“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.”
— Dan Penn
If any single theme dominates this history of Rock and Roll, it is the theme of popular music culture as a place and an experience that allows a degree of racial mixing beyond what American everyday life offers. Again and again, new moments in Rock and Roll’s ongoing history come when the boundaries that too often organize the races as separate are broken down. Most commonly, it has been black music that provides the primary materials, the inspiration and the talent that kicks off these changes, these moments. But oftentimes the contributions are the result of a kind of dialogue across racial lines. Booker T. and the MGs, a four-member Memphis combo comprised of two black and two white musicians, represents well the ideal form this dialogue can take. To be sure, their moment, 1960s Soul, is rich in examples.
This lesson looks at that juncture in Soul’s history, when popular music and the Civil Rights movement seemed almost to be working in support of one another. Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, the Motown acts; so much was happening, and so much was “crossing over,” getting to a wide, appreciative white audience. But the focal point here is not what was happening at the front of the stage. Rather, this lesson goes behind the scenes, to see where young white musicians and writers were working with African-American performers to create something that was truly born of a dialogue.
The focus here is one particular songwriter-producer-musician: Dan Penn. Only 14 when he had his first hit, “Is A Bluebird Blue,” recorded by Conway Twitty, Penn was entranced by black music, Ray Charles and Bobby “Blue” Bland among his very favorites. As the epigraph above suggests, Penn found a way to get close to the world associated with just such artists, not caring if he was allowed in simply because he’d be an errand boy if one was needed. Along the way, he wrote some of Soul music’s most enduring songs, including “I’m Your Puppet,” “Out of Left Field,” “Dark End of the Street,” and “Do Right Woman.” The artists recording those songs included Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, James Carr, and James and Bobby Purify, all African-American singers. As a white songwriter, Penn was writing for those voices, and he would be the first to tell you: “I mean, white singers are okay, but black singers are better. You don’t even have to think about it.”
Our aim here is not to assign greater value to white or black voices but to consider the musical results when a class of young white musicians and writers felt unambiguously that black voices were better, and they started writing songs for those voices. In that moment, a dialogue was underway.