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March/April 2013

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Dan Penn
The Fame Recordings
Ace Records

Dan Penn

One of the unsung heroes of Peter Guralnick’s book, Sweet Soul Music, was Dan Penn. Penn, an Alabama native, started performing early, fronting a band in the Muscle Shoals area called the Mark V Combo. During his teens, he wrote his first hit song, “Is A Bluebird Blue,” for Conway Twitty, and soon went to work at Rick Hall’s Fame Studios, first as a songwriter, then as a performer.

Penn’s most notable work was as a composer. With Spooner Oldham, he penned such classic soul and R&B hits as “Dark End of the Street” (for James Carr), “I’m Your Puppet” (for Bobby & James Purify), “Sweet Inspiration” (for The Sweet Inspirations), “Out of Left Field,” “It Tears Me Up” (both for Percy Sledge), “Do Right Woman” (for Aretha Franklin), “Cry Like A Baby,” “The Letter” (for the Box Tops), and “A Woman Left Lonely” (for Janis Joplin). However, according to Guralnick’s book, Penn’s performances of these songs on demo recordings sometimes were as good or better than the released recordings.

In a way, Guralnick’s observation was confirmed by Penn’s subsequent solo recordings, notably1994’s Do Right Man, and 1999’s live Moment From This Theatre, but it left soul fans even more curious about hearing Penn’s original demos and recordings. Penn only released four hard-to-find singles before he released Nobody’s Fool in 1973. Ace Records in the U.K. has now issued Penn’s recordings cut for Fame over a two-year span between 1964 and 1966…the tracks that Guralnick raved about in his book.

The Fame Recordings offers 24 tracks, 23 previously unreleased. Several of these songs became hits for other artists, tunes that are recognizable to most music fans, but Penn’s interpretations of his own songs indicate two things…1) he was capable of doing these songs as good or better than the artists who ended up with them, and 2) he very easily could have been, or should have been a star himself…..these performances are that good.

Penn’s versions of the familiar songs, “It Tears Me Up,” “Rainbow Road,” “You Left The Water Running,” and “I’m Your Puppet” are all first-rate, but there’s reason to believe that some of the other tunes here could have become just as familiar under the right circumstances. “Take Me (Just As I Am),” Penn’s lone single released from Fame (with little fanfare under the name Lonnie Ray) is an excellent example.

On some of these tracks, Penn’s vocals take on the qualities of others, like “I’m Living Good,” where his vocals take on a definite Sam Cooke quality, or Otis Redding on “Take A Good Look.” Penn’s vocal style, however, takes in not only those two artists, but there’s also the influence of Ray Charles, and Bobby “Blue” Bland. He does a masterful job on tunes like “Strangest Feeling,” “Rainbow Road,” “Feed The Flame,” and “It Tears Me Up,” where he practically knocks it out of the park.

Listening to these tracks, you will come to understand what producer Chips Moman once said about James Carr, the sometimes reluctant soul singer….”Easiest thing in the world. Get Dan Penn to sing it for him. He had to sing it, ‘cause Dan sung it so good.” Maybe Penn’s vocal style played a part in influencing the subsequent performances by other artists.

Assisting Penn on these tunes is Fame’s crack studio band, one of the finest soul ensembles ever assembled….guitarists Jimmy Johnson and Junior Lowe, drummers Roger Hawkins and Jerry Carrigan, bass players Norbert Putnam and Lowe, and keyboardist David Briggs and longtime collaborator Spooner Oldham.

After all these years of hearsay, it is a great and wonderful thing for these recordings to finally see the light of day. Soul fans have wondered for years if Dan Penn’s “lost” recordings were as good as advertised. With the release of The Fame Recordings, it’s safe to say that Peter Guralnick knew what he was talking about. This is an essential purchase for any fan of soul music.

--- Graham Clarke
Read Graham's blog


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