Category Archives: Music – Soul

1970: All things must pass

I’ve just finished reading David Browne’s ‘Fire and Rain’, a lengthy volume which attempts to explain many aspects of why the 1960’s Hippie Dream turned sour and does so by concentrating on one year – 1970 – and on 4 groups or artists for whom 1970 was a big year; Simon & Garfunkel, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, The Beatles and James Taylor.

All 4 released albums in 1970 – Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge over troubled water‘,  CSNY’s ‘Déjà Vu ‘,  James Taylor’s ‘Sweet Baby James’ and The Beatles’ ‘Let it be’.  Each of those albums were important inasmuch as they signified the end of the road for both The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel,  whilst Déjà Vu demonstrated how the addition of Neil Young to the mix completely destroyed the huge promise of the first ‘Crosby, Stills & Nash’ album from the previous year.  With hindsight,  only James Taylor’s ‘Sweet Baby James’ can be seen in a positive light; after all, it was the template for Taylor’s hugely successful career which still endures to this day.

CrosbyStillsNashYoung 1970CSNY in 1970 – falling apart before they ever really got together

All of these albums – particularly ‘Bridge over troubled water’  – were highly successful in terms of sales but all except for the Taylor album are freighted with negative connotations.

Simon & Garfunkel’s final album was patchy.  The title track was a monster hit everywhere and became an instant ‘standard’ and there were other fine moments like the quirky ‘So long Frank Lloyd Wright’, but there were some patchy moments as well.  Overall,  the album lacked the homogeneity of 1968’s  ‘Bookends’ and, as Browne points out, many of the tracks featured either Garfunkel’s voice or Simon’s – there weren’t many moments where we were treated to the sweet joint harmonies of yesteryear.

‘Let  it be‘ was a ragbag mess of a record after the smooth fluidity of its predecessor, ‘Abbey Road’.  Few of the songs were of a quality that matched The Beatles’ achievements  at their ‘Revolver’/’Sgt Pepper‘ peak.  ‘Let it be’ revealed a band falling apart.  The only surprise is that it was released at all; few other bands would have got away with it.

Déjà Vuand the US concert tour that followed it turned Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young into the world’s biggest band by the summer of 1970.  Yet the record – like the band –  is deeply flawed, lacking the unity of mood, purpose and underlying philosophy which made the 1969 ‘Crosby, Stills & Nash‘ album one of the finest début albums of all time.  By contrast, ‘Déjà Vu’ sounds like the work of 4 solo artists, which as Browne’s book reveals was pretty much the case.  Only Crosby’s hippie potboiler ‘Almost cut my hair’ avoids this label as he insisted the whole band record it live in the studio.  Looking back, it’s clear that Young only joined the CSN collective in order to further his own solo career.  It’s of some significance that Young’s ‘After the Goldrush’, another 1970 release, leaves ‘Déjà Vu’ standing – and I say this as someone for whom Neil Young’s lengthy solo career is largely a monument to self-indulgence and tedium.  All in all, it has to be said that whilst  ‘Déjà Vu’ has its momentsStills’ ‘Carry On’ and Crosby’s title track maintain the quality of the first album –  the rest is pretty forgettable.

So, for Browne’s chosen artistes, we have two bands who disintegrated in 1970 plus one who were hardly together at all and all of this came in the wake of the Woodstock dream being soured by the events at the Altamont Speedway at the end of 1969.  Even  for Taylor, who was well on his way to becoming a major artist by the end of 1970,  success was curdled by lengthy episodes of drug abuse and flirtations with the mental instability that informed some of his lyrics.   All in all, it’s not a pretty picture, but the thing is, it’s also a distorted one, because in many other ways, 1970 was a time of harvest for many of the bands and performers who had been developing their music over the previous few years.

Even a perfunctory glance at a list of the albums that were released in 1970 show an extraordinary diversity and range of talent.  This was the year of Van Morrison’s ‘Moondance’ , of  Santana’s ‘Abraxas’, of Pink Floyd’s  ‘Atom Heart Mother’, Traffic’s ‘John Barleycorn must die’ and Joni Mitchell’s ‘Ladies of the Canyon’.  How different, how much more positive could Browne’s story have been if he’d chosen these albums and artists instead of the ones already mentioned?

