The hit maker: soul legend Dan Penn

Dan Penn performs in Utah in 2013.
Randall Michelson/Getty Images

Dan Penn performs in Utah in 2013.

Work on the greatest soul record of all time, Dark End Of The Street, has stalled.

In the American Sound studio in Memphis, a room that will be graced by Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield and Elvis Presley, a tall, awkward Afro-American singer called James Carr, whose battles with mental illness will later blight his career, is struggling to inject feeling into the quintessential deep-soul cheating song.

Carr is working from a great demo tape by co-writer Dan Penn, but on this chilly day early in the Tennessee winter of 1966, he can't find the fire he wants.

Dan Penn in about 1970.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Dan Penn in about 1970.

Nearly 50 years later I'm with Penn in his basement studio at his home in Nashville as he relives the moment.

This is a man whose song-writing skills helped define legends.  His Do Right Woman was an early hit for Aretha Franklin. Otis Redding recorded Penn's You Left The Water Running. Janis Joplin sang A Woman Left Lonely on her last album. But the best of many great songs Penn was involved in remains Dark End Of The Street.

He says, "I didn't meet James Carr until the day he put his voice on Dark End Of The Street. What happened was that American [Sound studio] was down for a new board, a new console. So we went to Hi studio [the home base of Al Green] and cut the track, but James wasn't there.

"I'm singing the pilot vocal.  So we got the track, the best track I've ever heard yet, anywhere, on that song.

"They get the new console in at American, and we go back to put James' voice on. He's had the tape for a while, and he's been learning it. He starts and goes a couple of times through, but he's sounding a bit sleepy. Just wasn't quite coming up to it. And me and Chips [Moman, the song's co-writer and producer] were sitting at the console, and Chips says, 'Dan, go sing it for him one time.' I said, 'OK.'

"I go out and say, 'James, give me the phones for a minute,' and he takes them off. Looked at me kind of quizzically. I said, 'Let me sing it for you one time.' And he kind of backed off, then says real slow, 'Go ahead.' I gave it my best. When I got through he took the phones, looks right at me and says, 'I think I got it now.' And the very next take he nailed it.

"After he did his vocal I went out and sang harmony with him, and then I told Chips, 'Hey, you got an extra track? Let me go out and try something.' He played it down for me." Penn smiles and leans in.  "You know that black woman you hear doing the high harmony?"  I do. Listen to the record and you wonder which local  Baptist church choir she was plucked from. Penn laughs with quiet pleasure. "That's me. Back then I could go anywhere I wanted to go with my voice. I could go up a long way."

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There have been dozens of cover versions of Dark End Of The Street since.

"People ask me what my favourite version is," Penn says. "As if there was ever any other than James Carr's."

If you have any affection for the soul music that poured from southern America in the late 1960s, when white and black musicians crossed the lines to play and sing together, then to talk with Penn is to find the mother lode.

I meet Penn and his wife Linda in south Nashville at the Copper Kettle restaurant on Granny White Pike, a quiet suburban road that meanders past Pat Boone's old alma mater, the Christian-based Lindscomb University.

Penn, as he was when on stage in New Zealand on his only visit here in 1999, is dressed in blue denim bib overalls. He chews on a toothpick. You have to look closely to see how keen and knowing the eyes are, to remember this is a man who has been quoted several times as saying he lives by the southern dictate, "People down here don't let nobody tell them what to do."

He suggests the meat loaf, served with fried okra, black-eyed peas and mac and cheese for just $9.25.  "You can't do wrong with that."  After lunch we drive a little further south, to their red brick house in a leafy suburb appropriately called Oak Hill. The Penns alternate between living there and in a farmhouse near his hometown of  Vernon, Alabama, 360 kilometres away.

I am an unabashed fan. Our interview comes after I've received a mail-order album of his with the return address handwritten by his wife. They're old school. Our arrangements to meet are made by mail, not email. At first Penn is polite, but a little cautious.

Then I quote one of the my favourite lines from a recent, self-issued song about one of the old cars he loves to work on: "I slid into Jimmy's with a little old shimmy on the front/He said, 'You can park it Dan, this old dog won't hunt.'"

In moments I'm invited to his studio downstairs to talk. He's set up to record, with a vintage 16-track analog Ampex recorder and a 48-track digital desk. "I prefer tape," he says, "but in the end it's the song and the performance that count."

Like so many people in the south, his musical interest was fired by gospel music. "We were church people. Daddy led the singings, and he played acoustic guitar and my mother hammered out piano. Just a little bitty church, you know. A guy from a neighbouring town came in and he had an electric guitar, and it was a big day. Here he came with that amplifier with all that chrome on it. That was an eye opener."

So was the music coming through late at night from radio station WLAC in Nashville.  "Early on they gave me a little green radio and I had my own room. When everybody else went to sleep I'd listen to WLAC. They played nothing but black music. I really enjoyed the black stuff. It was different. These were people who hit a groove, and they played the best stuff around. So I heard all of that growing up, as well as music in the regular Methodist white church that I went to."

