If this blog was to have an unsung hero who represented all that was good about soul music and independent and creative vision then Dan Penn would be that hero. In much the same way that he was the unsung hero of Peter Guralnick's Sweet Soul Music, Penn is an icon of southern soul music, as a writer, producer and singer he is one of the greats and is also one of the least well known. In the last few years as the FAME studio vaults have been opened and ACE has released a series of FAME related compilations Dan and his music have at last come out of the shadows. As I've related before I was fortunate enough to see Dan and his songwriting partner, the brilliant Spooner Oldham at the Continental club well over 15 years ago and it was a superb intimate performance.
Dan was from Vernon Alabama and grew up surrounded by music, like many growing up in the south his first introduction to music was via the church, the gospel influence was profound in his work. Dan started performing locally during his teens and it was at a Legion Hall gig in Sulligent that he met Billy Sherill and Rick Hall who were playing in a band called Benny Cagle & The Rhythm Swingsters, he sat in with the band and afterwards headed to Florence Alabama where Hall and Sherill were planning to start their own studio. Around this time Dan wrote the song Is a Bluebird Blue which Dan cut as a demo at the studio in Florence, it found it's way to Nashville and was recorded by Conway Twitty and became a Top 40 hit. Dan would establish himself as resident songwriter at FAME up until 1966, Dan had a desire to produce records and at FAME that role was Rick Hall's alone. Dan then headed to Memphis and to American Sound where he enjoyed a fruitful three year partnership with Chips Moman. He produced the million selling worldwide smash The Letter for The Box Tops, Dan and Spooner also wrote their other major hit Cry Like a Baby which Dan also produced. In 1969 Dan started his own studio Beautiful South with Eddie Braddock, he continued to write and produce during the 70's.
Late last year Ace released Dan Penn, The FAME Recordings which are essentially the demos Dan made at the FAME studios between 1964 and 1966. These demos had long been talked about, they had grown in mythic proportions over the years so I was eagerly awaiting this release and I wasn't disappointed. Dan was such an intense songwriter, it matched his personality, his songs resonated with a hurried desperation. It was also matched in his voice, greatly influenced by the great voices of Bobby Bland and Ray Charles, Dan had a unique ache in his voice. You can hear in each song the experimentation that was taking place at FAME, Dan and his co-writers, mostly Spooner but also including Donnie Fritts, and guitarist Marlin Green, oscillated between gospel drenched southern soul and more uptempo material that would have had people out on the floor.
Keep on Talking recorded in 1965 by James Barnett is a northern soul classic, the single didn't stray too far from the demo and Dan has a real strong vocal presence, he knows what each song needs vocally. Feed The Flame is Dan at his most intense, in the songs he wrote of love there was always that sense of love being the most profound and intense feeling you could have, and Dan sang it as such. Uptight Good Woman, later recorded by Spencer Wiggins, has Dan giving a Solomon Burke style sermon in the middle section. Come into My Heart sounds like Dan having a stab at doing Motown, but then he turns the song into more of a southern stomper, only reverting to the Motown setting in the chorus. Rainbow Road is often associated with Arthur Alexander and many thought it was about him, in the demo it has a more pop/country feel, Dan has no problem conveying the sense of tragedy inflicted upon the protagonist. I Need a lot of Loving demonstrates what a shame it was that Rick Hall who ran FAME didn't push Dan as a solo performer.
Power of Love was recorded by the pre-Allman Brothers group Hourglass in 1967, it's an interesting song, because it combines some of the vocal elements of Motown and marries it to something that is pure deep south soul. Coming out of the chorus Dan really gives the song a throaty roar as the song builds, and this only a demo! It Tears Me Up was a rough demo, possibly with Dan on drums but it's another example of how much depth Dan's writing had to it, he really dragged the hurt out of each song, he makes you feel it through the speakers. Take Me Just As I Am was actually released as a single in 1965 on FAME under the name Lonnie Ray, it's a song imploring a young woman to take her man, who has a car that won't run and a low paying job, just as he is and her reward will be a lifetime of love. I'm Your Puppet finishes the album and even in demo form Dan's voice has a purity to it, the rough edges aren't required and Dan gives a more subtle and restrained performance, but it's still dripping with raw soul, what else would you expect.