A profound and ringing endorsement – from an unexpected source – of Dan Penn’s expertise and appeal as a songwriter that kind of says it all:
After an intimate performance by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham at Brooklyn New York’s St. Anne’s Church in the late 90’s, a seemingly unlikely member of the audience, rocker Lou Reed, was so moved that he sought Penn out after the performance. Reed told Penn: “If I had written a song as great as ‘I’m Your Puppet’, I would have given up songwriting right then and there”.
As a general statement, with a few exceptions, Southern Soul greats didn’t write any of their hits. This task was left to a select few who were gifted with being able to convey their stories in song in an accepted style and a well understood vernacular – like Dan Penn.
Further, when said writers were composing specifically for a particular artist they displayed a keen sense of the artists’ capabilities while providing material that suited them and blended seamlessly with their previous work. In so doing, they didn’t stray far from what an artist’s audience liked, and had come to expect from them. (And, to add an interesting dimension, the artists were / are black and the songwriters that are being alluded to were / are predominantly white. As Dan Penn said “It was black people singing, we did the picking and grinning… that’s what I call R&B”).**
(** Like all rules there are exceptions. There are a number of great Black songwriters such as Isaac Hayes and David Porter – Stax house songwriters – who played a significant role in the growth and popularity of Southern Soul).
This is no mean feat; and no one either on their own or with partners has done it better and with more longevity than Dan Penn, one of the behind the scenes creators of Southern Soul. With hits too numerous to mention, Penn has written songs for an incredibly long list of artists ranging from Aretha Franklin to Merrilee Rush. Penn’s first hit – “Is A Blue Bird Blue?” for Conway Twitty – was released in 1960 and placed # 35 Pop, (while Penn was still in school); and Penn’s still turning them out today.
Born Wallace Daniel Pennington on November 11, 1941 in Lemar County Alabama, Penn’s family moved some 250 miles south to Vernon Alabama, (in the area of Muscle Shoals), when Dan was 16.
Penn’s musical education started at home where his father sang and played the guitar and his mother played piano. They assumed similar duties at churches in Vernon with Penn’s father leading the singalongs and Dan taking part. Aside from this experience, Penn’s music appreciation began with listening to the Pop singers of the day such as Patti Page as well as Country radio. That is, until he discovered WLAC out of Nashville with its legendary quartet of late night R&B shows hosted by the likes of John Richbourg (John R), Bill (“Hoss” or “Hossman”) Allen, Gene Nobles, and Herman Grizzard. It was through these shows that Penn was introduced to bluesman Jimmy Reed who’s simple but effective songs left an indelible impression on Penn’s later in life vocation of songwriting.
Although best known as a superlative songwriter and producer, Penn’s got his start as a performer. As a singer and sometime guitar player, he first joined local favourites Benny Cagle & The Rhythm Swingers playing dances in Alabama before leading several white R&B bands in the Muscle Shoals area. The most successful of those being The Mark V or Dan Penn & The Pallbearers as they were eventually known, (and included future songwriting partner Dewey “Spooner” Oldham on keys at times).
The band eventually broke up when The Pallbearers left to be studio musicians; a factor that, unbeknownst to Penn at the time, would serve as a major turning point in Penn’s career. It was at this juncture in 1962 that he decided to approach Rick Hall for a job at his FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals with the mindset to do whatever it took to establish himself as a true songwriter while capitalizing on any associated opportunities that might come his way. It just so happened that Hall – who did some writing himself – realized that the various artists that he chose to record didn’t always have material thereby sparking the need for someone to write songs on a full time basis. As such, Penn was hired as FAME’s first staff songwriter at $25 a week.
Penn made the most of his chances by not only writing songs, but also cutting some 50 sides, (that didn’t see the light of day till 2012), and learning about arrangements, producing, and general operation of a recording studio. In addition, Penn did whatever had to be done in the studio, (including running errands), even when he wasn’t involved in the session at hand, just to soak up all the knowledge afforded him. He was soon joined by frequent partner Spooner Oldham – also hired as a resident songwriter – and they would write together at FAME for the next 3 years. Their first National hit came in 1965 with “Let’s Do It Over” performed by smooth singing Louisiana native Joe Simon.
Their next hit occurred when Oldham brought the Sam & Dave like duo James and Bobby Purify to FAME. In their search for songs they came across a Dan Penn demo “I’m A Puppet”. It was re-cut with the Purifys as “I’m Your Puppet” and landed at # 6 in Pop charts. (Upon hearing the song on the radio, and subsequently receiving a $4,000 royalty cheque Penn knew that he embarked on a lucrative and worthwhile career: “OK; I’m a real songwriter”).
Unfortunately, the situation at FAME was not long lasting. Penn wanted to get more involved in producing, and Hall wanted Penn to be a songwriter exclusively. This impasse led to a parting of ways resulting in Penn leaving to join his friend Lincoln “Chips” Moman, guitar player and owner of American Sound Studio, (Memphis), in 1966 with the promise of playing a more meaningful role in the studio.
(Chips Moman, who had a long list of production and songwriting credits, is an interesting character, to say the least; and has quite a music history. The creative, uncompromising, somewhat acerbic, card playing, hard living Moman played an integral role in establishing Stax. It’s said that Steve Cropper learned his way around the studio from Moman – writing, producing and arranging – and even copied Moman’s guitar style. It wasn’t long, however, before the mercurial Moman wore out his welcome at Stax and their association ended with an out of court settlement. It was a foreshadowing of a number of his personal and professional relationships that would come to a less than favourable end).
