Dan Penn helped shape the development of southern soul music with his legendary songwriting, musicianship and production.
A native of Vernon, Alabama, Penn moved to the Florence/Muscle Shoals area while still a teenager. It was around this time that he penned his first chart record, Conway Twitty's Is a Bluebird Blue. During the early 60s, Penn began working with Rick Hall at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, first as a songwriter, and then as an artist under the names Lonnie Ray, Danny Lee, and finally Dan Penn.
Penns early co-writing collaborations with Spooner Oldham while at Fame included Im Your Puppet, which became a hit in 1965 for James & Bobby Purify, and Out of Left Field, and It Tears Me Up performed so memorably by Percy Sledge. He also co-wrote hits for Joe Simon, Jimmy Hughes and Wilson Pickett.
Dan became an exclusive writer for Fame Publishing Co. for about three years. It was sort of an in-house thing, where artists were comin and goin, askin for songs, and there was sort of a built-in opportunity to try to be a commercial songwriter.
According to Penn, the reason people hear touches of country in his brand of R&B is because Im an old hillbilly myself. Took me about 30 years to find out I was still a hillbilly. But compared to R&B, country is much easier. You aint got to struggle. Anybody can sing, Because youre mine, I walk the line. Go try to write Out of Left Field; go find all those chords and what all that means. So a hillbilly I am, but in the 60s I really loved R&B music, and there was a lot of it to love. I loved Jimmy Reed, Bobby Bland, Ray Charles, Little Milton, James Brown I always respected the black singers because they were always there we were trying to get there. Knowing that the black singers wanted my songs inspired me.
A number of their classics were written for particular singers. Sweet Inspiration was written for the group the Sweet Inspirations, Cry Like a Baby was written for Alex Chilton, Out of Left Field was written for Percy Sledge, says Penn. I either was involved in the production or I was real close to the production teams, so when youre in the middle of a clique, you got the power to either do it right, do it wrong or get out of the way and let somebody else do it. One gets the impression that Penn was not the kind to get out of the way. But you have an opportunity to score, and sometimes we scored. By that I mean comin up with a song that was good enough to get on the session. And then, if it came out and was a hit, the score was really complete at that point. So first you had to get on the session, and then the big question was, did it come out? And then the next question was, is it the single? At least back then.
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