TrafficTraffic in 1970;  (L-R) Wood, Winwood & Capaldi

Well, of course, Browne chose the artists and albums he did because they illustrated the specific point he was trying to make about the death of 1960’s idealism and the encroachment of greed, ego and narcotics upon the hippie heartlands of yesteryear.  To be honest, his points are well-made, but I have to ask myself which of the artists he covered were on my personal ‘playlist’ in 1970.  Maybe Déjà Vu‘ – though I usually reverted to the first ‘CSN’
album by preference – and from time to time later on in the year, Taylor’s ‘Sweet Baby James’ once it strayed across my radar.  The other two were not albums I listened to at all – I always felt that ‘Let it be‘ was rubbish aside from a couple of the tracks and I found ‘Bridge over troubled water‘ too syrupy and bland.  Some people found the title track magnificent; I just found it overblown.

I’ve already mentioned a few of the top albums released in 1970 – here’s a more comprehensive list:

Derek & the Dominos – ‘Layla and other assorted love songs’

The Mothers of Invention – ‘Burnt Weeny Sandwich’ / ‘Chunga’s Revenge’

Free – ‘Fire & Water’/’Highway’

George Harrison – ‘All things must pass’

Grateful Dead – ‘Workingman’s Dead’ / ‘American Beauty’

Jimmy Webb – ‘Words & Music’

Joni Mitchell – ‘Ladies of the Canyon’

IABD - Marrying Maiden

King Crimson – ‘In  the wake of Poseidon’ / ‘Lizard’

Led Zeppelin – ‘III’

Neil Young – ‘After the Goldrush’

Pink Floyd – ‘Atom Heart Mother’

Rod Stewart – ‘Gasoline Alley’

Ry Cooder – ‘Ry Cooder’

Santana – ‘Abraxas’

Soft Machine – ‘Third’

Supertramp – First Album (‘Supertramp’)

Allman Brothers Band – ‘Idlewild South’

The Band – ‘Stage Fright’

The Byrds – ‘Untitled’

The Doors – ‘Morrison Hotel’

The Rolling Stones – ‘Get yer ya-ya’s out’

Todd Rundgren – ‘Runt’

Mountain climbing

Traffic – ‘John Barleycorn must die’

Yes – ‘Time and a Word’

Family – A Song for Me’

Mountain – Climbing!

Egg – ‘Egg’

Miles Davis – ‘Bitches’ Brew’

The Flying Burrito Brothers – ‘Burrito Deluxe’

Country Joe and the Fish – ‘C.J. Fish.’

Blodwyn Pig – ‘Getting to this’


The Who – ‘Live at Leeds’

Ginger Baker’s Air Force – First Album

Dave Mason – ‘Alone Together’

Fotheringay – First Album (‘Fotheringay’)

Quicksilver Messenger Service – ‘Just for Love’ / ‘What about me?’

Nick Drake – ‘Bryter Later’

Tim Buckley – ‘Starsailor’

Quintessence 1970

Spirit – ‘The 12 Dreams of Dr Sardonicus’

Roy Harper – ‘Flat Baroque & Berserk’

If – First Album & ‘If 2’

It’s a Beautiful Day – ‘Marrying Maiden’

John McLaughlin – ‘My Goal’s Beyond’

Quintessence – ‘Quintessence ‘ (Second album)

John & Beverley Martyn – ‘The Road to Ruin’

OK,  so here are close to 50 LP’s which also saw the light of day in 1970 and might paint a rather less negative picture than Browne offers in his book.  People often talk of 1967 as being the magical year for music  but for me, 1970 is the year that really counts.  You can make your own mind up about that.

After this, of course, there was Bowie and The Eagles and  Little Feat and  Steely Dan – overall,  something new.  Whilst the 60’s was a fading dream , the 70’s offered something different.  1970 was a year that marked the dividing line between the two decades and gave us a whole new set of possibilities.

Listening to “Eat To The Beat – The Dirtiest Of Them Dirty Blues”

This is a terrific 28 track compilation put together in 2006 by Bear Family Records, who generally seem to specialise in country re-issues by the likes of Ernest Tubb and Roy Acuff.  However, this collection features mainly black artists, ranging from the fairly well-known (Dinah Washington, Jackie Wilson) to the totally obscure (Crown Prince Waterford).

