Dan Penn And Spooner Oldham – Old souls
Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham begin Moments From This Theatre, their in-concert collection of chamber soul, with “I’m Your Puppet”. The tempo is unhurried but insistent, with Penn’s voice sweet and soulful, his gently picked acoustic guitar brushing up against Oldham’s Wurlitzer electric piano. The offhand artistry of the performance derives from decades of friendship and a long history of collaborations, encouraging fans of vintage rhythm & blues to close their eyes and turn back the years.
It’s 1966, and James & Bobby Purify, a couple of cousins from Florida, have come to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to record at Rick Hall’s Fame Studios. Penn and Oldham had been woodshedding for years, writing songs and cutting demos during the late-night hours when the studio was empty. They’d gotten a number of songs recorded as B-sides, but Penn hadn’t had a real hit since “Is A Bluebird Blue?” charted for Conway Twitty in 1960.
Preparing for the Purifys’ session, producer Don Schroeder listened to a number of Fame demos and picked out “I’m Your Puppet”. The authors were already in the studio: Penn was engineering and Oldham was on piano, alongside Barry Beckett (organ) and his colleagues in the crack Fame band: Jimmy Johnson (guitar), David Hood (bass) and Roger Hawkins (drums).
“Frankly,” says Penn, “I didn’t care much for the way they were doing it, but I’d learned enough not to say anything. But when it came out and was a big hit, I loved it; still do.”
The Purifys’ version of “I’m Your Puppet” rose to #6 on the pop charts, and while Penn has fond memories of getting an initial check for $4,000, he mostly recalls feeling great relief that he’d finally scored his second hit. More were on the way.
Moments From This Theatre — which came out in England in 1999 but recently received its first U.S. release on Proper Records — collects the songwriting team’s greatest hits, including Penn/Oldham songs recorded by the Box Tops (“Cry Like A Baby” and “I Met Her In Church”), Percy Sledge (“It Tears Me Up”), Janis Joplin (“A Woman Left Lonely”), and the Sweet Inspirations (“Sweet Inspiration”). Then there are the two oft-covered classics written by Penn and Chips Moman, “The Dark End Of The Street” and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” (the definitive versions recorded by James Carr and Aretha Franklin, respectively). Add Penn’s “You Left The Water Running”, cut by Otis Redding, and Moments From This Theatre serves as a veritable dictionary of soul.
These are songs of such enduring power that they seem to have been born in a distant galaxy, and in a way, they were. Imagine Alabama in the days before the Voting Rights Act, and consider the implication of white musicians backing black singers during the tense, violent days of the civil rights movement. Think of Arthur Alexander in 1961 cutting “You Better Move On”, the first national hit recorded in Muscle Shoals, with Spooner Oldham overdubbing the organ part. The tune would soon be covered by the Rolling Stones, while the Beatles grabbed onto another Alexander tune, “Anna (Go To Him)”.
“They shared common experiences with the black artists they played with,” says Jerry Wexler, who famously brought Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin to record in Muscle Shoals. “They all walked with the same mud between their toes.”
Wallace Daniel Pennington was born on November 16, 1941, in Vernon, Alabama, but by the time he arrived in Muscle Shoals, he’d shortened his name and was fronting a band called Dan Penn & the Pallbearers (the group traveled in a hearse). The repertoire was strictly rhythm & blues. “When I wasn’t Ray Charles or James Brown, I was Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland,” Penn told Peter Guralnick in his book Sweet Soul Music. “There was no such thing as Dan Penn then. It was ‘Here comes Bobby “Blue” Penn.'”
Lindon Oldham was born on June 14, 1943, in Center Star, Alabama, a perfectly-named hometown for one of the most famous sidemen in rock and soul. His dad played mandolin and sang harmonies with his two brothers. Lindon took piano lessons in junior high, though not for long. “I quit after Miss Garner hit my hands with a wooden ruler,” he says. Then he started playing in bands.
The nickname “Spooner” came from a schoolmate’s taunt when he learned that as a young child, Lindon had reached for a frying pan only to have a spoon flip in the air and blind him in his right eye. By the time he met Penn, Spooner thought the name was cool, not cruel, though he later worried that people assumed he was a coke freak.
“When we first sat down and started writing, we liked each other, and that’s a good start,” says Penn. “But after night after night of writing, this chemistry kept building. Now if we sit down to write or play, we can almost read each other’s mail, we’ve done it so much. When we play, that’s as close to the ’60s as you can get, when we were at the Fame studios, because there’d be nobody there but us.”
By day, Spooner would play on demos and recording sessions, including another early Muscle Shoals hit, “Steal Away”, by Jimmy Hughes. Rick Hall had hired Penn as a staff songwriter, but Penn also hung around the studio to watch Hall run the board. When he was otherwise engaged, Hall would turn the recording console over to Penn.
The music business is littered with sad stories of songwriters who were duped out of their publishing, but Penn and Oldham were lucky. “I knew absolutely nothing about publishing when I started,” says Penn, “but by 1961, when I started writing for Fame, I didn’t need to, because I had a publisher. I wrote them, they published them, and I ain’t saying I got every penny, but I don’t go around thinking that I was screwed. We were just trying to keep writing, and I figured if I write well, I’ll make good money. I wrote pretty good, and I made pretty good money. Even in the early days, I was getting 25 dollars a week, what else did you want? I was playing on the weekend and making 50; that’s 75, and my dad wasn’t making but 50 in the plant.”