Monday, May 21, 2012

Can't Turn You Loose

Isaac Tigrett, "Duck" Dunn, Randy Haspel: Hard Rock Cafe, New York, 1988
Donald "Duck" Dunn used to say that Al Jackson, Jr. was the greatest drummer he'd ever heard. With the recent passing of both Andrew Love and Charles "Skip" Pitts, the guys have all the makings of a smokin' celestial soul combo. Add Isaac Hayes and Otis Redding to the mix, and they've got a full blown Stax/Volt Revue going on for the Heavenly Host. If you're inside the Memphis city limits and you've never heard of Duck Dunn, you must be a tourist. Dunn, who died last week in Tokyo at age 70, was one-fourth of Booker T. & the MGs, the house band during the glory days of Stax Records and among the greatest instrumental groups to ever record. Duck was in Tokyo for a series of gigs with his childhood friend, Steve Cropper, and Stax soul star Eddie Floyd. Cropper posted, "Today I lost my best friend and the world has lost the best guy and bass player to ever live." Booker T. Jones said, "I can't imagine not being able to hear Duck laugh and curse but I'm thankful I got to spend time and make music with him. His intensity was incomparable. Everyone loved him. None more than Otis Redding." Duck's passing essentially ends the 50 year phenomenon known as Booker T. & the MGs. The band recruited another drummer to replace the late Al Jackson, Jr. and played on for another 37 years, but nobody can replace Duck Dunn.

Listen to any track by Otis Redding or Sam & Dave. If Al Jackson, Jr. was the pulse, then Duck's bass was the propulsion. He once described himself as "a seat-of-the-pants bass player," but in reality he was more of a "kick you in your ass" bass player. He not only supplied the bottom, but also the energy, for some of the 20th century's most memorable recordings, like "Soul Man," "The Midnight Hour," and Otis' remarkable "Try a Little Tenderness." Watch those old, black and white videos of the Stax Revue in Europe, 1967, and you'll see Duck's characteristic neck-jerk in time with the music; increasing in fervor with the strength of the groove. Duck's biographical information is familiar to friends and fans; a graduate of Messick High where he and his friend Cropper had a band called the Royal Spades, who morphed into the Mar-Keys and had Stax's first monster hit with the instrumental, "Last Night." When Cropper moved on to fledgling label, he recruited his friend Duck to replace Lewie Steinberg in the MGs, and history was made. The MGs were Memphis' first inter-racial band, something unheard of in the early sixties. But those of us who were younger and aspired to a music career, took pride and inspiration from the group during those turbulent times. In segregated Memphis, an integrated group would most likely be denied the right to share the same bandstand, but in the recording studio, nothing could stop a group of teenagers who all grew up listening to Rufus Thomas and Dewey Phillips on the radio, and Willie Mitchell and the 4 Kings, Bowlegs Miller, and the 5 Royales in the clubs of West Memphis.

It's worth noting that in his fellow musicians' remarks, in the same breath that they praise Duck's musicianship, they note that he was an even better human being. That's what his friends recall first; that Duck was a humble man, unaffected by his worldwide fame, he loved to laugh, either at your jokes or his own, and he very well could have put a bumper sticker on his bass guitar that read, "I'd rather be golfing." Like most Memphians, I admired Duck from afar and regarded him as a soul  icon, until 1981, when we became acquainted. That was the year Huey's Restaurant made their first attempt at expansion with "Louie's," a converted eatery on Poplar Ave. in East Memphis, and had hired my band, the Radiants, to play on Sunday nights. While other local bands were covering Journey and Foreigner, we were still performing a venerable list of Rhythm & Blues classics, with a healthy dose of Stax songs. When Duck began to show up and we asked him to sit in, everyone so enjoyed themselves that we reserved a regular spot for him every Sunday. Our long-time bassist, Steve Spear, was leaving Memphis and I was in a bind to find a suitable replacement. I asked Duck if he knew anybody and he answered, "What about me," and the next day, he was in the band.

