Poets and Prophets: Salute to Legendary Songwriter Dan Penn

October 16, 2010
Dan Penn cites the turning point of his life as the moment he first encountered producer and studio owner Rick Hall and other musicians who turned Muscle Shoals, Alabama, into a renowned recording center.

"We went up these stairs, it's twelve o'clock noon, and we knocked on this door," Penn said of his first visit as a teenager to Spar Music in Florence, Alabama. "They opened the door, and there were three or four big beds in there, and they were full of guys sleeping at noon. I said, 'This is my place.'"

Penn recalled the incident during a celebration of his songwriting career as part of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum's Poets and Prophets series, which honors songwriters who have made a significant contribution to country music. The two-hour program focused on Penn's early years in Muscle Shoals and Memphis, with the Alabama native serving up colorful quips and memorable stories in a soft-spoken, heavily accented drawl.

Besides rare photos, audio, and video clips from the Museum's Frist Library and Archive, the program included a thirty-minute performance by Penn, playing some of his best known hits with select co-writers and colleagues.  The program was streamed live on www.countrymusichalloffame.org.

To start the program, host and museum staffer Michael Gray noted that Penn, while in his teens, participated in the birth of the Muscle Shoals music scene, and later made similarly significant contributions as a songwriter in Memphis. Now a Nashville resident, Penn rarely performs in Music City, Gray explained, and had never before sat down for a lengthy, one-on-one interview about his career in front of a live audience.

While Penn has contributed to music as a singer, producer, engineer, and arranger, the Poets and Prophets series focuses on songwriting, so that was the primary subject of Gray's conversation with Penn.

Born Wallace Daniel Pennington on November 16, 1941, in Molloy, Alabama, Penn grew up loving music, especially the R&B he heard on his "little green radio," from Nashville radio station WLAC. "I didn't know what rhythm & blues was," he said. "I just knew it was great." 

His father played in what Penn called "a front-porch band," performing country songs with friends. He also noted how listening to his mother play piano in church always impressed him. At age fifteen, realizing he was too small to play football, Penn asked his father to teach him a few guitar chords. 

Penn soon started writing songs, saying the first he wrote was called "My Girl." "It wasn't the Motown 'My Girl,' but I had the right idea," Penn said, drawing laughter from the capacity crowd in the museum's Ford Theater. Penn played his songs for a fellow Alabama musician, Billy Sherrill, who would become a legendary Nashville producer and songwriter. Sherrill suggested Penn travel to Florence, Alabama, and visit a studio started by Tom Stafford, adding, "We might cut a record on you."

That's when Penn made his first visit to Spar Music, a fledgling recording studio and music publishing company located on the second floor above Florence's City Drug Store. Among those Penn found sleeping in the studio at noon on his first visit were Hall, Sherrill, Stafford, Terry Thompson, and others. "That was a heck of a day," Penn said. "It was a different time. Today it's not the same."

Penn recorded several demos that day, leading to his first recording, "You Don't Treat Me Right," which Gray played for the audience. Sherrill produced the song, one of his first efforts as a producer. Sherrill also suggested the singer-songwriter shorten his name to Dan Penn for the single's release, and Penn has stuck with that name professionally since then.

From those first demos, Penn also got his first cut as a songwriter in 1960. Conway Twitty, while still a rock artist, recorded "Is a Blue Bird Blue?" The title came to Penn after hearing an Alabama friend use the phrase regularly. Stafford, who had become Penn's manager, called to tell him that Twitty's song was quickly climbing the pop charts. Penn said he responded, "What's a chart?"

Penn briefly moved to Dallas to work, but he soon returned to Northern Alabama and sought out Hall. He found that Hall had initiated Florence Alabama Music Enterprises, better known as FAME, a recording studio and music offices that became the center of the Muscles Shoals scene. Penn also started playing in local bands, including the Mark V and its successor, Dan Penn & the Pallbearers.

In 1961, FAME had its first hit with Arthur Alexander's "You Better Move On." "Arthur showed us all how to write songs," Penn said. "He showed us the most important thing, and it's the hardest thing to teach people when they're young, and that is keep it simple. Arthur kept it simple from the very beginning. I know I got a lot from Arthur just by being around him."

Penn began accompanying Hall on trips to Nashville to pitch songs, letting the gregarious Hall do the talking. Two of the city's leading producers, Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley, often listened only to the beginnings of songs as they raced through the demo tapes Hall brought.

"We'd get back in the car, and I'd say, 'Rick, why are they doing that? Why don't they play the whole song?' Rick would say, 'I just don't know,'" Penn said. "We didn't have the music business figured out at all."

Before long, Penn decided to move the strongest parts of his songs to the front. "If you notice all my tunes, most of them have the title right upfront," Penn said. "That's because of Mr. Owen Bradley and Mr. Chet Atkins."

Penn's most frequent co-writer, Spooner Oldham, was in the audience, and Gray acknowledged their long list of hits, including "I'm Your Puppet" for James & Bobby Purify, "Let's Do It Over" for Joe Simon," "Sweet Inspiration" for the Sweet Inspirations, "I'm Looking Good," by the Ovations, "Cry Like a Baby" by the Box Tops, "It Tears Me Up" and "Out of Left Field" by Percy Sledge, and  "Take Me Just as I Am" by Solomon Burke.

