Dan Penn's contributions to popular American songcraft are inestimable. Peter Guralnick describes the Alabama-born songwriter as the "secret hero" of Sweet Soul Music, his dot-connecting chronicle of American soul music in the 1960s. Working first at FAME Studio in Muscle Shoals with Rick Hall, Billy Sherrill, and Spooner Oldham and later as a songwriter with Chips Moman and the Box Tops at American Sound Studio in Memphis, Penn distinguished himself as a gifted singer and musician who preferred to work outside the spotlight. He produced "The Letter" for the Box Tops, and the jaw-dropping list of songs he's contributed to as a writer or co-writer include "The Dark End of the Street," "I'm Your Puppet," and the Aretha Franklin hit "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man."
This week, the Mike Curb Institute at Rhodes College is bringing Penn back to Memphis for a concert with keyboard player Bobby Emmons in the McCallum Ballroom.
"The scope of what he touched, from American to the Box Tops, is just incredible," says John T. Bass, director of the Curb Institute, which studies and promotes Southern musical traditions.
The Flyer spoke to Penn in advance of the concert:
Memphis Flyer: I don't know how else to ask. How do you write a song as good as "The Dark End of the Street"?
Dan Penn: That's a good question. If you find out, tell me, because I'd like to write another one like it. Chips and me were really close at that time. We knew each other pretty good, and we had a lot of doggone respect for each other. And we'd had a lot of good times together. Also, I think songwriters, Southern songwriters at least, are inspired by Hank Williams. "Your Cheatin' Heart" is about the best slipping-around song there is. Then Jimmy Hughes did "Steal Away."
And you were at FAME when Hughes recorded that, right?
I got to watch all that go down. And I learned a lot. I didn't feel like I was stealing from him [on "Dark End of the Street"], but he was definitely an inspiration. So you keep on trying to write this particular kind of cheating song. And in the '60s that seemed to be highly important.
Having written hits already, when you finished writing "Dark End," did you know it was going to be your "Your Cheatin' Heart"?
I thought it was good when James Carr sang it. I can't say that I knew it right off because we wrote it in a hotel room in Nashville, and it was a good while before we had the demo down where we could play it back.
You're a great singer. Why aren't all these Dan Penn songs Dan Penn hits?
I was no James Carr. But I was pretty good. I sounded okay to me. In the beginning, I wanted to be a rock-and-roll singer like everybody else. But I had this opportunity. People always ask, "Why didn't you have the hit?" I tell 'em, well, I did! I realized pretty early on that a man can't do it all. If you try, you're gonna get scattered. If I got out touring on the road I can tell you one thing for sure, a lot of those songs I wrote would have never been written. And I just loved the studio, the producing, the writing. That whole end of it. I didn't gig for 25 years.
But you play more now.
I started playing shows in '92, and I immediately saw the benefit of that. I go places. I see different faces, different attitudes, and I get ideas. Sitting in your studio basement it's easy to get closed in.
You were in Memphis at the city's zenith. Hi is going strong, Stax is going strong. You're at American writing songs for the Box Tops. How much interaction was there between all this talent?
To be honest, there was very little. I went over to Stax two or three times. Booker T. would come over and play trombone sometimes, like on Joe Tex's "Skinny Legs and All." It's not like anything was off-limits. It's just that everybody was busy.
And then it wasn't busy.
It all went flat. Stax shut down. Chips left for Atlanta, and nobody else raised their head. I'll tell you what, though, Memphis has the best recording air there is, anywhere. It's better than Nashville, better than Muscle Shoals. I don't know what to say except it's funkier. And you know that's what I like.
Songs like "Dark End of the Street," "I'm Your Puppet," "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man" have been recorded so many times. Do you even try to keep up? Do you have favorites?
I like the hits. I like the originals. Nobody's going to outdo James Carr or the Purify Brothers. I've heard many versions. Some may go in a different direction from the way the song was originally written, but I don't care. People do that. I still get the check.
I love the story about how you and Spooner Oldham wrote “Cry Like a Baby” for the Box Tops.
I was the producer on “The Letter.” I’d always wanted to record a big hit. That’s why I was working in Memphis. So the record company said they wanted another one like “The Letter,” and I told them I don’t do sequels. I wanted to put out “Neon Rainbow” and it only sold about half-a-million. So I call Spooner and say we’ve got to write the next hit for The Box Tops. And it was like we couldn’t even write our names. We didn’t have anything and we had a session for the Box Tops the next morning. So we go across street to have our farewell breakfast and we sit down and Spooner puts his head on the table and says “I could cry like a baby.” And I said Spooner, that's it.
Sometimes you get lucky.
You make your own luck too.
Look at all the people who synched up in the right places at the right time. You, Billy Sherrill, Rick Hall. And didn’t you even play on “You Better Move On,” or some of those early Arthur Alexander singles?
I did not, but I was around for that. Arthur Alexander's manager Tom Stafford was also my manager. I was around Arthur enough to learn from him. His simplicity made me want to be more simple. If you write simply and play simply more people can get it. Jimmy Reed wasn’t exactly burning up the chord charts.
It will be good to have you back in Memphis.
Just give me some Rendezvous ribs and a chance to go over to Pancho's in West Memphis. I'll be happy.
Dan Penn, with Bobby Emmons
Rhodes College's McCallum Ballroom in the
Bryan Campus Life Center
Thursday, February 28th
7:30 p.m., $10
For advance tickets, call 843-3786 or see alumni.rhodes.edu/danpenn