Amazingly, a song he wrote while still at high school, and demoed on a one-track tape recorder, Is A Bluebird Blue, found its way to Conway Twitty, and in 1960 was a top 40 hit.

But his music career was almost over before he was out of his teens.  "I'd been doing a little drinking and my mother was having a little trouble with me. My Aunt Margaret was there and she said, 'Send him to me in Dallas. I'll watch over him and get him a job.' So I did, and one night I was out with a little ole girl on a date, and we pulled into a Dairy Queen, and these two guys were outside with a little amp and a microphone all coming through the one speaker. They were trying to play some songs and stuff, and it just hit me, 'Man, I sure would like to play a song.'

"I'd been in Dallas three months. I asked them and they said go ahead, so I played some song, got back in the car, and said to that girl, 'That's it. Tomorrow I'm going to go to Alabama, and I'm going to play music.' From there I did what I could."

Where he landed was the hottest soul spot outside Memphis, a place called Muscle Shoals, a small town on Alabama flatlands just south of the Tennessee River, where a farmer's son, Rick Hall, ran Fame Studios.

There's never been anything romantic about the setting. The Fame building sits squat, industrial and unlovely on Avalon Ave between a Pizza Hut and a CVS Pharmacy.

But what was happening behind the prosaic brown-painted doors in the 1960s was remarkable. White and black southern musicians were creating an extraordinary brand of music that would make singers like Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett world famous.

Penn arrived there late in 1960, five years after Rosa Parks had been arrested in Montgomery, Alabama for refusing to give up her bus seat  to a white passenger and three years before George Wallace would be elected Alabama governor, and famously say at his swearing in, "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."

Today Penn says the musical harmony between the races  didn't seem unusual to him at the time. "It wasn't a big thing playing with black musicians. Where I was in Alabama, I didn't see an integration problem."

Fame's first hits were sung by a black worker at a local hotel, Arthur Alexander. John Lennon was a big Alexander fan, recording two of his songs with the Beatles.

"Me and [white musician] Donnie Fritts would go and pick up Arthur Alexander and ride him back to the studio," says Penn. "There were some problems but I wasn't close to them. I'd see it on the news, but I'd go to the studio and we were all OK, and we were all OK out on the street. It wasn't everywhere."

And there was never any sense of the musical history they were making. "We never thought about what impact the music was having. What we thought about was the charts. Gotta get on the charts. I didn't think I'd ever go to England, much less Australia or New Zealand. It was just nose to the grindstone, write another song better than the last one.

"I didn't ever think about it lasting. We were just lucky to be writing songs and not having to do a job. I never thought about history." He laughs at the very idea. "If I'd thought about all that it would have scared me to death. I probably would have quit."

An ambition to produce took Penn to Memphis, to work with old friend Chips Moman, who had started his own studio, American Sound.

In 1967 a teenage band fronted by a skinny 16-year-old, Alex Chilton, originally called the Devilles but renamed The Box Tops, brought Penn his only No1 production credit, when The Letter topped Billboard's pop charts.

"Don't ask me how I knew it but I knew I was gonna cut a big hit. And The Letter was a big hit. After I cut that, I cut some more Box Tops songs.

"But round about then I stopped working. I didn't quit, but I wasn't getting any calls. I was a bit on the crazy side back then. I did crazy things to get sounds, and people thought, 'Ole Dan, he's lost it.'

"I used to be pretty hard to handle. I was good to the people I was working with, but I was known to drink, and maybe do other things to stay up, which make you act crazy.

"Since then I've learned a lot of what not to do. Now I know that if I don't produce anybody, that's OK. Back then it was so desperate. Had to get a hit."

Penn hit his stride in an era from which many artists became embittered at how they were ripped off. Before he died in 2008, Bo Diddley would speak with disbelief of how he couldn't get the rights to his most famous song, despite him naming it after himself.

But Penn holds no grudges. "I've not been paid on lots of things, some of my productions, some of my writing, on some of my publishing. In general though, I've done very well. We don't want for anything. We're not rich, but we got enough to do what we want to do, and that's rich to me. I don't want a lot of money. I feel grateful. We've made a living."

It's obvious you can trace a lot of his content in life to his wife, Linda. They went to their high school prom together in 1960, and the affection they feel for each other is still evident.

Penn encourages her to tell her Elvis Presley story. Linda, as exuberant as her husband is laid-back, says how she was at a 1969 New Year's Eve party being thrown by Presley in a Memphis nightclub.

A friend, Johnny Christopher, who co-wrote Always On My Mind, and his wife Jean invited her, and Chips Moman, then producing Presley's great comeback album, Elvis In Memphis, introduced her to Presley. Linda went to shake hands, but Presley leaned over and kissed her.

"So I was kissed by Elvis," she says. "And I've got to say he sure looked nice." She laughs. "That was when he was really in prime shape."

Dan smiles, and offers a perfect compliment.  "Well, you gotta remember, you looked mighty good too."

To check out Dan Penn's three home demo CDs, go to danpenn.com.

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