Dan Penn’s Sweet Inspiration

Portrait of Dan Penn by Whitten SabbatiniStory Birney Imes | Photographs Whitten Sabbatini

Dan Penn has just finished a plate of fried catfish at the Country Squire, a fish house on the western edge of Sulligent, Ala., and would like an excuse to order the restaurant’s signature dessert, a hot fudge sundae. It’s a sunny afternoon in mid-April, and Penn is having an early dinner with his wife of 48 years, Linda; his mother-in-law, Anna Eskridge; longtime friend Eddie McNees and a writer. The group motored 10 miles up from Vernon, another small west Alabama town where Dan and Linda live when they’re not in Nashville. No one at the table seems much interested in dessert. Finally, when the writer says he’ll take a bite, the resolve of the other diners weakens, and Penn calls over the waitress and tells her to bring a large sundae with five spoons. “And, honey, you make sure that fudge is good and hot,” he says.

Though it’s not one he would have written (the words are too suggestive), there was a time when an offhand remark uttered in Penn’s presence stood a chance of ending up next to a number in Billboard Magazine. He’s famous for it, snatching a phrase from the air and making it into a song.

Like back in 1968, when he and Spooner Oldham were going nowhere trying to come up with another hit for the Box Tops. The year before, under Penn’s direction, the group had recorded “The Letter.” The song had spent four weeks at No. 1 and brought international fame to five unknown white boys from Memphis.

Penn and Oldham had been struggling for days trying to come up with a follow-up and were feeling the pressure. Finally, resigned to failure, they dragged themselves out of the studio and across the street to Porky’s Barbecue where they had what Penn called their “give-up meal.”

Afterward, Spooner put his head on the table and said, “I could just cry like a baby.” That was all Penn needed.

“Cry Like a Baby” sold a million records for the Box Tops and made it to Billboard’s No. 2 spot.

Meeting Dan Penn on his home turf, you would think you were about to enter the domain of a shade tree mechanic or, to use the title of his recent, self-produced CD, a junk yard junkie. The evidence is there, plain to see: a nondescript metal building, a yard full of rusting cars reverting to nature and a slow-talking, toothpick chewing, overall-wearing country boy (Penn will be 70 this year).

But then there are the eyes, squinting, alert, knowing. There is a shrewdness beneath that laid-back demeanor; a lively mind is watching, evaluating and taking it all in.

Dan Penn is the most famous songwriter you’ve never heard of. That is unless you are a student of Southern soul music of the 1960s. Penn co-wrote “I’m Your Puppet” for James and Bobby Purify, “Do Right Woman” for Aretha Franklin, “Sweet Inspiration” for the Sweet Inspirations and “Dark End of the Street” for James Carr. His music played a prominent role in the 1991 Irish film, “The Commitments.” He was a writer, performer and producer at the vortex of two centers of American music when they burned white hot: first Muscle Shoals, then Memphis.

He says it began as a kid plowing behind a mule.

“Daddy gave me so much to do to keep me out of trouble. He and Mama went to the garment plant to work (in nearby Columbus, Miss.).”
Penn says he was plowing and trying to sing the Hank Williams’ ditty, “Jambalaya (on the Bayou).” Verses he couldn’t remember, he just made up. He continued to make up songs; two early compositions were “My Girl” (no relation to the Temptations version) and “Moon, Where You Been Sleeping, Boy?”

Penn’s father, who was in what was then known as a front porch band, bought his son a Silvertone guitar and began teaching him to play after Penn injured his shoulder playing football. His music studies also included listening to R&B from Nashville’s WLAC on a small, green transistor radio.

“All of a sudden, I’m 16,” he says.

Like most boys in small Southern towns growing up in mid-century, Penn spent nights hanging out with his classmates, both mimicking and envying the upperclassmen. In the case of Vernon, the hangout in the 1950s was the courthouse square.

Sooner or later one of the courthouse seniors would rally the troops with, “Let’s go down to the line and get a cold one.”
Beer was available on the Mississippi side of the state line 10 miles away. The underclassmen’s requests to ride along were routinely denied, though Penn recalls a night permission was granted by Jet Atkins after Penn and his friends offered to buy gas and beer. High school fame is fleeting, but potent, and that year Jet Atkins was Zeus. He was captain of the football team and, more importantly, owner of a dressed-out baby blue ’55 Chevy.

Penn remembers the ride, and he remembers every one of the too many Falstaffs he drank. He also remembers the way the coolest boy around would answer questions.

“Every time you asked him anything he would say, ‘Is a bluebird blue?’”

“Hey Jet, you want a hamburger?”

“Is a bluebird blue?”

“Hey Jet, you want another cold one?”

“Is a bluebird blue?”

“Hey Jet, did you have any luck on your date last night?”

“Is a bluebird blue?”

That night on the way back to town and feeling the weight of the Falstaffs, Atkins’ words seemed to linger in the air.

