“Stone Loser” & “Don’t Count Your Chickens”
Dan Penn is recognized as one of the great songsmiths of the past fifty years. Music historian Peter Guralnick once described him as the “secret hero” of 60s R&B, and for many, his material defines the essence of southern soul writing, but Penn’s catalogue also retains the ability to transcend musical barriers, and 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 Dan find a voice, as it was in forging the songcraft that made his name. Studio honcho Rick Hall issued a quartet of singles on the singer during the time Penn was in his employ, but while decent, these did not play to the strengths the singer openly 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, and 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-obssessed white teenager from ruralAlabamawho 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, the singer had sandblasted his vocal cords into an approximation of idols Ray Charles and Bobby Bland, and 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 frisson, a redneck melisma, to Dan’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 side of the coin, Dan’s templates for ‘Rainbow Road’ and ‘You Left The Water Running’ are considerably different to better-known versions by other artists. Throughout, Penn’s confidence and authority in his voice makes for compelling listening, delivering his own, very personal brand of soul on cuts like ‘Long Ago’ and ‘Don’t Lose Your Good Thing’ that is irresistible.
Most tracks date from 1964 and 1965, and all feature one or other of the famed session crews that Rick Hall employed at FAME during that time. Oldham, Hall, and other associates such as Marlin Greene, Junior Lowe and Donnie Fritts all wax lyrical in the booklet liner notes about Dan’s artistry in the FAME era, 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.