"Me and Spooner usually got down to business pretty fast," Penn said. "We'd meet about four in the afternoon and go over to FAME. Everybody left FAME around 5 or 6, and they'd just give us the studio. We'd get the demo down and get to hear it back on the big speakers. What a gift, to be able to listen back to a new song in a great studio like Rick Hall's. That was about the best thing to happen to me, to be around a great playback system. It's the best way to learn how to write better and certainly how to sing better."

Penn credited "I'm Your Puppet" to a Stella guitar he brought into the studio for a demo session. He came up with the melody on the guitar, then Oldham added piano chords. The two put lyrics to their easy-swaying groove. "If it hadn't been for that twelve-string guitar," Penn said, "I don't think the song would have happened."

Shortly after "I'm Your Puppet" hit, Penn moved to Memphis. "I don't really know why," he said. "Young people just like to move."

But his friendship with producer and songwriter Chips Moman played a major role in the decision, Penn added. "We became really close friends really fast. He'd come to Muscle Shoals, and I'd go to Memphis. We started hanging around and writing songs, and he had a studio in Memphis, so I decided to go there. I thought a lot of what Stax was doing, so I just thought Memphis was the place to be."

Penn and Moman's first songwriting success came with "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man," a hit for Aretha Franklin. The two wrote it shortly after a quail supper at Moman's home. "I had 'do right' on my mind," Penn said. "To me it sounded like black street slang. Everything then was 'do right' or 'uptight.' Booker T. [Jones] had written a song called 'Uptight' at that point."

Moman played a Gibson Super 400 archtop guitar, which Penn said added greatly to composing the tune. "He could play that Super 400, let me tell you all that," Penn said. "He was the best creative guitar player I ever seen. He was like the rabbit that could climb the tree. He might not know what he was doing, but he could get there. He could do whatever was called for."

Moman received a call inviting him to play guitar on an Aretha Franklin recording session at FAME studios. Penn decided he couldn't miss that, so he rode with Moman back to Muscle Shoals. Right before leaving Memphis, Moman suggested that the two record a quick demo tape of "Do Right Woman." The two took the demo to Muscle Shoals, even though they didn't have words for the bridge yet.

The session's producer, Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler, heard the demo and told Penn they'd cut it if he would finish the lyrics to the song's bridge. "I'll get you some," Penn told Wexler. He went into FAME's tape room, and he came up with the bridge's first line, "They say it's a man's world," a line inspired by the James Brown hit "It's a Man's Man's Man's World."

 But Penn couldn't come up with another line. Wexler stuck his head in, asking for the bridge. Wexler gave him the next line, "But you can't prove that by me." Penn still couldn't come up with more, and Franklin stepped into the room to ask what he had. Penn read the two lines he had, but told her he was stuck. Franklin then spontaneously added, "As long as we're together baby, show some respect for me." Penn wrote it down.

However, before the song was recorded, Franklin's husband got into a dispute with Hall, and the singer left the studio. The song wasn't finished that day, and Franklin ended up recording it in New York. Two weeks later, Moman and Penn were in New York, and Wexler invited them into a studio control room to play the recording. "He played me 'Do Right Woman,' the one we all hear today," Penn said. "Aretha played piano and sang it beautifully, and her sisters were singing so good. The whole thing just melted me. It was just a beautiful record. That's one of the high points of my life."

Later, after Martin Luther King's assassination, Penn decided to leave Memphis, saying the mood in the city had changed drastically. He considered Los Angeles and New York but decided upon Nashville. "It was the only music city left," Penn said. "I didn't really want to come here, but I did. So far, I'm still looking for a hit."

Penn indeed has had several country hits, including "I Hate You" by Ronnie Milsap, "A Woman Left Lonely" by Charlie Rich, "Hillbilly Heart" by Johnny Rodriguez, "Oughta Be a Law" by Lee Roy Parnell, and Barbara Mandrell's version of "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man."

Even though he has written several hits alone, Penn acknowledged that he likes to collaborate.  "I love to write with piano players and great guitar players-but preferably a keyboard man, because they have the orchestra right there with them," Penn said. "I hear a piano, and I'm gone. I hear a really wonderful chord, and I'm really gone."

For his performances, Penn called up several guests one or two at a time. He performed "Rainbow Road" with co-writer Donnie Fritts on Wurlitzer; "I'm Your Puppet" with co-writer Spooner Oldham on Wurlitzer; "It Tears Me Up" with Oldham on Wurlitzer and Rick Hall on harmony vocals; "Nobody's Fool" with co-writer Bobby Emmons on Wurlitzer; "Nine Pound Steel" with Emmons on Wurlitzer and co-writer Wayne Carson on electric guitar; "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man" and "Dark End of the Street" with Emmons on Wurlitzer. For an encore, he played "Don't Give Up on Me" with Emmons. He received a standing ovation before and after the encore. 

 Asked about the difference between R&B and country, Penn first noted that he liked to write R&B songs with a keyboard player and country songs with a guitar player. "It's the difference between a 6/8 rhythm and a waltz," he said. Later, he added, "I have always been one of those leg people. You hear country down here in your ankles (tapping his foot as he talked). I always liked it up at least knee high and most of the time up here in my hip. That's where R&B gets you."

-Michael McCall