On May 13, American music lost one of the most influential bass players of all time.

You might not know his name, but if you’ve been listening to music since the 1960’s, you’ve heard the man play. Dunn was a member of the soul music band Booker T. & the MG’s, known for their instrumental strut-off “Green Onions.” The group was also the house band at their label Stax Records in Memphis, TN, backing the likes of Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding. Dunn and his bandmates also toured and recorded with the comedy/blues band The Blues Brothers and starred in the film as well.

I’ve written on ongoing series about the Stax label and Memphis soul music that I hope to fashion into a proper manuscript of some kind one day. What follows is a long section discussing the beginnings of the MG’s during the early years at Stax. At this point in the story, the label is still called Satellite and they’ve just scored with hits by both Rufus and Carla Thomas…

This one is for the “Duck.”

Green Onion Blues: The Birth of the MG’s

Part I

After two successes with the Thomases’, Satellite had solidified its reputation as a little label capable of creating  hits that could find an audience at a national level. This special brand of soul was beginning to leave its mark on the popular consciousness at a time when the civil rights struggle in the South and Memphis was about to reach a flash point that would ignite an entire nation and create one of the most important cultural movements in American history.

One of the things that made this new kind of Memphis music so special is that the recordings were the result of a shared effort between black and white musicians in an environment that every participant states was emphatically color blind. This blend of cultural experience and musical tastes gave the soul songs coming out of Satellite the depth of gospel music, the infectious danceability of rhythm and blues, and the lilting sweetness of the best of country music.

In addition to the innovative recording techniques Chips Moman brought to the studio, he also brought a great talent for casting musicians for his sessions. It was obvious to everyone concerned that Moman couldn’t have cared less about the color of a player’s skin. Remarkably – given the prevailing attitudes of the time – Moman chose his musicians according to talent alone. In doing so he deserves a share of the credit for establishing Stax as a place where music trumped racial hang-ups and ignorant prejudice. He also can be thought of as the architect behind one of the greatest studio bands of all time.

Packy Axton and the Royal Spades had been cutting their teeth since their high school days, practicing at the old Satellite studio in Brunswick. Now that his uncle and aunt’s label had become known as a place where hit songs were being created under the direction of a talented producer and engineer, Packy was determined to make sure some of the luck rubbed off on the ‘Spades.

Axton generally made himself a ubiquitous presence in the old theatre, hanging at the record shop, checking in with his relatives and getting to the other side of the control room door whenever he could, making sure Moman knew he was a musician with a band that needed to be recording. If Moman was reluctant to take the enthusiastic young man seriously, his need for players at the studio got the best of him. Soon the ‘Spades found themselves spending a lot of time down on McLemore Ave.

One of the first signs that the boy’s new status was affecting the way they thought of the band and its music was a name change. In honor of the old theatre that had become their new home, the Royal Spades became The Marquees. After finding that many would-be fans couldn’t pronounce the name, the boys – undeterred – embraced the great rock ‘n roll tradition of creative spelling and decided they had now become The Mar-Keys.

Part II

Packy Axton and the other Mar-Keys became a ubiquitous presence at the studio on McLemore, backing sessions and searching for a hit of their own. One night during an intermission at a club gig, Chips Moman and studio keyboardist Smoochie Smith, came up with an interesting 3 chord riff during an intermission. Upon returning to the studio, Moman started to work the idea into a song using the Mar-Keys and a few other players – Smith manned the keys, while Booker T. Jones doubled the riff on the baritone sax. Stewart was unimpressed, but Estelle Axton was immediately excited by the groovy little song and declared that it was sure to be a hit.

“I kept bugging Jim. Then I started in on Chips. I said, ‘Look, this is a hit record.’ They said, ‘Forget it.’ Finally I got them to agree to it. They said for Packy to get the tape mastered and take it down to the pressing plant. That’s when we discovered that sixteen or eighteen bars had been wiped out.” – Estelle Axton, from Goin’ Back to Memphis by James Dickerson

Upon realizing that the song’s introduction had disappeared somewhere between the recording studio and the mastering lab, Packy fell into a panic and called his aunt. She reminded him that they had spent the whole evening recording the song, and, surely, there was an acceptable recording of the intro that could be substituted.

It fell to Packy to sift through the 50 odd takes of the song, find the missing bars at the beginning, and splice them into place. Although Estelle Axton and many of the players claim they can still hear the edit on the recording, Packy saved the song, and it’s a good thing he did.

Released in 1961, “Last Night” blasted to No. 2 on the pop charts, earning the infectious tune the title of the hottest-selling record in the history of Memphis. Estelle was right again. However, like so many other victory’s for the little label, sweet success was not without its bitter side.

“Last Night” brought unwanted notoriety to Satellite in the form of another label that claimed they had the rights to the Satellite name. Jim and Estelle put their heads together – and their last names – deciding that from then on, the label would be known simply as Stax.

With “Last Night” hovering at the top of the charts, The Mar-Keys quickly rearranged themselves into a touring unit to support the single. The band now included Steve Cropper on guitar, Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass, Packy on the tenor saxophone, Smoochie Smith on keys, Terry Johnson on drums, and Wayne Jackson and Don Nix on trumpet and baritone sax, respectively.

Back in Memphis, Moman was becoming a well-known presence, frequenting music clubs at night, playing gigs, or just fraternizing with fellow players backstage and after-hours. Moman’s reputation as a producer, and his high profile in the Memphis music community meant that he was constantly in touch with young talent wanting to record at Stax.

