In his first-ever interview before a live audience, acclaimed R&B songwriter and record producer Dan Penn talks about his formative years in the music business in Muscle Shoals and Memphis, his songwriting, and his memories of working with Rick Hall, Arthur Alexander, Chips Moman, Spooner Oldham, Aretha Franklin, and many more. The program includes a thirty-minute performance by Penn, playing some of his best-known hits with co-writers and colleagues, as well as photos, video, and audio clips. The program is hosted by museum staffer Michael Gray.
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 says. “I just knew it was great.”
He got his first cut as a songwriter in 1960 when Conway Twitty, then still a rock & roll artist, recorded “Is a Blue Bird Blue?” Penn cites the turning point of his life as the moment he first encountered producer and studio owner Rick Hall at 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.
Penn’s most frequent co-writer was keyboard player Spooner Oldham, and Penn discusses their collaborations. Their long list of hits includes “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.
During the interview, Penn talks about another important collaborator, songwriter and record producer Chips Moman, who worked for Stax Records and was based in Memphis when the two first began working together. Penn and Moman’s first songwriting success came with “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” a hit for Aretha Franklin.
Two weeks after Aretha Franklin cut their song, Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler invited Penn and Moman into a studio control room to hear the new recording. “He played me ‘Do Right Woman,’ the one we all hear today,” Penn says. “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.”
Penn, who eventually moved from Memphis to Nashville, has also 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.”
Asked about the difference between R&B and country, Penn says he likes 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 says. “I have always been one of those leg people. You hear country down here in your ankles [tapping his foot as he talks]. 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.”
For his performances, Penn calls up several guests one or two at a time to join him. He performs “Rainbow Road” with co-writer Donnie Fritts on Wurlitzer organ; “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 plays “Don’t Give Up on Me” with Emmons.
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