DAN PENN WROTE his first hit (‘Is A Bluebird Blue?’ for Conway Twitty) at fourteen, and collaborated prolifically with Spooner Oldham, turning out mid ’60s R&B hits like James and Bobby Purify’s ‘I’m Your Puppet’. In 1967 he produced the Box Tops’ ‘The Letter’. His more mercurial partnership with Chips Moman also created the much-recorded classic, ‘Dark End Of The Street’.
“Rick Hall built himself a studio, Fame, and wanted me to write for him. He was good enough to pay me 25 bucks a week, so I started writing for him in ’63 and moved to Muscle Shoals from my home town in Vernon, Alabama. Rick’s studio was a great studio from the very start, from a mono studio to a four-track studio to an eight-track studio, it was just one of those magic places. There was something going on there. At first he wasn’t cutting hits, but he was cutting records and, like I say, I was writing on a little salary and I was going getting hamburgers, anything I could do to hang around the studio. The band that I played with on weekends was Rick’s house band, who were (Jerry) Carrigan, (David) Briggs, (Norbert) Putnam and me in a ’56 Cadillac hearse. We called ourselves Dan Penn and the Pallbearers and played fraternity parties or anywhere people would pay us. But they played sessions and moved on up to Nashville around about ’65, and that’s when they got Roger Hawkins and Spooner Oldham, then they’d get Reggie Young out of Memphis, Tommy Cogbill, Junior Lowe, Jimmy Johnson…There were a lot of good musicians floating around.
“Suddenly I found myself out of a band, but I was writing a lot of songs with Spooner at that time, so it worked out okay. Then I met Chips (Moman) in ’65 or ’66 and me and him wrote ‘Do Right Woman’, so I was there during all that.
“It’s just kind of heart music, I call it, and it can be in any kind of music, that heart. They’re using it now in Country and everything else, or trying to use it, but they don’t have the beautiful black voice to put on it most times, you know? And that’s what I consider R&B really is: the black voices and the white musicians and the white producers and the white writers of the late ’60s. I still love the ’67, ’68, ’69 records, I really do.
“There were a lot of records before that which were all black, and they were different, they were more jazzy, more slick, I would call it. But you see, when you brought Aretha in and you got Roger Hawkins and Chips Moman and Rick Hall and all in the studio, I mean you got a bunch of Country white guys and they’ve got one of the greatest R&B singers in the world sitting there, it makes them want to git it! There wasn’t anything passe going down at that time, it was like, you know, stretch – do all you can and go another mile, we’re going to make a great record here tonight. I mean, white singers are okay, but black singers are better. You don’t even have to think about it. It’s true.
“I’d been digging black records for years and suddenly I got a chance to be involved in making them, even to go get a hamburger, that was all right with me – just to be there. And by being there I started getting lucky with some songs.
“Nobody but me knew who Aretha was, I don’t think. Not Rick or none of them. They just thought she was another black singer. But I’d already been listening to a lot of her records and I knew she was going to be tough. ‘Course, when she hit that first chord on the piano everybody in there knew that somebody was there, they really did.
“She played piano and sang at the same time, and Spooner Oldham played the organ. It was all going down at the same time. But they didn’t have anything on ‘Do Right Woman’ when they left Alabama. I was disgusted and broken-hearted.
“I’ll tell you the truth. This is one of the most fantastic things I ever witnessed in my life. They cut ‘I Never Loved A Man’ and it was just romping stomping, it was an out and out smash. They cut ‘Do Right Woman’, it didn’t sound right. She wouldn’t even sing it. I think I sang it as it went down on the track. She couldn’t quite learn it in time and it was like the last thrown in thing and, man, it was dreadful – me singing like a bird and the track just boom boom…
“They weren’t going to cut any more at Rick’s because they had a little disagreement, and they had an eight-track in New York and wanted to go eight-track, so we all went up there. When we got to New York, we went into the control room and Tom Dowd and Jerry Wexler played back that stuff.
“They played back ‘Do Right Woman’ and I became a believer in the power of the tracks ’cause she had put her sisters on it, she’d sang it over, she’d played piano herself, and I realised then you can make anything out of anything with a lot of tracks. I think maybe they had the bass drum and a snare and the bass that they used out of Alabama, and possibly the guitar. It was pathetic. And it was such a wonderful record when they played it back. It’s still one of the best records I’ve ever heard by anybody, not ’cause it’s my song, but just that record. It’ll reach out and get you in your heart.”
© John Pidgeon, 1991