One of the first young singers Moman brought to the studio was William Bell, a popular 22- year-old singer who was well-known in black clubs in Memphis. Bell was soon to be drafted into the army, but not before recording “You Don’t Miss Your Water.” The song was recorded as a demo, but it was decided that the recording had a special kind of magic, so Stax sent it straight off to be mastered. “‘Water” became a huge hit in the South, and climbed into the national charts. More importantly, the song helped Stax define the kind of vocal-based soulful sound that the label would become known for. In the meantime, Booker T. Jones had other ideas.

Stewart, the fiddle player, was anxious for Stax to make a mark on the Country charts. The Mar-Keys had come in off the road, and Stewart quickly set up a session. He brought in a country vocalist, and booked Jones, Cropper, Al Jackson on drums and Lewis Steinberg on bass. While waiting for the singer to arrive, the guys started jamming on a riff they had been kicking around on their road gigs. The simple, bluesy notes combined a lazy sexuality with compelling repetition. In that melody lay the birth of one of the most important American bands of all time, and the end of the label as they had all come to know it. Stax had just been christened with its new name, when events conspired to tear it to pieces.

Part III

Despite the Mar-Keys initial, blockbuster success, they had trouble following up with another hit. While they struggled to stay afloat under Packy Axton’s guidance, many of the original touring band’s members had left the road and found themselves back in Memphis becoming the studio band that would create “The Memphis Sound.”

The horn section, always a round-robin mix of players, was beginning to solidify into what trumpeter Wayne Jackson and baritone sax-man Andrew Love would dub the “Memphis Horns.” Meanwhile, Booker T. Jones had taken on all of the keyboard responsibilities, while Al Jackson and Lewis Steinberg anchored the rhythm section on drums and bass, respectively. Packy Axton had lost his place at the table, while Steve Cropper had made himself an invaluable asset above and beyond his slash-and-burn guitar playing.

“Steve was my right hand man. He would come to the studio and sit there and keep the doors open and take care of business; he was disciplined and responsible. Steve was the key.” – Jim Stewart, from Sweet Soul Music, by Peter Guralnick

While there doesn’t seem to have been bad blood between the old friends, Cropper was not impressed with Packy’s intermittent commitment to the music that was being made at the studio, and was all-too-ready to step-up when the opportunity presented itself.

“Packy was a playboy. He was a mama’s boy. He wasn’t a total goof-off, but Packy was allowed to do what Packy wanted to do.” – Steve Cropper, from Sweet Soul Music, by Peter Guralnick

It was in this conflicted atmosphere full of bruised feelings that “Green Onions” was recorded. The guys recorded two sides one night when a singer failed to show for a country session. Both songs were immediate and exciting, and both Jim and Estelle wanted to release them as soon as possible.

The “A” side of the single was a tough, little blues number entitled “Behave Yourself.” The “B” side was the slinky, second tune the boys put together that night – “Green Onions.” By the time the 45 shipped, DJ’s around the country took it upon themselves to flip the record, promoting “’Onions” over the intended “A” side “hit.”

The success of “Green Onions” established the unit as a popular recording group as well as the band that would play on every song that was to come out of Stax for the next five years. Soon, teeny-boppers around the country were grooving to a new thing called the “Memphis Sound,” as interpreted by a group of racially-integrated musicians known as Booker T. and the MG’s. Although the origins of the band’s name are somewhat hazy, it is most likely that they took their moniker from Chip Moman’s Triumph automobile. Moman had named an earlier incarnation of the band The Triumphs, and he hypothesizes that the conflicting stories regarding the name were invented after what followed in the wake of “Green Onions’” success.

With yet another hit on their hands, the little studio was experiencing growing pains. Stax was becoming a music industry player and was reaping the monetary benefits of that success. As so often happens, this success began to tear the family that created it apart.

Almost fifty years after the fact, events are difficult to recreate. There is no doubt that there were bruised feelings over the creativity in the studio: Chip and Estelle had been instrumental in making “Last Night” a hit, while Jim took the credit for producing “Green Onions.” There was also the question of money. Moman, seeing the kind of success the label was having, began to feel he wasn’t getting his fair share. In the meantime, Estelle wasn’t about to give up any of her 50% after having mortgaged her house, and Jim felt entitled to at least half the rewards of his dream. The arrangement left little room for Moman as anything other than a producer-for-hire, and he decided to walk.

Given the creative role the producer occupied, the impact of Moman’s departure surely left an artistic and emotional void in the studio. However, that was a spot Steve Cropper was all-too-ready to take for himself. With Cropper at the helm, Stewart finally quit his job at the bank, while Booker T. and the MG’s continued to gel into one of the finest studio bands ever.

Moman’s departure marks the end of Stax’s early rise to prominence on the national music scene, and the beginning of Moman’s own American Studio, that would produce some of the biggest hits of the late ’60’s. However, in 1962, it all began to come together for Stax – and not a moment too soon. That was the year a young man named Otis Redding first visited the studio.

Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music, Harper and Row, 1986
James Dickerson’s Goin’ Back to Memphis, Simon and Schuster Macmillan, 1996
Michael Haralambos’ Right on: From Blues to Soul in Black America, Drake Publishers, 1975
Respect Yourself: The Stax Story, documentary film, produced by Tremolo Productions,
Concord Music Group and Thirteen/WNET New York, for PBS’ Great Performances, 2007