Listening to Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham……

Penn and Oldham are a couple of that rare and select breed of musician who, at one time or another and in one situation or another had a ‘day job’ that involved writing hit songs in large numbers.  The best known of these ‘ensembles’ have been based in the USA and we immediately think of New York’s ‘Tin Pan Alley’ and the Brill Building where the likes of Carole King, Gerry Goffin and Neil Sedaka plied their trade in the 1950’s – because that’s very much what it was; a trade.  Just like the executives in the BBC’s excellent ‘Mad Men’ travel into the heart of Manhattan to produce inane but powerful jingles and slogans, so King, Goffin, et al would hammer away at their pianos, concocting the dreams of ‘Young America’….under the boardwalk, up on the roof, whether they’d lost that lovin’ feelin’ or just discovered the ‘Chapel of Love’….

The frontage of the Brill Building at 1619 Broadway

Tin Pan Alley had of course existed in some form or another on W.28th Street between Sixth and Broadway since the 19th century as home to the publishers of sheet music and because of its proximity to the vaudeville theatres of Broadway.   What many found fascinating was the  ‘industrial’ nature of the songwriting that went on here.  There was talk of ‘hit factories’ and owners would strive to pair or group combinations that could generate the particular chemistry needed to write a hit song.  In those days, things were seen in terms of the classic combinations of history such as George & Ira Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart and so on. This was something that persisted into the classic 50’s combinations of Lieber & Stoller, Goffin & King et al.

It was also something that Motown founder Berry Gordy picked up on when he founded his own ‘Hit Factory’ out in Detroit in the late 1950’s.  In assembling talent to fuel his new roster of labels, Gordy was looking not just at the stars like The Supremes or The Temptations who would provide the window dressing for the enterprise but also the backroom technicians, musicians, producers and writing teams who would produce, record and package the material that Motown would sell so successfully throughout the 1960’s.  Motown had its crop of producer/songwriters like Holland-Dozier-Holland, Norman Whitfield & Barrett Strong , ‘Mickey’ Stevenson & Smokey Robinson and so on – their style and techniques were hugely influential….

Another day at the office for Holland, Dozier and Holland….

Down in Memphis, a similar phenomenon was occurring, albeit on a smaller scale, at Stax Records.  Stax could boast Booker T and the M.G.’s as a house band and could also draw on the songwriting talents of Isaac Hayes and David Porter.  There is strong evidence that Porter in particular cold-bloodedly dissected some of the classic Motown songs, applying what he’d learned to his own writing.

The success of Stax Records brought something of a renaissance in the music business in Memphis.  Dan  Penn had worked at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals but had failed to really make it as a performer.  Having written ‘I’m your puppet’, successfully recorded by James & Bobby Purify in 1966, Penn relocated to Memphis, intent on reinventing himself as a songwriter/producer.  He quickly hooked up with Chips Moman at American Studios. 

Their first collaboration was the extraordinary soul classic ‘The Dark End of the Street’, recorded initially by James Carr, but propelled to international success when it was covered by Percy Sledge (with Spooner Oldham on sepulchral Hammond Organ).  Rock artists like Ry Cooder and Richard & Linda Thompson have since covered the song to great effect.  Moman & Penn subsequently produced ‘Do right woman, do right man’ for Aretha Franklin’s 1967  Muscle Shoals sessions, whilst Penn was also collaborating with Spooner Oldham in writing and producing hits for a new pop/soul group from Memphis called The Box Tops.  Led by future Big Star guitarist Alex Chilton, the Box Tops would register massive international hits with songs like ‘The Letter’ and ‘Cry like  a baby’.  Like Penn & Oldham themselves, The Box Tops were exponents of what is often termed ‘blue-eyed soul’, which is a polite term for black music made by white people.  The degree to which this term is derogatory probably depends on the company you’re keeping, but some record companies – notably Island with Robert Palmer and Columbia with Boz Scaggs – have used it freely in promoting white artists since the 1960’s.

Aretha Franklin with Jerry Wexler at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, 1967

Dan Penn freely admits that whilst he grew up with an awareness of what white artists (most notably Elvis Presley) could do in harnessing the drive and sexual energy of black rhythm and blues and repackaging it for an affluent white audience, it was the original black artists like Ray Charles and James Brown that he always turned to for inspiration.

All of this might have gone on indefinitely, but history took a hand once Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis in 1968.  Suddenly, with race riots and a city in flames, the flow of black performers that had been working with Penn & Oldham on a regular basis just dried up and disappeared.  Since then, both have had their ‘wilderness years’ , as Penn freely acknowledges :- “In the Seventies, there were a lot of parties, but not a lot of songs. Whole lot of first lines, and no verses. I lost my studio – stayed pretty intoxicated for eight years.”

In time-honoured fashion, Penn was ‘saved’ by that old-time Southern religion in the 1980’s and now he and Oldham tour as a duo when time permits, playing the old songs; whilst the James Taylors and Bob Dylans of this world became singer/songwriters, Penn & Oldham, coming the other way, can perhaps be described as songwriter/singers.

Dan Penn on guitar and Spooner Oldham at the piano

Anyway, new listeners need look no further than ‘Moments from this theatre’, a recording of a gig they did in Dublin in 1998 or thereabouts and available on Proper Records.  All those hit songs are there, delivered (mainly ) by Penn’s warm baritone – he sounds very akin to another famous Memphis singer; Russell Smith from The Amazing Rhythm Aces.  The backing is Penn’s uncluttered acoustic guitar and Oldham’s warm electric piano.  It’s a record for a certain mood; maybe one of those delicate Sunday mornings…but for a couple of guys from the factory floor, it’s pretty impressive stuff…..


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