I Write the Songs – Dan Penn

Let’s not mess around; I think ‘Dark End of the Street’ is the finest country/soul song ever written. The version recorded by The Flying Burrito Brothers remains, for me, the definitive version, though the James Carr original takes some beating. It’s just a great song, so it stands to reason it had a great writer. In fact, it was written by two excellent writers, Dan Penn and Chips Moman. Penn is also known for his collaborations with Spooner Oldham and it’s Dan Penn in the spotlight for this month’s ‘I Write the Songs’.

Wallace Daniel Pennington, who would become known as Dan Penn, was born in Vernon, Alabama on November 16th 1941. He grew up in the city before moving to the Muscle Shoals area where he spent much of his late teens and early twenties. While still a teenager he became lead vocalist with one of the top local bands, The Mark V Combo. He wrote his first chart hit around this same time, ‘Is A Bluebird Blue’, recorded by Conway Twitty. He got his big start working with Rick Hall at FAME Recording Studios (where Spooner Oldham was a regularly contributing keyboard player) in the early 60s, originally as a recording artist under the name Lonnie Wray, but he quickly focused his talents on writing and his first big hit, and a co-write with long time collaborator, Spooner Oldham, was ‘I’m Your Puppet’. This was recorded by James & Bobby Purify and released in 1966, when it went to number 5 on the U.S R&B charts and number 6 on the Billboard Hot 100. It was the major success of this song that convinced Penn he had a future as a songwriter. Around this time he also wrote hits for Joe Simon, Percy Sledge, and Wilson Pickett.

In 1966, Penn moved to Memphis where he began writing for Press Publishing Company and started producing records for American Recording Studio, working with Chips Moman. Their first co-write was ‘Dark End of the Street’ and they later wrote ‘Do Right Woman, Do Right Man’ for Aretha Franklin, but it was never a comfortable writing relationship and the pair fell out on several occasions, finally realising they couldn’t work together in the long term. Around this time, Oldham had also moved down to Memphis and was working at American among other places. Penn had produced The Box Tops record, ‘The Letter’, and he and Oldham got together to write the band’s other big hit, ‘Cry Like a Baby’. This period of Penn and Oldham collaboration also saw the writing of ‘A Woman Left Lonely’, covered by Janis Joplin on her “Pearl” album.

Dan Penn has always been a collaborative songwriter and the majority of his songs have been co-writes. Though he’s best known for his songs with Chips Moman and, especially, Spooner Oldham, he has collaborated with many other writers, including Donnie Fritts, Norbert Putnam, Carson Whitsett, Hoy Lindsay and a host of others. While Penn is principally known as an R&B and Soul songwriter there’s always been a strong americana influence in his songs, as you might expect from a musician born in Alabama and who spent many years hanging around the Muscle Shoals music scene, where soul and country rub up against each other. Penn has said of his association with country music, “people hear touches of country in my brand of R&B because I’m 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 ain’t got to struggle.  Anybody can sing, ‘Because you’re mine, I walk the line.’  Go try to write ‘Out of Left Field’ (specifically written for Percy Sledge); 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.”   

In the 1970s that “old Hillbilly” relocated to Nashville. Penn has always claimed that the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., in 1968, was the moment that changed his life and changed his association with R&B music, “Suddenly, whatever it was that we had with black people was gone. I mean, we were basically country boys cutting black records. That’s what made it sound like it did…so it changed all of our lives, Martin Luther King’s death.” Initially, he hung on in Memphis, but with Oldham having moved out to L.A, Penn and his wife finally opted for a move to Nashville, where he turned his attention to writing for artists like Ronnie Millsap and Johnny Rodriguez.

In 1991, Penn rekindled his association with Spooner Oldham and they have toured and performed together, off and on, ever since. In 1994 he released his critically acclaimed “Do Right Man” solo album, at that time only the second solo recording of his musical career, the follow-up to 1973’s “Nobody’s Fool”. Dan Penn is still in Nashville, still writing and producing. He released his most recent album, “Living on Mercy”, in 2020.

If Dan Penn had only ever written ‘Dark End of the Street’ he’d still be a songwriting legend but he wrote so many other great songs, as well as producing tracks and albums for a whole range of artists. In 2013 Penn was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, in 2019 he was also inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame. Musicians who have recorded Dan Penn songs include all the aforementioned, along with the likes of Charlie Rich, Hank Williams Jnr, Albert King, Clarence Carter, Jerry Lee Lewis, Merilee Rush, Kelly Willis, Pegi Young, Nick Lowe and a lot of other people. Not bad for an “old Hillbilly”.

About Rick Bayles 354 Articles
Now living the life of a political émigré in rural France and dreaming of the day I'll be able to sing those Cajun lyrics with an authentic accent!
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Great in-depth article about a true legend. He also produced two wonderful albums for the late Greg Trooper, another forgotten roots artist, and for the Hacienda Brothers, that rootsrock/Texmex outfit of Chris Gaffney from Dave Alvin‘s band. Dan contributed some songs and also performed on these albums. Thanks for bringing him to the spotlight! Greetings from Germany.