Friday, October 14, 2022

The Do Right Man Live!!

Dan Penn - Columbus, MS 10-8-22 (Photo by Sharon Clarke)

I read about Dan Penn before I ever heard him.  I vaguely knew a few of the songs that he was responsible for at the time, but Peter Guralnick's profile of him in Sweet Soul Music, written in the mid-80's, made me want to hear more from him (not to mention a whole bunch of other characters in the book).  In the book, he just seemed like a regular guy, sort of self-effacing and with a great, dry sense of humor.  He reminded me of a lot of people I grew up around, so I figured he had to be a pretty cool guy.  

That album I tracked down in 1987
I was able to dig a little deeper into his music via the songs he wrote that were recorded by others.  For example, James Carr's version of Penn and Chips Moman's "At The Dark End of The Street" just blew me away when I first heard it.  

For you youngsters, in 1987 I actually had to order a cassette of James Carr's music to hear it since there was no internet, no YouTube, no Spotify, no Amazon Music, etc...., and they certainly didn't play it on the local radio stations.  Back then, there wasn't an instant opportunity to hear a song after I read about it, so things are MUCH better and easier now.  From there, I checked out many of the other songs that he'd written that were recorded by others, especially a lot of Percy Sledge's songs ("It Tears Me Up" and "Out of Left Field" for starters) and Aretha Franklin's version of "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man."

One of the other things Guralnick pointed out in Sweet Soul Music was that Penn's demo versions of these songs were as powerful and soulful as the finished products by other artists.  One of the quotes in the book, from Chips Moman, came during a remark about how well Carr performed "At The Dark End of The Street."  Moman said, "What would I do if I wanted James to cut one of my songs?  Easiest thing in the world.  Just get Dan Penn to sing it for him.  He'd sing it, and all of a sudden James Carr could sing it.  He had to sing it , 'cause Dan sung it so good."  Those demos were the stuff of legend in soul circles at that time.  

Penn had tried a solo career with Nobody's Fool in the early 70's, but it didn't sell well, so he went back to working behind the scenes.  In the early 90's, he gave it another shot with Do Right Man, an album produced by Guralnick that found the songwriter doing his own versions of some of his finest songs.  When I read about it, I ran to my local record store and picked it up and it still gets listened to regularly.  He began touring with fellow songwriter/keyboardist Spooner Oldham and that resulted in a live set of his songs being released in 1999 (Moments From This Theatre).  

A few years later, Penn began self-releasing albums, called his "Demo Series," which he recorded with some of his friends, a mix of old tunes and new one.  In 2020, he released Living On Mercy, one of the year's best.  Last year, he released a collection of gospel tunes (Penn was born again in the early 80's).  In between the Demo Series and Living On Mercy, the UK label Ace released those much-praised demos from the early/mid 60's as The Fame Recordings (two volumes’ worth) and they were everything that had been reported previously.

He still remains active as a writer and a performer, doing solo acoustic shows periodically.  I found out a few weeks back that Penn was going to be doing one of those solo acoustic performances about two hours from my house, in Columbus, MS at the Omnova Theatre at the Columbus Arts Council.  Well, as soon as I found this out, I snatched up a pair of tickets.  I'd never been to the Omnova Theatre, but it sounded like a great opportunity to see one of my musical heroes.

When my wife and I arrived at the Omnova Theatre, we were surprised at how small it was....maybe seating about 75.  There were probably 60 or so there.  It's on the second floor of the Arts Council building, so when we took the elevator to the second floor, Penn was nearly standing in the doorway.  He was just talking to some folks that he knew (he only lives about 30 miles away in Vernon, AL).  I would estimate that at least half of the people in attendance either were related to him (his wife and sister were there) or knew him personally.  He visited with all of them and it was just like a family reunion.

