Dan Penn: A Shade-Tree Guy

(Background and interview by Cathi Norton)

 I guess I'd have been hard-pressed, way back there in the Sixties, to come up with a singer I liked better than Aretha Franklin. Although I was living in Chicago and soaking up the blues (learning about Etta James--whoa child!!), listening to Aretha sing gospel and soul moved and shook me good. One favorite she did was "Do Right Woman." I wore the grooves out on that record I promise you. It wasn't until much later that I discovered the songwriter's name...some guy named Dan Penn.

 This name kept appearing under song titles that moved me so much I had to know who wrote them. "Dark End of the Street," delivered in raw emotion by James Carr; "I'm Your Puppet;" Percy Sledge's incredible "It Tears Me Up;" "Sweet Inspiration," "Cry Like a Baby," and "You Left the Water Running." All were songs with lots of "furniture"--tasty turns of phrase, minimal verbiage and truckloads of room for emotion and heart. They had that magic quality of being able to carry as much emotion as the singer could muster. Powerful all by themselves, when sung with feeling they somehow reached way down and grabbed something deep and squeezed.

 Penn's name kept popping up like a persistent mosquito--producer for the Box Top's "The Letter," vocalist on Ry Cooder's "Boomer's Story," producer for Solomon Burke and Irma Thomas. Still he remained elusive until I ran across his album "Do Right Man" (Warner Brothers, 1994) and that was it! I got serious about running him down.

 Dan Penn was born in Vernon, Alabama on November 16, 1941. His family was "country church musical," and Dan didn't hang back. Front porch bands were common in his small community and his family had one too; his dad was a song leader and his mother played piano. Dan got a pint-sized Silvertone guitar when he was nine and knowing no chords didn't phase him; he just started beating on it in time with the grown-ups. He claims he only got serious about the instrument in high school when he couldn't make the football team. "'Long about the ninth grade, I broke a few shoulders and stuff and decided 'Well, this ain't gon' be my cup of tea'." But singing!...singing was his love, and he was good!

 In high school he was soon working as a singer with "The Mark Five" (David Briggs-piano, Norbert Putnam-bass, and Jerry Kerrigan-drums). With the addition of horns and Marlin Greene on guitar, the group became "The Pallbearers" in the Sixties, and traveled (in a hearse) to gigs at high schools and colleges in the south. Financial considerations pared them down to a four-piece (piano, drums, bass and Penn's vocals) when Penn hooked up with Fame Studios and began a career as a songwriter, engineer and producer that staggers the imagination. Clearly a key factor in the Fame-Muscle Shoals hit factories of the era, Penn and his main songwriting partner, Spooner Oldham, are responsible for many of the hits you were probably romancin' to back when morals were tighter than Elvis' britches.

 Active all this time, Penn has been writing, producing and keeping his fingers in all manner of musical pies from his Nashville, Tennessee home. He "plays out" once in awhile, but such gigs are infrequent. One such treat occurred at this year's Chicago Blues Festival where, at last, I caught up with him. It wasn't easy, but I wasn't going to let this one get away. He played a great set to a big crowd who stayed to applaud him and Spooner despite a steady rain, and I guess I couldn't have been more pleased to discover that he is genuinely modest and gentlemanly. You'll get no objectivity from this writer I'm afraid; I flatly admire his musical skills, his level-headed approach to life and the fact that he's attained my personal goal: great musical success while maintaining relative anonymity. Wow.


Cathi: Your band "The Pallbearer" worked with you at Fame Studios?

Penn: Yes, I was in their band as lead singer at Fame and writing for them too. We had our little in-house deal you know...went out on weekends and back in the studio during the week--writing and cutting whatever we could get into. That's what makes the wheels go 'round. You got players, writers, artists in the studio--a family thing. I was with them until '65 when they moved to Nashville. I stayed to concentrate on writing and engineering for another year before I went to Memphis.

Cathi: Is that where you wrote those terrific hits?

Penn: Well, we had written "Let's Do It Over," "I'm Your Puppet," and I got lots of cuts, you know, on black artists at Fame in the early, early days. No big hits, but I was the in-house writer and the main one. I stayed at Fame on and off for about four or five years. I engineered "Puppet" and the next thing I wanted to do was produce (laughs). After you get hold of the controls and you're writing the songs it kind of hits you like "Hey, I believe I could just cut a record!" So when I got to Memphis, I was given that opportunity.

