|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|
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.
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.
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.
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 songs....it 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 him....no 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.