Our song list contained some complicated tunes that required rehearsal, but, considering his expertise, I was reluctant to ask Duck to practice. He beat me to it by opening up his home and inviting the band there to rehearse as often as we wished. When we began, Duck cautioned us in typical humility, "Look, I'm no Steve Spear. You're going to have to have a little patience with me." When I later told him, Spear was delighted with the comparison. Along with our Sunday gig, the Radiants began playing Tuesday nights downtown at Jefferson Square, and Duck propelled our band like he did the MGs. When our young saxophonist, Jim Spake, had to leave the band suddenly and I needed to replace him, Duck said, "I don't think Andrew Love is doing anything." The next week, one half of the Memphis Horns joined the band. Andrew stepped in seamlessly without need of rehearsal and I suddenly found myself fronting the best soul band I ever had. I got an offer from a brand-new combination Pizza Parlor/Disco in Dallas and booked the band there for a week. Neither Duck nor Andrew complained about the drive, but when we checked into one of the city's seedier motels to save on expenses, I felt a bit guilty about putting these two world famous musicians into such raunchy accomodations. Halfway through the gig, Andrew came to my room and said, "I think Duck's paralyzed." He had slept beneath an air conditioner and woke up to find half his face frozen into a Joker-like smirk. I thought, "My God. I've crippled this man in a rotten Dallas motel room." A doctor diagnosed Bell's Palsy, but by the evening, Duck was feeling well enough to play and stopped me from phoning Memphis for substitute bass players.

It couldn't last forever. Andrew and his Memphis Horns partner Wayne Jackson went on the road with Robert Cray, and Duck got the call from Eric Clapton. Shortly afterward, in a memorable night at the Orpheum Theatre, Clapton headlined with Duck on bass while the warm-up act was Ry Cooder, featuring Jim Dickinson on keyboard. Then there was the night a rejuvenated Booker T. & the MGs made their first homecoming appearance at B.B. King's on Beale Street. I was sardined into that packed house mainly to support my friends, but when the Hammond organ began a thunderous roiling noise that ultimately became the introduction to "Green Onions," and the band kicked in, I leapt to my feet cheering like the Tigers had won the national championship. Duck found a groove and was snapping his neck sideways, always to the left, and a roomful of lucky patrons got to see the show of a lifetime. Duck was a cancer survivor and lived the past few decades in Sarasota, where he moved for the golfing opportunities as much as for the nice weather. If Duck and Andrew had one thing in common aside from their music, it's that they both were supported by wonderful spouses. June Dunn and PeeWee Love are two of the kindest, yet strongest, women I know, and the love both couples shared made it a delight to be in their company. I'm proud to have known them. In Tokyo, Duck had just finished two shows at the Blue Note Nightclub, when he called home to say he wasn't feeling well. Later that night, he passed away in his sleep. Like the true, musical road-warrior that he was, Duck Dunn died with his boots on.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

A great article about some really great guys.

Anonymous said...

Wow! That is some claim to fame. I always thought that Randy and the Radiants was just a garage band that played for high school proms. I didn't know that they rubbed shoulders with the heavyweights. It will always be a mystery to me why someone with intelligence and talent like Sput didn't make it in a big way nationally. I guess it can be attributed to the 'fickle finger of fate'. At least you have the memories.

Father Farken said...

It's not that Randy rubbed shoulders with the Heavyweights. The heavyweights sought out the pure authentic righteousness of Randy's talents & purity of his kind heart. The Duck was one of them. They brought out the best in each other. The Duck has left quite a glorious impression on this world with his music...sitting in a steam room with Bulushi, & Steve Lawrence was not one of them. The Peace of the Lord! FFF

Anonymous said...

Now ya throwin' me in a funk again, Randy. I moved on a day or two after Duck died. Now, I'm missin' his sound, the Memphis sound, even the Radiant sound. We're in that group where our friends are dropping like flies. Brother Anon, you just don't know Memphis music. And, Father Farken, I think you're rebeling against CBHS at this late date. Me, I enjoyed watching the geezer garage band reunioin clips on you-tube. Some of us boomers are lookin' a little old.

Anonymous said...

oh, and isn't it "Can't Turn You A Loose?"

Father Farken said...

I could never turn against the great CBHS! Brothers for life. Coach NiX, The late Brother Stephen, Mr. Riley, Tognetti, The Canales, spinosa, Bosi,Spiotta, Coroy, Solmson, Miller, The Radiant Randolph, Pratt, The Pattons, The Taggs, Freddie Knapp,Ralph Michael, Tony Apoloni, Grossman, Smokey,The Dwyers, Lil' Skeeter, The Georges...all you mothers...uh brothers lift me heart. I'm a Brothers Boy! Where you come up with that?

Anonymous said...

Beautiful tribute, my good man! We lost one of the real ones there with Duck...so glad you had the experience of being in the saddle next to him, feeling the power. Like you, I had the pleasure (for an extended period) and what I learned from him by example informs everything I do musically, every single day. But even though the music was amazing, it's as a very cool (and damn hilarious) human being I will think of him most. Thanks for sharing, O Radiant One!

Anonymous said...

