Songwriter Dan Penn spent the last three years turning his cluttered Green Hills basement into a 32-track home recording studio. Now he plans to spend the next three months sorting through piles of unlabeled tape reels. The unmarked demo and master tapes will soon be tagged with song titles that should be familiar to any dedicated music fan: “Do Right Woman,” “Dark End of the Street,” and “The Letter,” along with other hits that Penn had a hand in writing or producing.
The reels are products of a younger, wilder time when the songwriter spent his renegade years in Muscle Shoals and Memphis. Those were freewheeling days of pill popping, staying up for days at a time, and traveling from gig to gig in a made-over hearse. When he wasn’t tearing up Southeastern towns with the Pallbearers and other cover bands, Penn was giving birth to countless classics: Percy Sledge’s “Out of Left Field” and “It Tears Me Up,” Arthur Alexander’s “Rainbow Road,” Otis Redding’s “You Left the Water Running,” Clarence Carter’s “Slippin’ Around,” Solomon Burke’s “Take Me (Just As I Am),” Laura Lee’s “Uptight, Good Man,” the Sweet Inspirations’ “Sweet Inspiration,” and James & Bobby Purify’s “I’m Your Puppet.”
Years may have passed since these songs were played on AM radio, but Penn still plies his trade, and, as his 1994 album Do Right Man attests, he’s a great vocal stylist in his own right. Ending a two-decade recording hiatus, the collection features Penn’s interpretations of some of his time-honored compositions. That his performances hold their own with the hit versions by Aretha and Otis speaks volumes about his simple and soulful singing. The record also spotlights a few new tunes as well. “Zero Willpower,” “Cry Like a Man,” and “Memphis Women and Chicken” demonstrate that this secluded performer still has the goods as a songwriter.
Penn, 56, is one of a handful of musicians from Memphis and Muscle Shoals who now plies his trade in Nashville. He’ll team up with Spooner Oldham, his lifelong friend and writing partner, when he makes a rare local appearance April 14 at the Ryman Auditorium as part of Tin Pan South’s Legendary Songwriters Acoustic Concert. Penn certainly fits the bill. An unsung hero, he’s one of the most important writers to emerge from R&B’s heyday in the ’50s and ’60sa significant era in the development of black/white race relations.
Even though he’s a first-rate lyricist, Penn has never put a lot of importance on words. “For me,” he explains in his slow, thick Southern drawl, “the emphasis is not the lyrics themselves, but the way the lyric hits the music. That’s what’s so great about the old bluesmenyou didn’t care what they said, you were just so glad they said it that way.”
Peter Guralnick calls this backwoods hipster the secret hero of his book Sweet Soul Music, known by countless music fans as the definitive volume on 1960s R&B. But Guralnick’s claim simply leaves Penn scratching his head. The songwriter says if he’s a musical hero, it’s only because he listened to the right music.
Raised in Vernon, Ala., a rural town about 100 miles south of Muscle Shoals, Penn grew up listening to Ray Charles, James Brown, and Bobby “Blue” Bland. Like so many other white kids growing up in the ’50s, he first heard black music on Nashville AM station WLAC. He had a transistor radio that he listened to at night, when he should have been fast asleep. “I’ve always had good ears,” he recalls, “so I would have the volume turned so low that somebody could be in the room and not even know it was on. When I ran across WLAC, it was like ‘WHOA! Back up!’ They were playing a blues record by Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker, or somebody like that whom I had never heard.”
By the late ’50s, Penn was a working musician in Muscle Shoals, where he worked at Rick Hall’s Fame Studio, and by the mid-’60s he’d relocated to Memphis, where he worked at Chips Moman’s American Recording Studio. “I was just a buzz all of the timelooking for the next song. It paid off; I mean, I got a fair catalog from that. I just wrote songs, wrote songs, wrote songs, cut records, wrote songs. I would drag on for three nights, whatever I needed. Then I would crash for three days and get up and do it again.”
Penn had been up for two or three nights when he wrote and produced “Cry Like a Baby,” a hit for the Box Tops in 1968. He’d just produced the group’s No. 1 record “The Letter,” and the label, Bell Records, expected a quick follow-up. As the recording date drew closer and closer, he still didn’t have a sure thing pocketed. With his butt on the line, he called on Spooner Oldham to help him create a hit song for the coming session.
“We tried for two or three nights to come up with something,” Penn recalls. “We couldn’t come up with nothin’no lines, no melodies, nothin’. Finally, we became so frustrated that we gave up. I suggested that we get something to eat and call it a night. We went to Porky’s, across from American Studios, and put our order in.
“We were feeling real bad. Could I come up with a song? Could I produce another hit record? It was eating me up.... So we’re sitting there in the booth feeling dejected, and out of the blue Spooner leans his head over on the table and says, ‘I could just cry like a baby.’
“When he said that to me, it was just like somebody shot me with a bolt of lightning. I said, ‘What’d you say, Spooner?’ He raised up his head, looked at me, and said, ‘I could just cry like a baby.’ I said ‘That’s it, Spooner. That’s what we’ve been looking for.’ Just as quick as I said that, he was hip to it too.
“We told ’em to keep the food. We gave ’em some money and told them to keep the changeit didn’t matter. We started heading across the street to the studio at 3:30 or 4 in the morning. Halfway across the street, we’ve already got the first line: ‘When I think about the good love you gave me, I cry like a baby.’
“By the time I got the electricity of the sound board up, Spooner was cranking the organ. I threw on a full reel of quarter-inch on two-track and we wrote it as we demoed it. This is just hours before the session. After we finished, we didn’t leave the building. Then here comes the guys at 10 a.m., and Spooner and I are fresh as daisies. We just got us more cigarettes and coffee. We woke right on up and cut the record.”
As the ’60s turned into the ’70s, the good feeling of soul music’s heyday faded rapidly; as Penn remembers it, Memphis basically shut down after Martin Luther King’s assassination. An emotional, physical, and spiritual wreck, he eventually made his way to Nashville.
“I hit the wall pretty good, so I had to back off,” he says. “I was stimulating myself with amphetamines, anything, to stay up at night. It was fun, but it was deadly.... I couldn’t be still. I couldn’t relax. I was always looking for the next song.”
These days, Penn is taking it much easier, working on cars and spending time in his garden. In his kitchen hangs a framed adage: “When life deals you a lemon, make lemonade.” The refrigerator is stocked with non-alcoholic beer. With so many years of hard work and hard living behind him, he doesn’t worry so much about keeping up with the music-biz hustle. “I don’t particularly look for the next song,” he says. “I figure it’s going to find me.”
That said, he does remain dedicated to his craft, and he doesn’t see that changing anytime soon. “I still live, eat, drink, and sleep music the way I did in Muscle Shoals and Memphis,” he observes. “But I got a life now.”
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