As the title would suggest, this is a collection of X-rated songs, generally blues-based but ranging from Howlin’ Wolf-style electric stormers to sophisticated jazz tinklers (so to speak).  What links these stylistic variations is the subject matter of the lyrics; sex, more sex and…well, you get the idea. 

The great thing about this collection is that I always suspected that stuff like this was out there – well before most of these songs were recorded, Robert Johnson was singing about ‘squeezing my lemon till the juice runs down my leg’  (‘Travelling Riverside Blues’) and  there were numerous other blues songs that dealt heavily in sexual or drug-related innuendo.

However, most of these songs do away with coy hints in favour of full-on profanity leaving little to the imagination.  Many of them originate from a period just after World War II when the jukebox ruled supreme.  This was a time before radio stations exercised a major grip on people’s listening  habits and the local diner or the local malt shop or the local bar with its jukebox was the way that many American youngsters heard new music.  Many of these songs with their risqué lyrics and overt sexual content would have seen the dimes and quarters piling into the machines.

A couple of the more notable inclusions – ‘Don’t fuck around with love’,  by a proto doo-wop ensemble calling themselves The Blenders for the purposes of this recording and ‘Think Twice, Version X’ by Jackie Wilson and Lavern Baker – are in themselves X-rated alternative takes.  ‘Don’t play around with love’ was issued by The Blenders in 1953 and ‘Think Twice’ in its original format was a big hit for Wilson and Baker in 1966.

Other songs show the art of innuendo to be alive and well, though in Dinah Washington’s ‘Long John Blues’ it’s hard to see how innuendo could be taken any further.  This tale of an obliging dentist who fills cavities and drills all night long leaves little to the imagination.

The mysteriously-named Fred Wolff Combo was reputedly a pseudonym adopted by Detroit rocker Cub Koda who went on to front hard rockers Brownsville Station.  The Combo’s ‘Somebody Else Was Suckin’ My Dick Last Night‘ puts its money where its mouth is whilst ‘Rotten Cocksucker’s Ball’  by The Clovers references doo-wop and earlier jazz vocal groups like The Ink Spots.

OK, so much for the schoolboy smut, but the fact is that whilst not all of the songs on this compilation are as convincing musically as they are provocative lyrically, many of them are.  Julia Lee’s innuendo-laced ‘Don’t Come Too Soon’ is beautifully performed and produced, whilst ‘Think Twice, Version X’ is as good a Northern Soul stomper as you could wish for.

On the whole this is a highly-enjoyable compilation with at least a dozen tracks that are strong musically, irrespective of their lyrical content. Sadly, it doesn’t appear to be available in the UK right now so Amazon in the States is probably your best bet.  Alternatively a quick Google of the album title should produce a substantial number of other downloading possibilities.

Listening to Earth, Wind & Fire

Earth, Wind & Fire (hereafter ‘EW&F’) are a band with a long (and often illustrious) history and have been active since 1969, when Maurice White, sometime  drummer with the Ramsey Lewis Trio,  formed the original version of a band that has been through countless personnel changes and stylistic shifts over the years.

My first exposure to EW&F was via their 1975 album ‘That’s the way of the world’,  the soundtrack to a ‘warts’n’all’ movie about the music industry that sank without trace despite featuring a young Harvey Keitel.  The movie may have been dross, but the music certainly wasn’t; EW&F came across as a funk band with rock sensibilities and with a fondness for quoting John Coltrane riffs in the middle of songs – guaranteed to get my attention……

Mid-70’s Earth Wind & Fire

This was a time when black music had only just emerged from the straitjacket of black entertainers trying to be like white entertainers;  the late 1960’s and early 1970’s were a golden age for soul music on record, with Motown & Stax at their peak, but many black performers, on stage at least, were still dressing in suits and tuxes and still channelling the showbiz schmaltz of a bygone era.  For all the brilliance of their recorded output, artists like Otis Redding,  Marvin Gaye, James Brown and Smokey Robinson were – to a greater or lesser extent – still locked into that whole white crooner thing.  In truth, Sinatra had probably stolen it from earlier black singers anyway, so it could be argued that they were just stealing it back again. 

Even so, it took a new generation of performers to create a stage persona that owed more to the speech, dress, values and conventions of  black communities worldwide than it did to any cheesecake Hollywood mythology.  There were a number of factors in play that helped this process; one was the way in which black Americans rediscovered their relationship with Africa, culminating in the huge mid-70’s success of Alex Haley’s ‘Roots’ saga – both in book form and on TV.