Penn wrote the song and cut a demo. A year later Conway Twitty made a hit out of “Is a Bluebird Blue?” (Years later Penn would write “Come on Over” for Jet’s brother, lead vocalist of Big Ben Atkins and the Nomads, the house band for the Southernaire, a popular night spot in Columbus.) Soon after “Bluebird,” Rick Hall hired Penn as a writer for his FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals. The pay was $25 a week.

Hall describes Penn in Peter Guralnick’s book on the history of Southern rhythm and blues, “Sweet Soul Music”:

“Here was this kid, white, 16 years old, singing like Ray Charles, just in love with black music. He was the real thing. … He knew more about black music than the rest of us put together. … He wasn’t a yes-man for nobody. If he didn’t like something, he’d tell you, ‘I think it stinks. Worst thing I ever heard.’”

Penn compares his time at FAME with a college education. In his five years at Muscle Shoals, he immersed himself in R&B music: He wrote, performed and produced. A distinctive feature of Penn’s career was the easy melding of black performers with white songwriters and technicians at a time when the fires of the civil rights movement raged throughout the South.

“It was completely neutral ground,” Penn says about race relations in the studio. “Actually, it was the most respectful place I’ve ever been. The black artist could really sing the song, and we had all respect for them. We on the other hand, could write the songs, play the songs and engineer them and produce the records that sounded like something.”

“I had a real feel for black music at that time. I loved it, loved rhythm and blues.”

In 1966 Penn moved to Memphis where he continued his successes with Oldham and Chips Moman at American Studio. By the end of the ’60s, Southern R&B had run its course, and Penn slid into obscurity.

Longtime friend Eddie McNees is a self-appointed archivist of all things Dan Penn.

McNees got interested in Penn’s music when his mother came home from church and said Penn’s mother told her a “girl singer named Janis Joplin” had just recorded one of his songs (“A Woman Left Lonely”).

“Mama didn’t know Janis Joplin from Scott Joplin,” said McNees.

But her son did. McNees went promptly to the mall in Tuscaloosa where he bought “Pearl,” his first purchase of Penn’s music. He’s since found 486 versions of 260 songs — including 25 to 30 versions of “Dark End of the Street.”

Penn continues to write, record and perform. A 1998 live album recorded with Oldham in Ireland showcases a voice that is both rich and silky smooth. He’s since self-produced CDs he markets on his website.

These days Penn goes to Nashville to support his junk car habit in Vernon. In the Music City he plays, produces and serves as a village elder for a community of songwriters, who occasionally call on him for advice or help with a song.

Dan Penn says he would like to make a “proper” gospel record (or two). He says songwriting is a lot easier for him these days.

“God just hangs them out there now. I can almost see ’em. If I want a song, it’s just a prayer away.”

Portrait of Dan Penn by Whitten SabbatiniDAN PENN ON THE ART OF SONGWRITING

ON BECOMING A SONGWRITER IN MUSCLE SHOALS:  (While staff songwriter for FAME Studio, Penn was the standup vocalist for Mark V, a band that played weekend gigs and served as studio musicians during the week. In ’64, after the band played a show with the Beatles, three of the band left Penn and Muscle Shoals for Nashville.) “Here I am, I’m sittin’ out front in my car on a Sunday night; I’m just sittin’ there thinking, ‘poor ole me.’ I was looking through the windshield at the door to FAME and I thought, ‘That’s the door.  All I gotta do is open that door, walk inside and learn everything I can about songwriting, making records, producing records,’ … and that’s what I did.”

ON BLACK AND WHITE MUSICIANS WORKING TOGETHER IN THE ’60s:  “What really does it for me is when I hear some white and black (musicians) gel. … This was a beautiful thing. We had great singers singing words you could appreciate, almost country words. And now we have county music that sounds thin — there are no scars on the voice, nobody’s smoking, nobody’s drinking and you got your black boys all rappin’ and hip-hopping. I don’t know what that’s about.”

ON HIS WRITING TECHNIQUE:  “The way I write is a little odd to some people. I try not to think. I try to get me out of the way. I hear a chord or I hear a little groove. You just open your mouth and something comes out. You call that a blessing. I get the first verse; then we have to stop and think. I try to just get it out of the belly. If you think, all you got to think about is what went before and you don’t need to be thinking about what went before.”

ADVICE TO ASPIRING SONGWRITERS:  “Get you any kind of recorder. Get you the best set of speakers (you can afford) and start recording. Put that down (on cassette or CD) and file it away. Pull it out and listen to it … work on it.  You got to approach it seriously. Do your best to finish one song. Judge yourself. … Those speakers will improve you. I’ve improved a lot of singers with good speakers. …
The only things that’s wrong with it (computer recording programs), it’s too good. Go find you a tape recorder. Get down to where you got to work.”

ON WHAT HE WOULD LIKE TO DO NEXT:  “I’d really like to make a gospel record, maybe two. I’ve kind of come full circle. I love gospel music. The Lord has helped me out of so much and kept me alive. … I love that music so much, Southern gospel quartets.”