Dan Penn is recognised as one of the great songsmiths of the past 50 years. Music historian Peter Guralnick once described him as the “secret hero” of 60s R&B. For many, Penn’s material defines the essence of southern soul writing, but his catalogue also retains the ability to transcend musical barriers; classics such as ‘I’m Your Puppet’ and ‘Do Right Woman’ have scaled the pop and country charts in equal measure. With his principal collaborator Spooner Oldham, Penn lent R&B songwriting a class and eloquence that has rarely been bettered.
This much-anticipated collection, however, reveals the flowering of Dan Penn as an artist in his own right. It’s collated from the hard evidence of three amazing and educational years spent at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals as a staff writer – an apprenticeship that was as important in helping him find a voice as it was in forging the songcraft that made his name. Studio honcho Rick Hall issued a quartet of singles on Penn during the time the singer was in his employ but, while decent, these did not play to the strengths he displayed in the multitude of relaxed late-night sessions undertaken in this remarkably prolific period. The best moments are brought together on “The Fame Recordings”. With the enviable ambiance of the golden era FAME studio throughout, the combined performances approximate a great lost 60s soul album.
Penn was the real deal, an R&B-obsessed white teenager from rural Alabama who readily identified with the raw emotion of the black musical experience. Over several years of raucous fraternity gigs with the Nomads, Mark V and Pallbearers, Penn had sandblasted his vocal cords into an approximation of idols Ray Charles and Bobby Bland. He continued the treatment at FAME with a strict regimen of Kools and Marlboros, but the raspy, frosty cigarette touch in itself did not guarantee authenticity. Rather, it added a remarkable melisma to Penn’s developing technique, which perfectly matched the earnestness of delivery and performance. Soulful expression was easily and undeniably within his grasp.
For connoisseurs of southern soul, the finely tuned tracklisting will be a revelation, in that several future standards of the genre are presented in their original incarnation – often cut just hours after each song’s composition. ‘Uptight Good Woman’, ‘It Tears Me Up’ and ‘Feed The Flame’, along with tunes recorded by Fame stablemates such as Jimmy Hughes and James Barnett, all bear the agreeable glow of a familiar arrangement combined with an exciting, alternative interpretation. On the other hand, Penn’s templates for ‘Rainbow Road’ and ‘You Left The Water Running’ are considerably different from better-known versions by other artists. The personal brand of soul he delivers on cuts such ‘Long Ago’ and ‘Don’t Lose Your Good Thing’ is irresistible.
Most tracks date from 1964 and 1965 and all feature one or other of the renowned session crews Rick Hall employed at FAME during that time.Oldham, Hall and their associates Marlin Greene, Junior Lowe and Donnie Fritts all wax lyrical in the liner notes about Penn’s artistry and the man himself provides a lengthy and revelatory reminiscence of a signal time in his life and career. “The Fame Recordings” offers a fascinating peek at the emergence of a popular music great.
By Alec Palao