Even before that, though,  jazz artists like John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner and Archie Shepp (to name but three) had begun to evoke the spirit of their African ancestors through their music – and sometimes via the adoption of African or Muslim names.  As the 60’s turned to the 70’s, soul artists like James Brown and Wilson Pickett  travelled out to Ghana & Nigeria to play at huge festivals – something often explained as ‘reconnecting with their African ancestors’.  Hmmm….

Dizzy Gillespie in African mode….

Also, in America at least, there was a leakage of ideas, music and attitudes between  disaffected white kids and the coming generation of black kids.  However  you view the ‘counter-culture’ of the late 1960’s, it has to be said that the hippies were generally less hostile to black people and black culture than their parents had been. On the West Coast, a band like Santana could boast a black bassist, several Hispanic musicians and a white keyboard player.   Doesn’t sound too radical in 2011, which I guess is a measure of how far we have travelled since Rosa Parks declined to give up her seat on the bus back in 1955.

I’m not enough of  a sociologist to connect all the dots in the picture of black urban life in American cities in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s, but we all know about the growth of the Black Power & Black Arts movements, the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King, the subsequent riots in Watts , Harlem and elsewhere and the attempts of black communities to rebuild afterwards. 

We also know about the 1969 Woodstock Festival and how a generation of young white Americans were defined (for the wider world, at least) by Michael Wadleigh’s split-screen extravaganza of a movie that appeared the following year.  But there were black performers at Woodstock, too and whilst Richie Havens and Jimi Hendrix were seen (and marketed) as ‘rock’ performers, one of the sensations of the film were Sly & the Family Stone, who would have been new to most of us.  Combining earth-shaking bass with agile vocals and  punchy brass, the Family Stone were dressed to impress as well and though their impact musically was fleeting, they brought home with considerable force the idea that black could be beautiful on its own terms.  ‘Woodstock Nation’ rapidly became a myth that outstripped its prosaic origins and even survived the ‘anti-Woodstock’ of  Altamont just a few months later.  It was a groovy marketing idea, man, and the record and fashion industries weren’t about to let it go.

Sly in tassel  mode

Black Power, Black Pride, the need for inner-city regeneration and the impact of the Woodstock myth all came together with Wattstax, firstly an event, then later a movie and an album.  This wasn’t some romp in the fields of upstate New York, but a one-day concert staged at the Los Angeles Coliseum  in August 1972 to commemorate the  anniversary of the Watts riots.  Tickets were sold at $1 each and the attendance was allegedly in excess of 100,000, though it seems far less in the film of the event. Jesse  Jackson was on hand to remind the crowd of how strong they were as a community and Stax Records airlifted in many of its roster to play – The Staples Singers told people to respect themselves, veteran maverick Rufus Thomas did the Funky Chicken in an outrageous hot pink suit with short trousers whilst headliner and emergent black superstar Isaac Hayes arrived on stage wearing a lot of gold jewellery and tinselly clothes to a build-up that wouldn’t have disgraced the Second Coming.

The movie ‘Wattstax‘ appeared the following year and Mel Stuart’s direction was notable inasmuch as it gave as much time to the ordinary people of Watts as it did to the performers.  There are interviews –  sometimes jovial, sometimes deadly serious – with local young people, often aided and abetted by Richard Pryor’s clowning  and then there’s lots of lovingly filmed footage of the audience arriving in their finery and inside the Coliseum on a sunny afternoon enjoying the music.  Viewed nearly 40 years down the line, it’s this footage, rather than the musical content, that sticks with you.  Here’s our community, it seems to be saying, and ain’t we fine ?