One more brag on Sput. This is one man's opinion, but I heard a few of his hippie music shows on radio. He impressed me as being the best DJ I had ever heard...knowledgable, artful, witty, the whole package. Lesser DJ's became rich and famous. How can this be?

Anonymous said...

Farken is right. He is referring to CBHS' Golden Age. Every male admired and/or envied the Brothers. They were hard-nosed men amongst boys. What about Art Kuntzman, Buddy Soefker, John Fred Robilio, Jackie Cotton, Ray Fracchia, Paul Hofer, Skeeter Gowan, Leo DiBondi, Tim McCarver, David Szouka, Art Brickey, Sam Cerito, etc., etc,? Was it the fish, or the ass-kicking brothers that produced such men?

Randolph Haspel said...

For Anon.1, Thank you for remembering the radio show and for your compliments. I didn't think anyone was listening until I got fired from my free job, but no commercial station was interested.
and to Mr. Anon.2, I appreciate your kind words very much, as well as all you did these past two weeks. Duck was also a wise man. One night, we had an audience that was mildly hostile at best and I was pissed off. During the break, Duck said, "Just do what I do and get lost in the music." I took that advice to heart from then on.

Eve (Yeargain) Settles said...

Wow, Randy, you have jogged memories so cobwebbed I didn't know they were still there! I went to Richland with Melody and then to Gtown, didn't realize who was in all the bands that played at high school Greek gigs, but I was there! I wish my memories were clearer. Check out my own Memphis music memories at our new blog, Back in River City at eddiesettles.com (April 12 post). Eddie and I graduated from Gtown in 1969 and left Memphis as soon as we could. Back now after 30+ years, we have fallen back in love with Memphis and are working to help our beloved hometown get back on its feet. Please give my very best to Melody. Thank you for the great music all those years ago, Randy. I'm sad that I wasn't in Memphis to hear it all.

Anonymous said...

This is for "Miss Eve" (LOL). So you attended Gtown. I, too, was raised in Mphs but a family move took me away in the "Summer of 64." Now you've moved back. Sometimes I think about moving back, although I have no immediate family there now. And a friend, another CBHS Mphs alum, does not speak fondly of going back. Says the humidity affects his golf game. So, you're enjoying it, are you, Eve? What hoods do you and the Haspels recommend? I was retiring to NOLA when the little storm came up in 2005. Now I'm still Stuck Inside of Maryland With the Memphis Blues Again. 'Course, the Economy is in my way at the moment....

Anonymous said...

This is for "Miss Eve" (LOL). So you attended Gtown. I, too, was raised in Mphs but a family move took me away in the "Summer of 64." Now you've moved back. Sometimes I think about moving back, although I have no immediate family there now. And a friend, another CBHS Mphs alum, does not speak fondly of going back. Says the humidity affects his golf game. So, you're enjoying it, are you, Eve? What hoods do you and the Haspels recommend? I was retiring to NOLA when the little storm came up in 2005. Now I'm still Stuck Inside of Maryland With the Memphis Blues Again. 'Course, the Economy is in my way at the moment....

Anonymous said...

This is for "Miss Eve" (LOL). So you attended Gtown. I, too, was raised in Mphs but a family move took me away in the "Summer of 64." Now you've moved back. Sometimes I think about moving back, although I have no immediate family there now. And a friend, another CBHS Mphs alum, does not speak fondly of going back. Says the humidity affects his golf game. So, you're enjoying it, are you, Eve? What hoods do you and the Haspels recommend? I was retiring to NOLA when the little storm came up in 2005. Now I'm still Stuck Inside of Maryland With the Memphis Blues Again. 'Course, the Economy is in my way at the moment....

Anonymous said...

This is for "Miss Eve" (LOL). So you attended Gtown. I, too, was raised in Mphs but a family move took me away in the "Summer of 64." Now you've moved back. Sometimes I think about moving back, although I have no immediate family there now. And a friend, another CBHS Mphs alum, does not speak fondly of going back. Says the humidity affects his golf game. So, you're enjoying it, are you, Eve? What hoods do you and the Haspels recommend? I was retiring to NOLA when the little storm came up in 2005. Now I'm still Stuck Inside of Maryland With the Memphis Blues Again. 'Course, the Economy is in my way at the moment....

Steve in DC said...

So long, "Goody"...

Doug Goodman Obituary

Anonymous said...

Ass kicking CBHS late 60s and no one remembers Walter Rucker? Started in 4 sports, SS, pointy gurd, 100yd dash, QB four consecutive years withy 7 city titles and 2 national records (FT%, FG%)?