Ear of Newt: my first and last interview with bass-guitar legend Donald “Duck” Dunn

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When they say “Duck” Dunn is smokin’ on bass, they aren’t jokin’ around.

 
ORIGINALLY POSTED ON STRAIGHT.COM, MAY 13, 2012

By Steve Newton

American bass-guitar legend Donald “Duck” Dunn passed away in his sleep this morning, after a gig in Tokyo last night. Back in June of ’85 I interviewed him on the phone from his home in Memphis, where he was taking a break during a tour with Eric Clapton.

Slowhand was touring behind the release of the Phil Collins-produced Behind the Sun album, which featured Dunn on seven of its 11 tracks (Nathan East played bass on the others, including the single “Forever Man”). Since Clapton wasn’t talking, I figured Dunn was the next best thing, and he proved to be a helluva cool cat–which I should have expected from his groovy bass playing. I especially like the part where he talks about working on the Blues Brothers movie and being buds with John Belushi.

How’s the tour going?

Uh, well we’ve been off about four weeks now, got about two more weeks off and then we go right back in it. Lookin’ forward to gettin’ back to work. I’ve been home long enough.

How long have you known Eric for?

Uh, well I’ve actually known Eric for about ten years, but I actually started playing with him on the [1983] Money and Cigarettes record.

I know most musicians don’t like to compare albums, but how do you think Behind the Sun is different than Money and Cigarettes?

Uh, well, you know, there’s a lotta Phil’s influence in it. Umm, the sound, I guess–it sounds more studio than the other record. To me I guess it sounds cleaner. I think the Money and Cigarettes songs were rawer–well we did that record in 11 days anyway–but on the new album I think you can hear some of Phil’s sounds in there.

What was Phil Collins like to work with?

Great! He’s a workaholic, and sometimes he doesn’t realize it. But he’s wonderful to work with; he really knows what he wants. And he taught me some tricks in the studio that I’d never seen before.

Like what?

Well, like, Jamie [Oldaker] the drummer, he would feed Jamie like a drum machine or a click-track maybe, and the rest of the band wouldn’t get it, and that made it kinda fluctuate a little bit better I think. And I know in my playing–when I’m playing with a click-track or some kinda time-keeping machine–I just think ‘time’, you know, and I don’t think ‘feel’, but that was interesting.

What was it like recording in Montserrat, down in the West Indies?

Yeah, well, there’s nothing to do there but lay in the sun and work! It’s really relaxin’ there. And if I do the next record with him–if he asks me to do the next one–I hope he does it there again. It’s a beautiful place; it’s paradise down there.”

There’s some top-notch players on the album, as well as yourself there’s Steve Lukather from Toto…

Yeah, well, no, that was some of the stuff that [producers] Ted Templeman and Lenny Waronker did–they felt like there wasn’t any singles on it. I don’t know if you read the Rolling Stone with them…

No I didn’t.

…well they sent Eric some songs, and they thought he could do them, and Eric liked ’em, so he went to L.A. and tried ’em. I wasn’t on about three of those tracks. But they just felt like they needed a single off of it, so, in a sense, Phil–and even Eric–they just felt like, from my understanding, that they weren’t trying to make a single…well, you know, what’s the word, um, uh…

A hit?

A hit, a hit record–they were just trying to make Eric’s music, you know. But record companies of course don’t look at it that way.

“Forever Man” turned out pretty good; I quite like that tune.

Yeah yeah. Yeah. Matter of fact, when we first started rehearsin’ that, we hated it. Everybody hated it. And before you know it ended up in the encore, and it’s kinda fun to play.”

Allright. When did you first hear Eric play?

Oh I’ve known Eric since the Cream days. But back in those days when I was workin’ for Stax I was just kind of wrapped up in those days in R&B and just tryin’ to work all my talents if I had any at Stax, and I just really never listened to…back in those days there was hardly any FM radio, you know, and I was just mostly an R&B player and listener, and I really didn’t pay too much attention to it. But since I’ve come to work with Eric, I’ve realized he’s the best all-around guitarist I’ve ever worked with.

Really? And you’ve worked with quite a few.

Yeah. And he is some player.

You were in Booker T and the MGs.

Yeah, Booker T, with [Steve] Cropper, that was about 11 or 12 years. And then after we broke up I played with Levon Helm some; I went over to Japan with Levon after the Band had broken up. And then did the Blues Brothers.

Oh yeah, I wanted to ask you about that. You musta known John Belushi then.

Yeah, John and I were pretty good friends, matter of fact. It seems like you’re name-dropping sometimes, but I think John and I were pretty good friends.

What was he like to play with in the band?

He was the godfather, you know. He wouldn’t let anything…he would always wonder if everything was allright with the band, you know.

Pretty good singer!

Yeah, ah, well…you know, a lot of people thought that was a joke. But when they donned those outfits they were strictly in character and it was all business to ’em. And, you know, to put people like [horn player] Tom Scott and [drummer] Steve Jordan and [David Letterman show keyboardist Paul] Schaffer in somethin’ like that…a lot of people claim it was a fluke and this and that, but we were serious as we could be about that band.

You played on the album and were in the movie as well. What was that like, doing the movie?

Uh–different [laughs]. I mean, it was easy! I guess it was easy money, ’cause they’d put you on call, you’d have to get up like five in the morning sometimes, you know, but you’d go in there and you’d hang till about nine that morning and then they’d finally say, ‘Well, you can go home now.’ And you do that about five days a week, you only work for one, so it was easy–other than gettin’ up. Most of the time we just stayed up.

I guess you got to know Dan Aykroyd pretty well too?

Yeah, well Dan, I ran into Dan in London back in February–matter of fact he came up and did the encore with Eric. He played some harp, and introduced the band as only Danny can do, you know. We played Wembley two nights, and Danny came up the second night, introduced the band and did “Further On Up the Road” with us. That was fun. I hope to run across him again in L.A. I think we play three or four nights there, so if we do I’m sure he’ll come up and do it again with us.

So Eric’s doing “Further On Up the Road”. What other old classics are on the set list?

Yeah, we’ve been doing that in the encore. We finish with “Layla”, that’s the last song, then we come back and we do “Forever Man” and then “Further On Up the Road”. That was the last part of the tour. Now, I’m not sure if he wouldn’t change it. At one point we was doin’ “Knock on Wood” in the encore. So it depends on how Eric feels during rehearsals. Whatever, you know. Whatever he wants to play.

How is he doing as far as you know in his personal life. Is everything pretty well straightened out?

Yeah! I think he’s in great shape. He’s humorous, he’s always lookin’ to pick on somebody and start a bunch of shit. He loves to do that. He’s like a little old lady about startin’ a bunch of shit. You know, he’s fun to work with. He’s easy to work with. You know, he’s not demanding–although I think he could be if he needed to be. But with the people he’s picked in the band, it’s a good band. It’s a fun band.

I wanted to ask you: the Behind the Sun record is on Duck Records.

Nothing to do with me. That’s the name of his record company. I’ve had that question quite a bit.

How did you get the name Duck anyway?

Well my dad did that when I was about two years old, about the same time the Donald Duck cartoons were out. And he was tossin’ me around, my first name is Donald, and he called me Duck. And all the times when I was a kid–other than when he was mad at me–it was Duck. And even the teachers in high school, they’d call me Duck.

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