The show was just wonderful.  Penn will be 81 next month and he uses a cane to help him get around, but when he sat down in that chair onstage, it was like he was twenty years younger.  He played nearly all of his classics, "I'm Your Puppet," "You Left The Water Running," "Sweet Inspiration," "Cry Like A Baby," "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man," "I Met Her In Church," "Dark End of the Street," "Zero Willpower,” “A Woman Left Lonely," "Out of Left Field" (requested by a cousin who traveled from New Orleans to hear him), "Nobody's Fool," "Old Folks," "Memphis Women and Chicken," and "I'm Living Good."  I know I'm leaving a couple out (he did do a singalong for "The Letter," the hit he produced for the Box Tops), but man, just look at the body of work that he covered in 90 minutes or so.

He sounds just as good as he ever has and he played and sang with fire and soul...I know he's done these songs a million times over the years, but you can tell that he LOVES what he's doing as much now as he did when he got started over sixty years ago.  He told great stories between songs…. I never knew that he provided the high “girl” background vocal during the wrap-up of “At Thr Dark End Of The Street.”  Afterward, I thought I'd walk up and at least shake his hand and tell him what a fan I have been for nearly 40 years, but he was visiting with family and friends (they also talked back and forth between really was like a family reunion of sorts) and I didn't want to butt in for my little bit, so we headed out on our drive back home.

If Dan Penn ever performs close to my area again, I will be there to see question about it.  You should do the same.  While you're waiting, there are plenty of opportunities to check out his work, either by other artists or by the man himself.  Here are a few other selections shown below, but there's more to be found that should be found.  You can thank me later.

Living On Mercy (The Last Record Company) - His latest release from 2020.  Some very good new songs mixed in with some older favorites. 

Moments From This Theatre (Proper Records) - Some of his best known songs recorded in Ireland in the late 90's with keyboardist and songwriting partner Spooner Oldham.  Comprised most of his set at Columbus last weekend.  Great stuff!

Blue Nite Lounge (Dandy Records) - Volume One of Penn's self-released "Demo Series."  I've only heard the first two (planning to get the others, plus the gospel set), but both of the ones I already have are worth hearing.

Sweet Inspiration - The Songs of Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham (Ace - UK Records) - There are several of these collections on Ace Records, but this one has a lot of tunes you may be more familiar with by Penn recorded by other artists you're familiar with.  Heck, just get 'em all.

Friday, October 7, 2022

Friday Blues Picks (10/7/22)

Sorry if you stopped by last week, but there is a lot going on in the real world for us here in the Magnolia State so we weren't able to make it work.  Don't worry, because we are back this week with a couple more new must-hear albums that should be in any blues fans' collection (plus a set of old favorites).  

This week's picks are star-studded affairs.  I'm not always a fan of those types of albums, sometimes the guest stars overwhelm the main artists on these albums, but these two are quite different.  The artists releasing these albums primarily work as sidemen, supporting other musicians, so they are used to adapting to the artists they're backing and, WOW, these two recordings are top notch!  

Bob Corritore was born in Chicago, where he fell in love with the blues at the age of 12 after hearing a Muddy Waters song on the radio.  After receiving a harmonica from his younger brother, he began to teach himself how to play and, when he was old enough, he started going to see any blues concert he could find as well as going to Maxwell Street, the open-air market where blues performers often set up on weekends.  he eventually was able to join the musicians on Maxwell soon enough, becoming a regular performer.  He expanded into music production, starting his own label and recording some of the Windy City musicians.  He relocated to Phoenix in the early 80's, where he became a mainstay of the city's blues scene, performing, recording with, and producing other artists as well as hosting his own radio show ("These Lowdown Blues," since the mid 80's).  He's recorded numerous albums, all excellent, and appeared on hundreds of others as a guest artist.  

