Cure, the Smiths, Echo & the Bunnymen, etc. That seems strange in hindsight, but maybe it shouldn’t.
In 1993, at the Garden State Arts Center, I saw Neil Young play a concert with Booker T. and the MGs as his backing band. It remains my default answer to the question, “What’s the best concert you’ve ever seen?” (Default only because such a question is so impossible to ever answer.) Something about the interplay between the raw, jagged style of Canadian Neil, who described himself that night as “the least funky man in the world,” and the smooth, Southern warmth of Booker T.’s organ and Dunn’s bass — I remember thinking that it complemented so well, each side of the collaboration filling in the empty spaces of the other. Late in the show, Neil pointed at Steve Cropper and said, “He wrote this,” and then they played “Dock of the Bay.” (This video is not from the concert I saw, but from the same tour.)
The next summer, I saw Booker T. and the MGs play their own show at Central Park’s Summerstage. It was a hot, sunny day, and people were dancing on their seats. The sound was so simple and straightforward — drums, bass, guitar, organ — locked in a groove, very little flourish. But the subtle dynamics were enough, and the music would build and build, and a sea of arms would rise higher and higher towards the crescendos. People were whooping and calling out. There was an older guy there in a sleeveless t-shirt who kept shouting, “Send us over the edge!” And they did — the tension of “Time Is Tight,” exploding into sweaty, exhausted catharsis.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of Booker T. and the MGs. Donald “Duck” Dunn’s bass lines run through so much of the greatest soul music ever made. Wilson Pickett, Rufus Thomas, The Staple Singers, Bill Withers, Eddie Floyd. And of course, other music that has come in its wake. The Jungle Brothers, Big Daddy Kane, Showbiz & A.G., Ice Cube.
And check out the beginning of the Jam’s classic “A Town Called Malice.”
That’s my jam. (Sorry.) And, yeah, I guess it shouldn’t seem strange to associate Booker T. and the MGs with with British post-punk. (Is that what you’d call the Jam, “post-punk?” Or the Cure, The Smiths and Echo & Bunnymen for that matter? Echo & the Bunnymen would be more new wave, right? I don’t know. I hate sub-genre labels. I understand their facility, but its always confusing and wrong.) Anyway, it shouldn’t seem wrong to associate Booker T. and the MGs with anything, I guess. They are monumentally great. Has there ever been a better house band for a record label? Has there ever been a better record label? I don’t think so.
Donald “Duck” Dunn was the bedrock. We will know where’s he’s been.