Rufus Thomas at Wattstax

‘Wattstax’ was just the tip of the iceberg.  Elsewhere, established artists like Stevie Wonder & Marvin Gaye were struggling to break the chains of the Motown Charm School and speak with their own authentic voice.  James Brown was cementing his position as the man who could get down with politicians as well as with his own brothers & sisters, but there were a whole host of 1960’s soul stars – Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, The Temptations – who never really made that transition from Soul Men to Soul Brothers.  In their place came a groundswell of new bands and performers, many of whom were signed to record labels more generally associated with rock music and who blended soul and funk with jazz, latin and rock textures to form new hybrids.  As well as the eternal James Brown and Sly & the Family Stone, there was Malo,  The Meters, Tower of Power, Mandrill, Bobby Womack, Harlem River Drive,  Phil Upchurch, The Crusaders, The Ohio Players,  ex-Temptation Eddie Kendricks and Rufus (w/ Chaka Khan)  – all of whom were black performers or largely black bands making some outstanding records in the early to mid-1970’s.  Also notable was the image these bands were projecting – gone were the tuxes and process hairdo’s; instead we got Afros, leather and fringed buckskin at the hippie end of the spectrum, trending towards satin, spangles and eyeshdow among the more pop-orientated bands.

Mandrill, early ’70’s

And so to Earth, Wind & Fire, who  had moved west from Chicago and had signed a deal with Warner Brothers which saw them making little progress to begin with and undergoing  frequent personnel changes as they searched for their ‘signature’ sound.  After a tour where, somewhat mystifyingly, they supported arch-hippie and folkie  John Sebastian, Columbia bought out their Warners contract, heralding the start of their rise to prominence.  The comings and goings to and from the band over the years could keep me busy here for several thousand more words, but I would never presume to be an EW&F completist, so I will restrict myself to noting the arrival in 1972 of two key figures; vocalist Philip Bailey, whose high falsetto was such a trademark of 70’s EW&F and keyboardist Larry Dunn whose versatility and chops were so fundamental to the band’s  sound.  Dunn would later go on to guest with and produce the superb Latin/Fusion ensemble Caldera, but more of them another time.

I’ve been listening to an  album  released in  2002 and called ‘That’s the way of the world – Alive in ’75’, which demonstrates all of the qualities that made them such a class act, not so much transcending genres as obliterating them.  This live CD – as the title would suggest – was recorded at various US dates on the band’s breakthrough 1975 tour and the setlist inevitably favours the then-current ‘That’s the way of the world’ studio album, which generated a huge hit single in ‘Shining Star’  and a trademark anthem in the album’s title track.  For me it surpasses ‘Gratitude’, a 1975 double album with considerable duplication of songs, if not performances, mainly because it sounds like it was all recorded at one gig – actually it wasn’t but who cares?  There is schmaltz, of course, with Philip Bailey holding forth about lurrrvvve to all the (squealing)  ladies in the house, but this was 1975, after all and Bailey’s quasi- libidinous ramblings can’t detract from an on-the-money performance that reveals 1975-vintage EW&F to be every bit as good on stage as they were in the studio.    

EW&F on stage….

All the classic EW&F ingredients are on show, a tight rhythm section, the punch of the (then) recently-added Phoenix Horns, brilliant keyboard textures from Dunn and last but not least, Bailey and Maurice White heading up a vocal ensemble that could virtually embalm you in sugar-sweet harmonies or play it low-down and funky with the best of them.  At the core of it all is Maurice White’s songwriting and Larry Dunn’s arrangements,; all killer, no filler, as they say.

Of course, performers continued to come and go, though Dunn remained a constant , and EW&F ultimately got dragged into the black hole of Disco as the 70’s came to an end.  Such was the fate of many black funk musicians who followed the money trail.  By the 80’s, most of those early 70’s  funk bands had given up the game or climbed into spandex jump suits.  Exceptions would be The Meters, who by the late 70’s had  sorta, kinda morphed into The Neville Brothers and Tower of Power, whose horn players reassembled the band whenever they weren’t playing sessions for all & sundry. 

EW&F’s stage shows became increasingly mind-boggling with the band disappearing from the stage in pyramid-shaped spaceships; a sort of black Spinal Tap in some ways.  They were never really a disco band – as bassist Verdine White (one of three White brothers to play in EW&F) said; “I guess you could say we were at the party but didn’t get on the dance floor”.   Even so, by the early 1980’s, the die was cast and the band’s output became subject to the law of diminishing returns, with Parliament and Funkadelic picking up the baton for pure funk and outrage. 

The cover for Parliament’s UK 12″ single, ‘Deep’ – probably my favourite record cover of all time and all done pre-Photoshop

Earth, Wind & Fire still continue in some form or another to this day, but I would guess that routine has long eclipsed innovation in what they do.  No more Coltrane quotes during the instrumental passages, I suspect.

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…..