Southern soul songwriter Dan Penn revisits past with new record, return to Memphis

Dan Penn, shown performing on the fraternity circuit in 1962, is an iconic figure in the history of Muscle Shoals and Memphis soul.

Photo by Johnny Sandlin

Dan Penn, shown performing on the fraternity circuit in 1962, is an iconic figure in the history of Muscle Shoals and Memphis soul.

Back in the mid-1960s, Dan Penn was what you’d call an all-nighter. A workaholic, a musical obsessive, he spent his wee hours at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., doing what he did best: wrestling songs to the ground.

Fueled by copious amounts of coffee, cigarettes and speed, and buoyed by a burning passion for R&B, Penn — usually with his writing partner and pianist Spooner Oldham in tow — would come to shape Southern soul music during those late nights.

“I had a big passion for what I was doing,” says the 71-year-old Penn. “We’d start in the evening, fooling around, looking for an idea or a groove. Then we’d write and cut till 2, 3, 4 in the morning; sometimes we’d stay there till sun came up. We were young and had a lot of energy then but that seems like another lifetime ago.”

Nearly a half-century after, Penn’s work from the era has finally come to light. In October, U.K. reissue label Ace Records put out The Fame Recordings, a 24-song collection of Penn’s previously unreleased songwriting demos. The CD represents the best of the some 100 tracks Penn recorded there between 1963 and 1966 — including material later made famous by the likes of Otis Redding (“You Left the Water Running”) Percy Sledge (“It Tears Me Up”) and Arthur Alexander (“Rainbow Road”).

Though he would become an iconic figure in the history of both Muscle Shoals and Memphis soul, as the author of such classics as “I’m Your Puppet,” “Dark End Of The Street,” “A Woman Left Lonely” and “Do Right Woman,” as a solo artist Penn’s output has been sporadic at best. There were a handful of 45s in the ’60s, his classic 1973 album, Nobody’s Fool, a few other one-off singles and aborted projects over the years, but nothing substantial until the mid-’90s.

For R&B fans, The Fame Recordings offer a new perspective on Penn. This week he returns to his old hometown of Memphis to perform for the first time in 16 years. On Thursday, he will appear at Rhodes College, playing a concert for the school’s Mike Curb Institute for Music that will offer a look back at his life in song.

In the ’50s, as a white kid growing up in Vernon, Ala., Wallace Daniel Pennington was glued to his transistor radio, entranced by the black music being spun by deejay John R. on Nashville’s WLAC. “They were playing strictly black stuff, spirituals, R&B,” says Penn. “Jimmy Reed, Ray Charles and James Brown were my heroes at the time. My ears just told me that’s what was good. That was the start of it. And I kept leaning that way.”

As a 16-year-old aspiring songwriter, Penn wrote a tune called “Is a Bluebird Blue.” The song later became the B-side of a Conway Twitty pop hit and cemented Penn’s career path. Between stints as a frat-circuit band leader, he got a job as a staff writer for Rick Hall’s Fame publishing company and studio, a burgeoning hotbed of R&B and soul music that spawned artists like Arthur Alexander, Jimmy Hughes and Joe Simon.

“I just decided I really wanted to learn the art of the studio,” says Penn. “I was a writer at Fame, but I was a gopher, too. If anyone needed some burgers or cigarettes, I’d go get them. I just wanted to hang out and learn something from everyone there, and I did.”

Penn would spend much of his time cutting original material. Though they were never intended as commercial recordings, Penn’s songwriting demos were a perfect union that brought together his classic material and potent R&B voice, with Fame’s legendary Junior Lowe/Roger Hawkins/Jimmy Johnson/Spooner Oldham rhythm section providing the musical backing.

Remarkably, only a handful of people ever heard these tracks. Lost for years in a kind of legal limbo — demos historically have been a murky area in terms of ownership — occasionally some label would offer to put out the recordings.

“For 30 years people been trying to get me to put that stuff out, especially Europeans and the Japanese,” says Penn. Prospective suitors would play for Penn lousy low-generation copies of the songs, and he’d always refuse to release the material.” I just didn’t like how they sounded and didn’t want to put out something that wasn’t good,” he says.

Finally, a few years ago, the respected British label Ace Records struck a deal with Rick Hall and Fame to begin reissuing the company’s catalog and exploring its collection of master tapes. Discovering the scope of quality of Penn’s demos, Ace was determined to get the songs out into the world, even if the artist himself took some convincing.

“Dan’s not a big guy for living in the past,” says Ace’s Alec Palao, who helped compile and produce the Penn project. Palo says he was struck by the quality of the recordings, which he saw as a vital piece of Southern soul history.

