Dusted Reviews

Dan Penn - The Fame Recordings

today features
reviews charts
labels writers
info donate

Search by Artist

Sign up here to receive weekly updates from Dusted

email address

Recent Reviews

Dusted Reviews

Artist: Dan Penn

Album: The Fame Recordings

Label: Ace

Review date: Jan. 24, 2013

Dan Penn - "You Left the Water Running"

Referred to by Peter Guralnick in his indispensable tome Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Search for Freedom as “the secret hero of this book,” Dan Penn is southern soul music’s most venerable behind-the-scenes figure. As a writer or co-writer, he is responsible for some of the genre’s most canonical songs, “I’m Your Puppet,” “Dark End of the Street” and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” among them. He was with Alex Chilton during the singer’s first attempt to navigate the treacherous straits of fame, producing Box Tops classics such as “The Letter,” “Soul Deep” and “Cry Like a Baby,” the latter of which he co-wrote with Spooner Oldham. As part of the staff at Memphis’s American Studios in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, Penn helped lay the groundwork for Elvis’s last gasp of artistic and creative relevance (think “Suspicious Minds”); and in 1972, Penn would offer his own eccentric take on that sound via the slightly odd yet intriguing solo album Nobody’s Fool. In and out of print since its release (and currently out), the album fetches hefty sums on both CD and LP among collectors. It was, however, at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, that Penn first cut his teeth and flexed his muscles, as an in-house musical jack of all trades for the legendary studio owner and producer Rick Hall, one of the key architects of the southern soul sound.

While under the tutelage of Hall, the R&B fanatic Penn would ultimately realize his true calling as a writer and studio man well outside of the spotlight, but his time there also harnessed, if only briefly, the seasoned road dog’s stunning prowess as a vocalist. Nuanced, controlled, but steeped in the gritty fervor of the church and the sophisticated blues of the likes of Ray Charles and Bobby “Blue” Bland, Penn had a voice that prompted Ahmet Ertegn to call him “by far the most soulful Caucasian singer I have [ever] heard.” Nearly impossible to track down until now, Penn’s recordings at Fame provide a rare opportunity to hear a songwriter interpret and tinker with his own raw talent with the freedom and encouragement to do so.

The cream collected here on The Fame Recordings, by the British label Ace, fills a key gap in Penn’s career, collecting 20-plus long-sought-after sides from the era. Largely co-written with partner Spooner Oldham, the songs track Penn’s growth as both a composer and a performer. And while it showcases an undeniably original talent, the sound isn’t without precedent, either. In addition to the aforementioned Charles and Bland, Charlie Rich’s amalgam of pop, country and R&B comes to mind. And one can hear the mellifluousness of Sam Cooke creep in on occasion to smooth the pack-a-day edges of Penn’s delivery. Some songs, like the “My Girl” knock-off “Power of Love,” were obvious attempts to generate a hit. But even at this relatively early, formative stage in his career, Penn was capable of utter genius. His version of “Rainbow Road,” while given a pop arrangement that removes it some distance from the heartbreaking plea that Arthur Alexander would record a little less than a decade later, is a testament to Penn’s depth and adroitness as an artist at the tender age of 23. Elsewhere, as on the strutters “Keep on Talking” and “You Left the Water Running” (later made famous by Otis Redding) or the slow-burners “Feed the Flame” and “Uptight Good Woman,” Penn displays such talent and confidence, it’s hard to understand how he wasn’t a bona fide star, or at least marketed as one.

It’s worth noting that while Penn is the clear focus of this release, the Fame Recordings are also, as the title suggests, very much about the place in which they were recorded. Rick Hall’s legendary studio was a hit factory. Over the years, his team would construct such colossal numbers as “You Better Move On” by Arthur Alexander, “Steal Away” by Jimmy Hughes, Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You),” and Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1,000 Dances,” to name just a few. Yet, Fame was also a laboratory of sorts for singers, musicians, songwriters and aspiring produces and engineers. Hall experimented with then cutting-edge recording techniques and allowed his staff to indulge, too (as he certainly wasn’t paying them much). The studio became a playground for bohemian rednecks like Oldham, Penn, Donnie Fritts, and others, who, over the course of bewitchingly creative late nights fuelled by speed, booze and an insatiable love of rhythm and blues, created timeless music.

One of the most shocking realizations about that notion is not only were many of these songs generated via a kind of inspired yet hassle-free spontaneity, the recordings of them were never actually conceived as product for direct commercial consumption, rather they were by and large nothing more than demos of the songwriting catalog Fame Publishing had on offer. One thinks of a demo as a rough one-shot used to hash out the general compositional structure of a song. There’s a raw immediacy to them that can be quite charming, powerful even, but they’re inherently unfinished. The tracks here were redone more famously by others, but it’s nothing short of maddening to consider that the passion, musicianship, and craft that went into many of the sides on this disc were never meant to see the light of day in the first place. The again, Penn never really seemed to care too much one way or the other anyway, or so the story goes.

A big hand to Ace, then, for finally making these lost gems available. The Fame Recordings is an absolute must-listen for anyone interested in putting together all the pieces of the remarkable puzzle that is southern soul music. It’s also the final word in any discussion about Dan Penn as one of the geniuses of the American songbook.

By Nate Knaebel

Read More

View all articles by Nate Knaebel

Find out more about Ace

©2002-2011 Dusted Magazine. All Rights Reserved.