The careers of Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham course through the history of Southern soul and R&B like the Tigres and Euphrates flow through the cradle of civilization: It’d be hard to imagine the last 40 years of music history without them.
Both Penn and Oldham were integral members of Rick Hall’s Fame studio band in Muscle Shoals, Alabama in the ’60s heyday of Southern soul, later reprising their roles for Chips Moman’s American Recording Studios in Memphis. Penn has produced or written hits for Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, the Box Tops, and James Carr, among countless others. Together, Penn and Oldham co-wrote such classics as the Box Tops’ “Cry Like a Baby,” Percy Sledge’s “Out of Left Field” and James & Bobby Purify’s “I’m Your Puppet.”
Befitting their behind-the-scenes roles, both give the credit to the artists who took their songs and made them into classics of the canon.
“I was definitely in the right place at the right time,” Penn, 64, says. “But the black artists are what really made it all happen. We did our part, we wrote the songs, we played the sessions, but without the good black singers we wouldn’t have been near as good.”
Penn caught his first break when Conway Twitty recorded his “Is a Blue Bird Blue?” and scored a hit with it. Penn was just a senior in high school, but the song opened doors for him and led to his stint at Fame. At the same time, Oldham began cutting classes to hang around the fertile Muscle Shoals studios, and made his first mark by providing the soulful keys on Sledge’s legendary single, “When a Man Loves a Woman.”
Penn and Oldham quickly realized they shared an affinity for R&B, and after the daily sessions at Fame and American they would often return to the studios at night to write songs together. Those late-night sessions were reprised more than 30 years later when Nick Lowe asked the two to open for him on a tour of the British Isles. The resulting record, Moments From This Theatre, was released to wide acclaim in Europe in 1998, but was only available domestically as an expensive import. Now, under the Proper American Records imprint, it is being issued in the U.S. for the first time, and Americans can hear these classic cuts the way that Aretha and Alex Chilton first did — just Penn’s guitar and soulful voice, and Oldham’s inimitable keys.
“We had to try to remember when we wrote them and how we wrote them,” Oldham, 62, says. “We had to put ourselves in that place and that time again. It was quite a mental trip for us.”
“I didn’t even know how to play ‘I’m Your Puppet,'” laughs Penn. “I’d have to call Spooner and ask, ‘Hey, what’s that third chord there?’ But the way we do these songs now is pretty close to the way we did the demos, and they always did sound pretty good, I guess, since the artists liked them enough to record them.”
Indeed, Penn’s success — especially with the Box Tops — enabled him to concentrate exclusively on production and songwriting. The only downside was a 25-year gap between live performances. But Penn was eventually convinced to record his own songs, which appeared on 1994’s soul classic, Do Right Man. He conceded it was time to get in front of an audience again, and drafted Oldham to reprise his supporting role.
It wound up rejuvenating his career both on the stage and in the studio.
“I thought, any singer worth his salt ought to go sing,” Penn says. “That feeling you get back from the crowd, it just kind of wakes up some of your processes, some of your creative thinking and actually gives you some incentive to write some new songs. It’s like a second wind, and now that I’m running thin again, I’m ready to go back out again.”
Back to stay
One of the most impressive aspects about Penn and Oldham is that both artists are still very much in demand — and living rich musical lives to this day. Penn’s recent work includes production credits for Greg Trooper and the Hacienda Brothers, as well as co-writes on 12 of the 13 songs for Bobby Purify’s 2005 comeback, Better Have It. Still, Penn was disappointed that Purify didn’t achieve the same commercial success enjoyed by Solomon Burke’s 2002 comeback, Don’t Give Up on Me.
“That was great,” Penn says. “The only problem with it is that it stopped. Just one record and it’s like they just shut the door again. I expected Bobby to pick up where that left off, but no can do.”
While Penn made a career behind the console, Oldham’s richly spiritual keyboard playing (he still performs at the small Alabama church where he played as a teenager) earned him key roles over the years with a host of heavy hitters in a variety of styles. These included on-stage and in-studio gigs with the likes of Bob Dylan, the Everly Brothers, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Jackson Browne and many more.
“I always had that love for R&B, but I was also happy to be exposed to all these other things, too,” says Oldham, who spent many years out in California after his Muscle Shoals and Memphis days before returning to Alabama. “Something challenging keeps me going and on my toes; any time I get in an area that’s a little unfamiliar I wake up more and have to dig a little deeper.”
Recently, new generations have expressed their admiration for Oldham’s trademark Wurlitzer swirls. He was reunited in 2004 with some of his recording mates from the ’60s (Reggie Young, Gene Chrisman, Bobby Emmons) on Frank Black’s Honeycomb, and again for the upcoming follow-up by the Pixies front man, Fastman Raiderman.
Oldham also reprised his role from Neil Young’s seminal Harvest with his presence on last year’s Prairie Wind (he also appears in Jonathan Demme’s concert film of Young, Heart of Gold), and just finished keyboard parts for Pegi Young’s (wife of Neil) upcoming debut. He’s also been asked to play keys on the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young tour this summer.
But any ongoing success Penn and Oldham enjoy can still be traced back to those first few years of writing together, so eloquently recaptured on Moments From This Theatre.
“I said to Spooner, ‘Let’s just show them two songwriters and play the songs the way we first did,'” says Penn. “Seems like that worked pretty well then, and still does.”
[John Schacht wrote the Drive-By Truckers article in the current issue of Harp magazine.]
Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham play the Grey Eagle (185 Clingman Ave.) on Sunday, April 30. 8 p.m. $20 ($16/advance). 232-5800.