“Dan had such an authentic voice for what he was doing, compared to pretty much anyone I can think of during that era. It really strikes you when you look at it as a body of work, what a fantastic interpreter he was of his own material. And the tracks are really off the cuff — these are late-night recordings yet Dan and the band were turning out masterpieces, literally, on a daily basis.”

After Palao cleaned up and presented the tracks to him, even Penn had to agree the material was worth releasing. “I thought, ‘Hey, I wouldn’t mind hearing that come out.’ Though I wasn’t overjoyed with the screaming boy on there,” says Penn of his younger inchoate self. “But that’s what you do when you’re young; you scream and try to get heard and noticed.”

If Penn had perhaps tended to overlook his work at Fame, it was only because greater glories waited in Memphis. Having cowritten and engineered a chart success with “I’m Your Puppet” for James and Bobby Purify in the fall of 1966, Penn left Muscle Shoals for the Bluff City, to take a job working at Chips Moman’s American Studios.

“The main reason I came to Memphis was I wanted to produce, and I felt I could get that freedom with Chips,” says Penn. “At the time, Rick Hall shut me down on production and I was really wanting to make that next move. When young people want to move, you better move with them. So I was ready to go. And I came to Memphis and cut my big hit.”

Penn cut more than just one, siring a succession of smash singles for pop-soul group the Box Tops, including “The Letter,” “Cry Like a Baby” and “Soul Deep.” But by 1970, Penn had reached loggerheads with Moman as well, over control and credits. He decided to start his own studio, Beautiful Sound, near the Memphis State University campus.

There, Penn completed his first full length solo LP, the cult classic Nobody’s Fool, an album that was uniquely pitched somewhere between country, soul and pop. “It was a few years later than the stuff I’d done at Fame, and I’d changed,” says Penn. “As I go along, I always change. I had a yearning to put on some more strings, and add some horns and get some voices. I liked that big sound.”

Running a studio, however, was not Penn’s strong suit. There were more costs than revenue, and too much responsibility. “Well, yeah, like making payments, and stuff like that,” chuckles Penn. “And that was back in my drankin’ days. I couldn’t handle it, and I had to let the studio go. You don’t learn anything until you lose, and I learned a lot out of that.”

By 1974, Penn could see the writing on the wall for Memphis music: His own studio had faltered, Moman had closed up shop and left town, even Stax Records was failing.

“Everything just went flat in Memphis. Seemed like everything was soured up and it didn’t look to me like it was going to get any better.” He decided to head to Nashville, “where I’ve been for the last 40 years, even though I can’t buy a hit up here,” says Penn, laughing.

He actually did have some early success in Music City — Ronnie Millsap’s first chart record came with a version of Penn’s “I Hate You” — but the iconoclastic songwriter didn’t fit easily into the cookie-cutter country music mold. Though he continued to enjoy the fruits of his back catalog and write new material, it wasn’t until the mid-’90s that he resumed his own recording career. He cut a much-belated second solo album, Do Right Man, in 1994, toured the world with Spooner Oldham later in the decade, yielding the exquisite live collection Moments from This Theatre in 1999, and continued to release a series of home studio recordings.

In recent years, Penn’s work has been the subject of a number of academic studies. In 2005, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison named Charles Hughes contacted Penn to interview him for his master’s thesis on “the relationship between country and soul music, and African-American and white musicians in recording studios in Memphis, Nashville and Muscle Shoals.” In 2012, Hughes — who had gone on to get his Ph.D. — became a Postdoctoral Fellow at Rhodes, and invited Penn to perform as part of the Curb Music Institute concert series.

For the upcoming show Penn will be accompanied by pianist, fellow songwriter, and former Memphian Bobby Emmons. He’ll play two sets; one filled with his hits and familiar songs, and a second exploring the more obscure corners of his catalog, including the Fame material.

Nearly 50 years after his first flourish at Fame, Penn continues to write, though he’s long since given up the chase for hits. “Tell you the truth, I just write for myself,” he says. “I still write pretty much like I did back then — other than the fact that I don’t stay up all night. I do get some sleep nowadays.”

Dan Penn with Bobby Emmons

Thursday, 7:30 p.m. at Rhodes College’s McCallum Ballroom. Tickets are $10. Advance purchase is recommended at alumni.rhodes.edu/danpenn. For more information, call 901-843-3786.

Dan Penn’s The Fame Recordings are available at amazon.com. For more information, go to acerecords.co.uk.

© 2013 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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