At American Sound Penn and Oldham would write and produce The Box Tops second hit – “Cry Like A Baby” – that would hit # 2 Pop. But it was the previous Box Tops record, “The Letter,” (# 1 Pop), that would lead to an inevitable rift between Penn and Moman – two strong willed individuals – and an eventual falling out. But not before co-writing 2 Southern Soul masterpieces: The Dark End of The Street, (James Carr; #10 R&B , #77 Pop), and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” (a high point of Aretha Franklin’s extraordinary LP, “I Never Loved A Man The Way I Loved You”).
In the months leading up to “The Letter”, the competitive Moman wasn’t allowing Penn the freedom at American that he had envisioned. Having produced a number of hits, Moman continued to take the lead in producing any acts that came through the door. In response Penn challenged Moman by asking for the lowest level act on their roster and vowing to have a hit with them. It turned out to be the aforementioned Box Tops, (featuring a 16 year old Alex Chilton), and “The Letter”. As Penn said: “He was shooting darts and I was shooting them right back”, and culminating in Penn scrawling on the company blackboard “Who’s got the hit now?” before he walked out the door. (Penn would return to co-produce the aforementioned “Cry Like A Baby” before leaving American and Moman for good).
By now, Dan Penn was a respected songwriter and getting his bearings as a producer. Accordingly, he saw the next logical step as having his own recording studio where he could write for and produce artists to his liking. He opened Beautiful Sounds in Memphis, but not being able to generate enough business to keep it afloat, the venture was short lived. Before closing up shop he recorded and produced Janis Joplin’s “Pearl”, (and contributed “A Woman Left Lonely” to the recording), as well as his debut “Nobody’s Fool”.
Although he would follow “Nobody’s Fool” with critically acclaimed recordings, he subscribed to a personal adage of “if you don’t know what career path to take, business will tell you”. And with his experience and success in the field, the business was telling him emphatically that he was a songwriter. In turn, Penn started to write prolifically with a number of partners including Oldham, Donnie Fritts, Carson Whitsett, and Bucky Lindsay.
Penn explains his method of songwriting by saying that, first off, that he likes to write with a partner thereby expanding idea generation and maximizing the potential of any songwriting project. He goes on to say: ”I like to start with a title. Put the title up front and build a song around it… I like two verses, a bridge, a third verse, then out…You can do all your damage right there.”
While Dan Penn isn’t currently writing with the regularity he once did, he’s still in demand. In addition, Penn has been called on to produce a number of projects. Among those many ventures, two that immediately come to mind are Bobby Purify – “Better To Have It” (2005) and Hacienda Brothers – “What’s Wrong With Right” (2006). “Better To Have It” finds Purify, (Ben Moore; one of a number of “Bobby Purifys”, and current lead singer of The Blind Boys Of Alabama), laying down 13 vintage Southern Soul forays with 12 written by Dan Penn, Carson Whitsett, and Bucky Lindsay. On “What’s Wrong With Right” Penn fuses the Hacienda Brothers natural Country sound with old school Soul. Here Penn co-wrote the title cut and the band adds credible covers of Penn / Oldham’s “Cry Like A Baby” and “It Tears Me Up”.
While continuing with songwriting and production work, it’s only natural that Penn would come full circle and dust off his tenor for some recorded work under his own name. Along with the aforementioned “Nobody’s Fool” there are 9 more releases with 5 being readily available; (the remaining 4 are rather obscure and hard to find):
“Do Right Man” (1994)
“Moments From The Theatre” (1999; a live recording with Spooner Oldham)
“FAME Recordings” (2012; Penn demos)
“Close To Me: More FAME Recordings” (2016; Penn demos)
“Living On Mercy” (2020)
The prominent releases are “Do Right Man” and “Moments From The Theatre”. “Do Right Man” features Penn backed by a mix of his American and Muscle Shoals cohorts on 10 numbers including his versions of “The Dark End Of The Street”, “Do Right Woman Do Right Man”, and “I’m Your Puppet” among other Penn Southern Soul classics. “Moments From The Theatre” is a live recording with Penn on guitar and Spooner Oldham on keys in front of U. K. audiences. Here they lay down all of Penn’s better known masterworks.
I caught a soul satisfying set by Penn and Oldham at The Chicago Blues Fest’s Back Porch Stage in the late 90’s. (I wish I could have duplicated Lou Reed’s experience and spent a few quality moments with Dan Penn, a true living legend). I bought “Do Right Man” on site, and all of his songs lived on in my head for the next few days. (And much to my wife Deb’s dismay, I wouldn’t stop singing “Memphis Women And Chicken”).
DAN PENN SELECTED PLAYLIST
- Nobody’s Fool
- I Hate You
- The Dark End Of The Street
- Cry Like A Man
- It Tears Me Up
- You Left The Water Running
- Do Right Woman, Do Right Man
- Memphis Women And Chicken
- Zero Willpower
- I’m Your Puppet
- Living On Mercy
- I Do
- Down On Music Row
- Things Happen
- Rico Ferrara March 2021
One thought on “Dan Penn – Do Right Man”
I had never heard of Penn. Quite a thorough profile. These reviews are both fascinating and educational – great music by great writers and performers. What comes through once again is the “struggle” to get anywhere. Not at all inviting to most. I guess it takes passion and persistence, like you can’t let it go no matter what. In some way you kind of live out your life like a train wreck while making profound sound.
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