Soul music's Do Right Man

  • Article by: RICK MASON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 11, 2011 - 11:00 AM

Songwriter Dan Penn, an Alabama farm boy who became one of the most prolific talents in R&B, pays a rare visit Sunday.

Dan Penn

Photo: Linda Pennington,

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Even if you don't recognize Dan Penn's name, chances are you're familiar with his work.

As a songwriter, Penn helped create dozens of indelible classics that define the golden age of Southern soul, including Aretha Franklin's "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man," the Box Tops' "Cry Like a Baby," James Carr's "Dark End of the Street," James and Bobby Purify's "I'm Your Puppet" and Janis Joplin's "A Woman Left Lonely."

He was equally prolific as a producer, perhaps peaking with a cultural touchstone: "The Letter," by the Alex Chilton-led Box Tops. Even a brief list of Penn's other associates reads like a who's who of '60s R&B: Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Otis Redding, Arthur Alexander, Solomon Burke. Another is Bobby Emmons, an ace writer himself ("Luckenbach, Texas") and member of the famed Memphis Boys, who played with everyone from Elvis and Joe Tex to Dusty Springfield.

Emmons will be there on keyboards Sunday when Penn stops by the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis for a rare appearance that should include a slew of his classics as well as the fascinating tales that go with them.

"We play every once in a while, but not so much," said Penn, who turns 70 this fall, in his slow, quiet, Alabama drawl. He was speaking by phone from his Nashville home, complete with a studio he still uses for artists who seek him out. Memphis guitar great Steve Cropper just finished an album there, and Penn himself is completing the third in what he calls his Demo Series, following up 2008's "Junkyard Junky."

He primarily considers himself a songwriter, but is also a talented guitarist and expressive, soulful singer. The demos he recorded to pitch his classic songs are rumored to be amazing. Penn downplays those and often soft-pedals his many accomplishments. He's generally considered to have had a profound influence on Chilton, for example, but he insists that's not true.

"I didn't tell Alex how to sing," he said, although he admits that when "The Letter" came out, "Some of my friends back home, they thought it was me singin'. I did not influence him in any way except I would pitch him songs that I wrote."

Penn takes responsibility for one key change when they were cutting the record: "I told him to sing 'air-O-plane' instead of 'airplane.' It just rolled better."

The school of radio

So how did a white kid growing up in rural Alabama in the 1950s become an icon of Southern soul?

"I was a farm boy," he said, "but at night I'd listen to R&B. I listened to my little green radio. I had my own little room. After everybody'd go to sleep, I'd listen to WLAC in Nashville. That was my education."

And what an education it was. Ray Charles, Bobby Blue Bland, Jimmy Reed, Little Milton and James Brown crackled over the airwaves, seeped into teenaged Dan Pennington's brain, and he was hooked. As for country, "It wasn't on my radar at that point." Still, a couple of country stalwarts had a role in getting Penn started.

"Daddy had a one-mule farm," he said, near Vernon, some 60 miles southwest of Muscle Shoals, close to the state line. When his father took the truck into town, young Penn would be left to plow the fields. While he plodded behind the mule, Penn would sing songs like Hank Williams' "Jambalaya," and when he'd forget the words he'd make up his own.

His first hit song was recorded by Conway Twitty. Penn said he got the idea from an escapade with his friends. They persuaded some older kids to take them along to the bars in Mississippi. One of the older crowd answered every question with "Is a bluebird blue?" Penn, despite being a little queasy from his first beer, figured, "Maybe there's a song there."

At the urging of bandmate Billy Sherrill, he took "Is a Bluebird Blue" up to Muscle Shoals, and it made its way to Twitty, who climbed the charts with it in 1960.

Penn was 16.

Magic time

That began a long relationship with Rick Hall's Fame studio in Muscle Shoals and later Chips Moman's American Studios in Memphis as an in-house writer and producer. The hits came fast and furious, and so did artists from all over, hoping a little of the magic would rub off on them. There seemed to be an exhilarating sense that anything could happen.

When Atlantic Records honcho Jerry Wexler took Aretha's backup group, the Sweet Inspirations, to American for their own session with New York producer Tom Dowd, Penn said he stopped in and discovered "it wasn't happening." So he and frequent collaborator Spooner Oldham slipped into another room, wrote "Sweet Inspiration," then cut it with the group while Dowd and his crew took a lunch break. When they returned, Penn announced, "We got your hit."

"You know, back in the day I was a lot more aggressive," he deadpanned. "Hungry was the word."

These days Penn favors bib overalls and tinkering with old cars. He's dismissive of the current crop of neo-soul artists for essentially covering the same ground he did 40 years ago.

"I'm not interested," he said, allowing that he mainly listens to Southern gospel now.

And he keeps cranking out a steady stream of new songs. "As long as I'm writing," he said, "I'm OK."

 

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