Do any of these songs sound familiar?
“Cry Like a Baby”
You Left the Water Running”
“Do Right Woman, Do Right Man”
“The Dark End of the Street.”
“Out of Left Field”
“I’m Your Puppet”
“A Woman Left Lonely”
“It Tears Me Up”
“I Met Her in Church”
“Feed the Flame”
“Good Things Don’t Come Easy”
Sure, you know these songs. At least you do if you’re over the age of forty and weren’t raised in an Amish commune. Even if the title doesn’t ring a bell, once you listen to the song, you’ll have one of those “Oh, yeah!” moments.
These are songs so delicious that they melt in your ears, and all of them were written by the legendary Dan Penn. Once again, you may be stumped by the name, but that’s not surprising. Dan Penn is not a name that is well known to most people, even most die-hard music fans, but the songs that he wrote, and those he penned in collaboration with musician pal Spooner Oldham, rank as some of the finest of the rock and soul era. From Muscle Shoals to Memphis, Dan Penn is songwriting royalty.
Both Penn and Oldham are accomplished musicians, but many of their songs were hits by other artists. The Box Tops scored with “Cry Like a Baby,” The Sweet Inspirations had success with “Sweet Inspiration,” Otis Redding recorded “You Left the Water Running”, Aretha Franklin claimed “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man”, and James Carr’s signature song was with “The Dark End of the Street.”
Penn and Oldham are fine proponents of southern soul, but their songs are so well crafted that they can be covered by country, pop, or rock acts, and always sound like they were written especially for that artist. Many diverse examples of the duo’s songwriting craft can be found on the 24-track compilation Sweet Inspiration: The Songs of Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham, released by Ace Records in the UK this past year. This compilation focuses on the duo’s late 1960s output, with artists such as Percy Sledge, Dionne Warwicke, Charlie Rich, Etta James, Solomon Burke, the Box Tops, Tony Joe White, Ronnie Milsap, Patti LaBelle, Irma Thomas, Tommy Roe, and Joe Simon performing a sumptuous bunch of songs. Needless to say, there’s not a dud in the bunch.
For a taste of Penn and Oldham performing their own material, pick up Moments From This Theater, a fabulous recording of small-venue shows that they did in the UK back in the late 1990s. Many of their best-loved hits are included on this single disc, along with little known gems such as “Memphis Women and Chicken.” Penn and Oldham have the crowd enthralled with their heartfelt performance, using only piano and guitar. This is a true musical love-fest.
Dan Penn has recorded only a handful of solo albums but they are all excellent, including 1994’s comeback (his first album in over 20 years) Do Right Man. We already knew he was a great songwriter, but Penn shows off his prowess as a very soulful singer in his own right, performing ace versions of “The Dark End of the Street,” “I’m Your Puppet” and many others. This was an excellent, woefully neglected album that is sadly out of print. If you can find a copy, grab it!