Blues Bytes


June 2024

Dan Penn
Inside Track on Bobby Purify
The Last Music Company Limited

Dan Penn

When I read Peter Guralnick’s book Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom in the mid 80’s, I was fascinated by this Dan Penn character, who performed throughout the south in various bands and later became a songwriter and producer for some of the most gripping soul tunes of the ’60s. Chances are pretty good that if you even have a passing interest in ’60s soul music, a Dan Penn composition is one of your favorites songs.

Though Penn’s background was covered in detail throughout the book, I still wanted to know more about him. One of the things cited in Guralnick’s book was that Penn’s demo versions of the songs he wrote for numerous artists in Memphis and Muscle Shoals were sometimes as good or better than the final released versions. Sadly, at the time none of these recordings were available to the general public, but over time Penn did release a few studio recordings of his own, with the incredible Do Right Man in the early ’90s being one shining example in which he “covered” many of his familiar songs in his own voice.

What some fans may not know is that in between Do Right Man and 2020’s Living On Mercy is that Penn self-released four volumes of “demo” recordings (we reviewed the first one here) and a gospel album. The UK label Ace also released two volumes of the rarely-heard FAME Studios recordings that Guralnick raved about in Sweet Soul Music.

Penn also continued to write songs and collaborate with artists like Irma Thomas, Johnny Adams, Dalton Reed, and most famously, Solomon Burke, contributing with Carson Whitsett and Hoy Lindsey the memorable title track to Burke’s 2002 release, Don’t Give Up On Me.

On the heels of the collaboration with Burke, Penn wanted to cut an album of pure soul music, so he, Whitsett, and Lindsey sat down and put pen to paper over the next year or so. In the meantime, Lindsey happened to cross paths with Bobby Purify at a party. Purify, born Ben Moore, was the third “Bobby” in the James and Bobby Purify duo who scored several soul hits in the ’60s, including Penn and Spooner Oldham’s “I’m Your Puppet.” The singer had left the music business after losing his sight until Ray Charles encouraged him to resume performing.

Penn had Lindsey get him together with Purify, and he knew that he had the pure soul singer he was searching for. Purify possessed a pure, smooth tenor that was a snug fit in soul, blues, and gospel (he also recorded gospel under his birth name). Penn assembled many of the Muscle Shoals musicians from the ’60’s to back Purify, and Better To Have It was released in 2005 for Proper Records (we reviewed it here). Sadly, the album is out of print, and Purify was unable to capitalize on it at the time due to various difficulties.

The Inside Track on Bobby Purify (The Last Music Company Limited) traces the recording of Better To Have It by combining the demos of the 12 songs written by Penn, Whitsett, and Lindsey (Penn – vocals/guitar, Whitsett – keyboards, Lindsey – bass/backing vocals) with the corresponding 12 tracks (Purify wrote one song for the album) as recorded for the album with Purify and backing musicians which included Whitsett, Oldham, Reggie Young, Jimmy Johnson, David Hood, and Wayne Jackson.

Better To Have It was one of my favorite discs of 2005, and Purify’s vocals are some of the finest soul vocals you’ll hear. It makes you wish he’d had more of an opportunity to record prior to his physical difficulties. It was great to hear these songs again. Penn wanted to recapture that classic sound with the original album, straight ahead R&B, and it’s certainly a must-hear for fans of that era’s Southern soul sound.

It certainly helps that Penn, Whitsett, and Lindsey really outdid themselves with the songs, but after hearing Penn’s vocals on the demos, you think of Chips Moman talking about getting the reluctant James Carr to record --- “Easiest thing in the world. Get Dan Penn to sing it for him. He had to sing it, ‘cause Dan sung it so good.”

The Last Music Company did blues and soul fans a great service in getting these demos out for public consumption because Penn’s vocals are wonderful with the simple keyboard/bass/guitar backing, and it really brings the soul out of these tracks even more.

Listeners may argue which versions of these songs are the best (and people argue about EVERYTHING online these days), but I’m just going to enjoy both versions equally as they are presented. I figure most people will do the same thing and be happy that we have them to enjoy.these great demos and this excellent album that may have slipped through the cracks for many.

Dan Penn is still performing, producing, and writing songs at the age of 82, still sounding marvelous (trust me, I’ve seen him twice in the last two years and will be seeing him again in six weeks). Bobby Purify soon went back to his birth name, Ben Moore, and resumed his gospel career, joining the Blind Boys of Alabama and performing with them until he passed away in May 2022.

--- Graham Clarke



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