Dan Penn and other writers helped shape the development of southern soul music with their legendary songwriting, musicianship and production.
A native of Vernon, Alabama, Penn moved to the Florence/Muscle Shoals area while still a teenager and assumed the role of lead vocalist in a local group calling itself the Mark V Combo. When asked what kind of music they played, Penn replies, “R&B, man. There was no such thing as rock. That was somethin’ you picked up and throwed.” He laughs. “Or threw.” It was around this time that he penned his first char record, Conway Twitty’s “Is a Bluebird Blue”. During the early ’60s, Penn began working with Rick Hall at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, first as a songwriter, and then as an artist under the names Lonnie Ray, Danny Lee, and finally Dan Penn.
Penn’s early co-writing collaborations with Spooner Oldham while at Fame included “I’m Your Puppet,” which became a hit in 1965 for James & Bobby Purify, and “Out of Left Field,” and “It Tears Me Up” performed so memorably by Percy Sledge. He also co-wrote hits for Joe Simon, Jimmy Hughes and Wilson Pickett.
Dan became an exclusive writer for Fame Publishing Co. for about three years. “It was sort of an in-house thing, where artists were comin’ and goin’, askin’ for songs, and there was sort of a built-in opportunity to try to be a commercial songwriter.”
According to Penn, the reason people hear touches of country in hi brand of R&B is “because I’m an old hillbilly myself. Took me about 30 years to find out I was still a hillbilly. But compared to R&B, country is much easier. You ain’t got to struggle. Anybody can sing, ‘Because your’e mine, I walk the line.’ Go try to write ‘Out of Left Field’; go find all those chords and what all that means. So a hillbilly I am, but in the ’60s I really loved R&B music, and there was a lot of it to love. I loved Jimmy Reed, Bobby Bland, Ray Charles, Little Milton, James Brown... I always respected the black singers because they were always there -- we were trying to get there. Knowing that the black singers wanted my songs inspired me.”
A number of their classics were written for particular singers. “‘Sweet Inspiration’ was written for the group the Sweet Inspirations, ‘Cry Like a Baby’ was written for Alex Chilton, ‘Out of Left Field’ was written for Percy Sledge,” says Penn. “I either was involved in the production or I was real close to the production teams, so when you’re in the middle of a clique, you got the power to either do it right, do it wrong or get out of the way and let somebody else do it.” One gets the impression that Penn was not the kind to get out of the way. “But you have an opportunity to score, and sometimes we scored. By that I mean comin’ up with a song that was good enough to get on the session. And then, if it came out and was a hit, the score was really complete at that point. So first you had to get on the session, and then the big question was, did it come out? And then the next question was, is it the single? At least back then.
“Some of these songs weren’t written that way. ‘Do Right Woman’ wasn’t written for Aretha, nor ‘Dark End of the Street’ for James Carr. Me and Chips Moman just wrote those songs and we didn’t have anybody in mind. We worked great together while we were together--we’re so lucky to have those two songs--but we didn’t stay together.”
In 1966, Penn relocated to Memphis and began producing at Chips Moman’s American Recording Studio. While at American, Penn and Moman co-wrote “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” which Franklin turned into a soul classic, along with “Dark End of the Street,” stunningly recorded by James Carr, while Dan and Spooner came up with “Cry Like a Baby” for the Box Tops and later “A Woman Left Lonely,” written at Dan’s Beautiful Sounds Studio in Memphis, and chose by Janis Joplin for her classic album Pearl.
Penn and wife Linda relocated to Nashville in the ’70s--where he recently co-wrote and produced Bobby Purify’s comeback album, Better to Have It, in his basement studio. The session included one of Penn’s co-writers, Malaco keyboardist Carson Whitsett. The well-received album was released on Proper American in the summer of 2005.
Dan Penn Talks About Some of His Hits
“I’m Your Puppet”: “We’d dome our usual, which was go get a barbeque plate or a burger. Then we came to the studio, and I had just bought a little 12-string guitar that sounded pretty good, so I just started playin’ [voices the guitar line from the song], and Spooner just slid in with [he makes the familiar keyboard sound]. Next thing you know, we’re into this song. I started writin’ stuff down, we cut a little demo on it and me and Rick came up to Nashville and put some strings on it. Actually, it was a record that came out on me, I believe on MGM, but it was called ‘The Puppet'--wasn’t no ‘Your.’ My little record didn’t do anything, and it went to the demo file. So when producer Don Schroeder brought the Purify brothers in, they went to the demo file and they picked that one out. When they started singin’ it, they sang ‘I’m your puppet’--they couldn’t remember, I guess. And I didn’t like it anyway; I thought it was too fast, kind of a rip-off of Sam & Dave, I thought. At least that’s what I was thinkin’ then. Later on, when it came out and became a hit, I loved it. It was easy to get on board later.”
“Out of Left Field”: “People say it’s a baseball metaphor, but I always think it’s a farm metaphor, like an old tractor bringin’ some hay in. The chords Spooner came up with and the places we went are kinda strange. It just love it ‘cause it’s a heck of a way to say ‘She walked in out of nowhere.’”
“Do Right Woman, Do Right Man”: In January 1967, Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler brought Aretha Franklin to Fame to record “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You.” Penn recalled the scene. “When she walked in she was like a young queen. Most of the guys in the studio pretended not to be paying too much attention to her, but they were looking at her from the corner of their eyes. She appeared so calm, but I knew she was scared to death. She just sat down at the piano, calmly took a deep breath, lifted her hand up and then just hit the unknown chord! The instant she did that all the guys stopped eating or talking or whatever and just headed for their guitars and drums to play. You just knew history was going to be made that day.”
“The Dark End of the Street”: “We tracked at Hi, and a few weeks later we brought James Carr to American and did his vocal overdubs and I did some background vocals. We thought James was fantastic; he had made some good records before, and we knew we had made a good record. did we realize it was going to become hailed as a masterpiece? Not really, but I liked the song and the record a lot. What did I think of Aretha’s version? It was ok, but nobody did it as good as James Carr, not even me.”
“You Left the Water Running”: “Otis Redding did a demo for me on “You Left the Water Running”. I got to be around him the day he cut Arthur Conley on ‘Sweet Soul Music’ at Fame. Otis was the most effective record producer I have ever seen.”
“Cry Like a Baby”: “I produced ‘The Letter’ and ‘Cry Like a Baby’ on The Box Tops. They were both big hits. Everybody thinks I coaxed [Alex Chilton] into doing a lot of vocal tricks, but it’s not true--he just had it. The only thing I ever told that young man to do was sing ‘aeroplane’ instead of ‘airplane’ on ‘The Letter’--I was just tryin’ to make it flow better.”
Some of Dan’s latest productions have been Greg Trooper and The Hacienda Brothers.
He is currently playing live shows with the great Memphis keyboard man Bobby Emmons.