Over time, Corritore has amassed a huge archive of recordings from artists who have appeared on his radio show or performed at his music club, The Rhythm Room.  He has released several collections of these performances as Bob Corritore & Friends, the most recent being You Shocked Me (VizzTone), which features 16 tracks with a host of contributors, including John Primer, Alabama Mike (four tracks), Diunna Greenleaf, Sugaray Rayford, Willie Buck, Johnny Rawls, Bill "Howl-N-Madd" Perry, Oscar Wilson, Bob Stroger, Francine Reed, and Jimi "Primetime" Smith on vocals.  Also featured are guitarists Bob Margolin, Kid Ramos, L.A. Jones, Johnny Rapp, as well as Smith and Primer.  There are also over twenty other artists contributing.  Of course, Mr. Corritore is accompanying these artists on all the songs with his spot-on harmonica work, always in service of the song.  If you haven't checked out any of Corritore's collaborative archive session collections, You Shocked Me is a great place to start, but you will definitely want to hear more afterward.

The Texas Horns (Mark "Kaz" Kazanoff - sax/harmonica/vocals, John Mills - sax, Al Gomez - trumpet) recently released their third album, Everybody Let's Roll (Blue Heart Records).  These guys have appeared on numerous albums over the years....I used to hear Kazanoff regularly on most Black Top Records releases....and some of their friends return the favor on this excellent release.  The guest list includes Carolyn Wonderland, Anson Funderburgh, Jimmie Vaughan, Johnny Moeller, Mike Zito, Mike Flanigin, Marcia Ball, and Guy Forsyth.  Wonderland sings the title track, a mission statement of sorts for the Horns, with Funderburgh and Mike Keller on guitar, Vaughan plays on a couple of tracks, singing on "Too Far Gone," a hip shuffle, Moeller plays guitar on several tracks, and Forsyth sings on "Die With My Blues On" and the 70's R&B-styled "Prisoner In Paradise."  The Horns take center stage on a great set of instrumentals, the Latin-flavored "Apocalypso," a spirited reading of J.B. Lenoir's "J.B.'s Rock," and an inspired cover of the Beatles'(!) "I Want You (She's So Heavy)."  Kaz even takes vocals on "Ready For The Blues Tonight," which features Ball on piano.  Everybody Let's Roll reminds me of those great Black Top albums back in the day, where it always sounded like everyone poured their heart into every performance and had a ball doing it.  

Way back in the early 90's, I was in a music store and happened upon a cassette of Billy Boy Arnold's VeeJay recordings from the 50's on Charly Records.  Charly released a lot of older recordings at bargain prices at the time and it was a good way for a budding blues fan to catch up on some of the music's history.  Arnold's were consistently good.  He was an excellent singer with a lot of soul in his voice and he learned harmonica from Sonny Boy Williamson (Version 1) as a teenager before joining Bo Diddley's band.  He recorded with Diddley on two of his biggest hits, "I'm A Man," and "Bo Diddley," and recorded a few tracks for Checker before signing with VeeJay, where several of his songs became blues standards.  

I searched in vain for a CD copy of that Charly Records collection, but when available, they were pretty high dollar, but Jasmine Records came to the rescue once again, releasing Come Back Baby, I Wish You Would late last year.  This set includes Arnold's earliest recordings with Cool Records, the Checker recordings (including his five sides with Diddley), and all of his Vee-Jay tracks.  Those Vee-Jay sides include "I Wish You Would" (which borrows that famous Bo Diddley beat), "I Ain't Got You," "Don't Stay Out All Night," and "Prisoner's Plea."  The backing musicians on these sides include guitarists Diddley, Jody Williams, and Syl Johnson, piano wizards Otis Spann and Sunnyland Slim, drummers Clifton James and Earl Phillips, and bass players Willie Dixon and Mack Thompson (brother of Syl and Jimmy Johnson).  One of the things that struck me about these recordings was that Arnold was such a confident and exuberant performer at a young age.....playing behind these stellar musicians certainly had to give him a boost.  

Arnold recently released his autobiography, The Blues Dream of Billy Boy Arnold (co-authored by Kim Field), which I haven't read yet, but plan to.  If you've not heard his music, and he's recorded frequently over the years.....most recently with Stony Plain in 2014, you are missing out on some great Chicago blues.  This set of his earliest recordings is a great place to start.