Cathi: What was your first record?

Penn: It was on a little group called the "Chaotics"--a cover of "Double Shot of my Baby's Love" that the Swinging Medallions had you know. Then my first hit was "The Letter" with the Box Tops.

Cathi: That was terrific. So did you think you were on a roll, or just doing more of the same?

Penn: I thought I was on a roll.

Cathi: (Laughs.) You should!

Penn: Well, I kept doing things I wanted to and you know, you don't know what's going to happen, but you know when you're young, you just make 'em happen. If you just make up your mind, you probably will (make 'em happen).

Cathi: I believe so. It's just that when you get older you get a little more bewildered about what you want to make happen (laughs).

Penn: That's RIGHT! It doesn't matter as much and I wish it weren't that way.

Cathi: Well, you're still working a lot aren't you?

Penn: I'm not working "a lot," but I'm still working. Somebody calls me and wants me to write a song for 'em--I love that, because I can go immediately to work. It's a little hard to gear up when there's no project.

Cathi: I don't know why it is, but it does seem like having a deadline is inspiring.

Penn: Exactly. That's well said; that's exactly the way it is--inspiring. Inspiration is hard to come by. That's what's so nice about being young: inspiration is easier to find; all your antennas are up.

Cathi: Do you think surrounding yourself with--locking yourself up to write everyday...?

Penn: Well I did that for years. I did it at Fame; I did it at American in Memphis--Chip Moman's studio where I cut the Box Tops; where we wrote "Sweet Inspiration," "Do Right Woman," "Dark End of the Street," and all. And "Out in Left Field" was done in Muscle Shoals. I wrote every day and night, just stayed at it really hard.

Cathi: I'm sure it was exciting to have hits and all, but the pressure must have gotten more intense as you went along.

Penn: It did. The pressure got pretty hard after "The Letter." You know that was my first hit and you begin to start thinking "Well, was that a fluke?" You ask people to send you songs and they do, but then suddenly--nothing. So I said "Well, not it's come back to me and us," and I called Spooner and said "Spooner, we gotta write a song for the Box Tops. I got me a session next Tuesday." So I kind of put the pressure on myself. He and I got together for a couple of days...nothin'... nothin'...I mean NOTHIN'! Finally in disgust we went over to Porky's Barbecue--a little place across from American there in Memphis. We went over there and were eatin' our "give-up meal"...

Cathi: (Laughter)

Penn: I said "Let's go home; let's knock this stuff off--I'm in PAIN!" You know we were just sitting there looking at each other and Spooner just put his head over on the table and said "I could just cry like a baby."

Cathi: M'God.

Penn: And I said "WHAT?!?" (Laughs.) I always carried the studio keys, so we threw down some money and went right back. All of a sudden we got full AWAKE--I mean CHANGED in just a second!

Cathi: That's great! Is that how you work with Spooner...throwing off a little idea and picking it up?

Penn: Well, we work together like I work with everybody else. The only thing is--we kind of have this chemistry. I mean everybody's different; plenty of guys are good. But me and Spooner has this...when we're all...I can't tell where Spooner stops and I begin when we write a song. It don't sound like two people wrote it. A lot of songs I write with other people--I'm easy; I'll give it a turn. But lots of times you know, six months later you hear 'em and you can pick out spots where they're like synthesized--a little offa his brain and a little offa HIS brain. Who had the heart? Did anybody have any heart that day?

Cathi: (Laughs.)

Penn: A lot of times there's not a whole lot of that, but there's a whole lot of mental activity and the songs are just like a target blaring "I'M MENTAL!" And that's not my ambition you know; that's like an exercise.

Cathi: I haven't had much experience writing WITH people; I'm not sure I could.

Penn: Well my advice to you is, if you write by yourself I think you're way ahead of the game. I don't enjoy it myself. But then I'm not a big guitar fan. They're a necessary evil (laughs). I like piano. I just start singing and the writing is all from the word "go." I like to see 'em built from raw emotion on up.

Cathi: You just start singing?

Penn: I do it from singing. If I couldn't sing and the guy don't play...I mean if we are just gonna set there and do it out of...

Cathi: Math?

