Interview: Donald 'Duck' Dunn, musician

As bass guitarist in the house band at Stax Records, he played with the legendary Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Sam & Dave. Here, Donald 'Duck' Dunn breaks off from playing his favourite ukulele to talk Soulsville USA

• Donald Dunn and Steve Cropper performing with Booker T & the MGs in 2007

THE first time Donald "Duck" Dunn, one of the pre-eminent bass players in popular music, picked up a stringed instrument, he chose the ukulele. Some 60 years later, he has been idly strumming one as he waits for The Scotsman to call, still deriving simple enjoyment from playing.

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You might call Dunn a musician's musician, that shorthand term for an influential rather than a star player. As one quarter of the house band at Stax Records – and later a member of Booker T & the MGs – his full-bodied basslines have graced classic tracks by Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Sam & Dave. When he talks of the thrill of first hearing those records on the radio, there is some pride but no trace of ego.

The man whose playing was admired, even copied by the likes of The Beatles, regards himself as a servant of the music and a team player.

"That's my job, that's what I do," he says. "I'm the middle man. I try to keep people happy. I go out of my way to get a smile. That's the way my mother raised me."

Dunn was born and brought up in Memphis – the "Duck" nickname deriving from watching Donald Duck cartoons with his father. When his childhood friend Steve Cropper took up the guitar, Dunn followed suit. "I was trying to play guitar but I guess six strings was too many," he says. "I could handle four. When I heard BB King's Sweet Sixteen I knew I wanted to play bass because that was the thing that made that record, the bass player."

Dunn was self-taught, developing a sound informed by his love of rhythm'n'blues artists such as Ray Charles and Hank Ballard and of the pioneering rock'n'rollers on his doorstep, Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, with whom he would go on to play in the early 1970s. Together with organist Booker T Jones, guitarist Steve Cropper and drummer Al Jackson Jr, he supplied the distinctive groove-led musical signature of the Stax label, the south's Soulsville USA to Motown's Hitsville.

"I felt in competition with Motown but I didn't think they was in competition with us because I always thought James Jamerson (of Motown's house band the Funk Brothers] was about ten times a better bass player than I was," says Dunn, with characteristic modesty. "Motown was the pop R&B, we were the roots R&B, that's the way I can describe it. We never did use violins till later on, we always had a horn section (the legendary Memphis Horns] so I think we were maybe a bit more raw than they were or somethin'."

Dunn and his cohorts were not fully aware of the cultural impact their music was making beyond their backyard until the Stax stable toured Europe in 1967 to scenes of mass hysteria.

"Playing behind Otis, it was the greatest feeling in the world," recalls Dunn. "He had a halo. When that man came into the studio you knew he was a star and when he played live the reaction he got was crazy. He liked to play everything a good bit faster live."

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It was on this trip that the musicians discovered their mutual appreciation with members of The Beatles. Typically, Dunn hung back ("I think Steve might have talked to them a little bit longer than me…") but years later, George Harrison informed him that the bassline of Drive My Car was inspired by his bassline on Redding's version of Respect. "It's a great compliment if it is true," says Dunn. "One day I'd really like to ask Paul…"

Booker T & the MGs returned the compliment by recording an album of instrumental versions of songs from Abbey Road, entitled McLemore Avenue after the street on which Stax HQ was located. Their tribute extended to the sleeve, which depicts the four members crossing the avenue.

The MGs' mixed racial make-up – two black musicians playing with two white musicians – made a powerful statement at a time when segregation was still widespread throughout the southern states, even if it was no big deal to the band members themselves. "Black musicians, white musicians, whatever," says Dunn. "Colour's no problem, they're just exceptional people. I knew when I got to play with Al Jackson I would be a better bass player because he was the best drummer in the world. I worshipped him."

Inevitably, not everyone shared Dunn's colourblind viewpoint. He recalls travelling by plane with Jackson and falling foul of a group of drunk morticians returning from a convention.

"They was all from the south and they wasn't too happy about it," he understates. "But you just overlook it and don't get in any trouble. When we was all on stage playing together, I think it brought a lot of black people and white people together seeing how we acted between ourselves."

Following the initial demise of Stax in the 70s, Dunn kept the southern R&B sound alive as a member of the Blues Brothers band, appearing in the film of the same name, and sessioned for an array of big names, Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart among them. The MGs rose to prominence again in the 1990s, when they backed Neil Young on tour and in the studio. Through it all, Cropper has been a constant musical sidekick. "I've been with Steve so long, I feel like I know what he's going to do before he does," he says.

Dunn lives in Florida these days and claims to be semi-retired. But for a semi-retired man, he's pretty busy. He and Cropper recently played and toured with Australian singer Guy Sebastian and the pair also perform regularly with Jackson's cousin Steve Potts on drums. This weekend they join forces with veteran R&B singer Eddie Floyd for a celebration of the Stax catalogue at Perth's Southern Fried Festival.

More than 50 years into his career, Dunn remains as humble and principled as ever. "If you've got a good song, it's easy to play. But you can't make a bad song sound good no matter who you have to play on it," he remarks, before returning to that ukulele again.

• Stax! is at Perth Concert Hall, Sunday 24 July, as part of the Southern Fried festival.