Penn: Math!! I'm goin' home--I got somethin' I need to DO! But like I said, if you write alone and like it--great. When me and Spooner write sometimes we don't do anything. It's just like goin' fishin' and you don't catch nothin'. But if we write and get something pretty good, I can't tell you where his head stopped and mine started. I mean it ain't no head deal you know?

Cathi: It's a gift.

Penn: I cherish when me and him can write something really good. We just wrote a thing for Cissy Houston--a gospel tune. She just cut it and it is KNOCKED OUT! But I'm the kinda person that if I'm not writing, I'm not happy. I don't have to write as many songs as I used to. I just want to write least-bad ones (laughs). And if you can't make records for yourself...you ain't livin'!

Cathi: Amen. Well, how about singing? It's such a major part of your writing. Do you think that's your first instrument?

Penn: Yeah. I mean if it hadn't been for the ability to sing and enjoy it.... I've always been able to sing--loud or soft--to whatever I wanted to do. I can sing all night because that's the way I write. So if it'll come out of my mouth, I can hear it. A lot of things that come out of my mouth--I didn't think 'em up!

Cathi: A common problem! (Laughs.)

Penn: (Laughs.) But it's more of a gift that way. I kinda got this idea that all those thoughts are floatin' around up here and we're just a receiver in a way--like a radio.

Cathi: If you open up your mouth and get out of the way...

. Penn: GET OUT OF THE WAY! However you can! Just don't get TOO far out of the way (laughs)...you'll fall off a cliff. I think all the best songs come out of just pure, raw feeling that you can't quite explain. Everything we get is just a gift we can borrow for awhile.

Cathi: True.

Penn: I fell real lucky--from where I came from--to have a lot of doors open. At Fame and Muscle Shoals I was just standin' in the right spot. And in Memphis I was in a good place. Now I've been here (Nashville) 25 years you know, though I'm not much on the country scene.

Cathi: Yes, it seems like most of your work is soul. Is that because of the feeling involved?

Penn: Yeah, it's a spiritual thing. You can't beat that. There ain't no kinda music--even jazz--can touch it. So that's been my...the blues of course, but the blues came out of that too.

Cathi: So why Nashville?

Penn: Well where you gon' go? That was my thing in '74 when I came here. I said "Where you gon' go? You can't stay here in Memphis. It don't feel good no more, and everybody's leavin'--where you gon' go? You doin' to Los Angeles? NO WAY! You goin' to New York? NO!" So I said "Well, where's the best crossroads in the world?" And I came here. And everything is here--the publishing business is here. I have my own business (Dan Penn Music); I'm independent all around. People come here from L.A., London, everywhere, because it's the best place to be at the moment--a nice place to live. Everything is here. A lot of people do country and that's fine. I mean that generates a lot of it; but everybody--most people who are great country writers would rather be writing blues (laughs).

Cathi: I wonder about that sometimes. You see these cats playing in the country bands--killer musicians...

Penn: There's true country people who truly like country music and are really good musicians. Ain't no doubt about that. But from a writer's...I'm just speakin' mostly from writers that I know around town. Most of 'em are writin' silly country songs in the day and thinkin' 'bout B.B. King at night.

Cathi: (laughs.) Do you think of people when you write? Do you write songs for people or come up with a song and then shop it?

Penn: I used to do the latter a lot--just a lot of songwriting and try to put this with that. And that was all right--I mean you gotta write. I'd probably write if they don't pay me. I might not write as much or as good, but I'd just have to make me up a song.

Cathi: Well what's your attitude about musical fame?

Penn: Stay away from it!

Cathi: (Laughter.) You'd stay strictly away from it huh?

Penn: Well somehow I always have. I mean, I don't want nobody clamorin' around. I really like going to Krogers!

Cathi: I know--invisibility has turned out to be a treasure.

Penn: Really. That's the best part about writin' you know? Nobody knows you.

Cathi: Any advice for songwriters?

Penn: Hmmm...that's pretty hard. I don't really have a lot of advice. I used to think different than I do now, but I don't know. It's a different day for the young people startin'. They've got college courses; they go through all these educational ways. I don't know anything about that. I didn't come through that and I'm glad I didn't. I didn't learn to engineer at a college where everybody's learnin'. I just learned because I stood in the corner enough nights and watched...figured it out for myself. But you know...I'm a shade-tree guy...and it ain't that kinda world no more.