Dan Penn  “The Fame Recordings” (Ace CDCHD 1353)

by Pete Nickols

Keep On Talking; Feed The Flame; Far From The Maddening Crowd; Uptight Good Woman; Come Into My Heart; Don’t Lose Your Good Thing; Come On Over; Rainbow Road; Unfair; The Thin Line; I Need A Lot Of Lovin’; Take A Good Look; Strangest Feeling; Power Of Love; It Tears Me Up; I Do; Everytime; Do Something (Even If It’s Wrong); You Left The Water Running; Slippin’ Around With You; Take Me (Just As I Am); I’m Living Good; Long Ago; The Puppet aka I’m Your Puppet.

Dan PennDan Penn is rightly awarded legendary status by many southern-soul fans due the plethora of fine songs he wrote or co-wrote which, once recorded in that particular vein, became hallmarks of the musical sub-genre. Many of these ‘released’  interpretations were based closely on demos of his songs recorded by Dan himself, a country boy who, in his early years, ‘got off’ on R&B and could sing ‘black’ when the mood took him or when he was deliberately aiming a demo at a particular black R&B/soul performer. A figure as significant as Jerry Wexler made no bones about rating him as the best white soul-singer he ever heard.

However, Penn could sing in a number of styles, embracing pop, country and soul, as required; and this CD reflects all those styles, not just the ‘soul’ ones. This is quite understandable, as between 1964 and 1966, when most of these songs were laid down, Dan was simply Rick Hall’s main ‘gopher/songsmith’ and, with Rick trying to make a success of his new Fame venture in any popular musical ‘market’ that would place his product, there was always going to be many different types of artist recording at Fame and therefore a demand for many different song-styles.

So, those expecting from this CD 24 tracks of unremitting blue-eyed southern-soul from Dan will be disappointed and the different styles featured on the CD are probably the reason it appears, not on Ace’s soul-subsidiary ‘Kent’, but on the parent Ace label itself.

In a nutshell, while all of the recordings are of historical interest musically, not all will appeal to ‘soul-only’ fans and, purely aurally (as opposed to historically) the CD is ‘patchy’.

What’s more, one of Penn’s finest soul demos is omitted. It’s clear that Dan himself had major input into the final selection of the tracks to be featured here (the CD is called an Alec Palao and Dan Penn collaboration) and one wonders what caused him to omit his great demo of what became a truly wonderful piece of Fame-cut deep southern soul by Kip Anderson, “Without A Woman”. No matter, at time of writing, you can access Dan’s fine demo on You Tube here.

However, on now to the Dan Penn Fame demos which actually DO appear on this CD!

It’s interesting that the opening track is a blatantly commercial piece of Chicago-meets-Detroit northern-soul, with no ‘southern’ feel whatsoever. It was James Barnett’s early Fame 1001 single of “Keep On Talking” which became the first commercial recording of Penn and Oldham’s song and, although a flop at the time, it later caught the ear of those in the British northern-soul fraternity who liked this kind of beat for showing off their egocentric solo dancing abilities. Penn’s demo simply underlines the song’s commercial ‘pitch’. Arthur Conley’s Fame version from May 1967, released on his “Shake Rattle & Roll” album, added nothing new. Phillip Mitchell’s Fame-cut Smash version appeared on Kent’s “Hall Of Fame” CDKEND 372 compilation.

Contrastingly, “Feed The Flame” is the real country-soul McCoy. Dan’s emotive demo was pitched at Joe Tex but proved a launch pad for Billy Young to cut it at Fame in 1966 (unreleased at the time), although the normally impressive Young’s version was no match for Ted Taylor’s superior one, released on Atco and cut at Quinvy in February 1967. Percy Sledge would cut it also at Quinvy in mid-June that same year and Spencer Wiggins would take a nice shot at it at Fame in 1973 for his apparently never-issued XL 1347 single.

“Far From The Maddening Crowd” (clearly mis-titled after Thomas Hardy’s fourth novel and with co-author Marlin Greene and Jeannie too on back-ups) is unashamedly ‘uptown’ in style, though needing a bigger arrangement to successfully ape the New York sound of the day (1965). Nevertheless, The Drifters did cut it that year on Atlantic 2298 with Johnny Moore on lead. At time of writing, you can hear their version here on You Tube.

Next it’s back to a real deep southern soul gem, Penn and Oldham’s “Uptight Good Woman”, never better recorded than by the great Spencer Wiggins for Goldwax, although Solomon Burke and Wilson Pickett both did it credit, as did Laura Lee with her great distaff version “Uptight Good Man”.  Perhaps this one too was aimed originally at Joe Tex, as the demo sports a nice mid-break rap from Penn. If you’re a member of the Yahoo southernsoul group (and if not, why not?) you can access Penn and Oldham’s even earlier work-tape of the song, uploaded to the group’s File page (penultimate entry) by Rick Hall’s son Rodney.

“Come Into My Heart” was never taken up by any other artist. It’s a simple, repetitious piece but very emotionally sung by Penn, who manages to create an atmospheric pop-rock-soul performance out of pretty basic raw material. It’s miles away from southern soul but I have to confess I rather like it.

Cut in 1966 as the last song Dan is known to have demoed at Fame before moving over to Chips Moman’s American Studio in Memphis, his fine lay-back take on “Don’t Lose Your Good Thing”, includes some nice organ work from Spooner and an ear-catching, trilling guitar riff. Dan maintains it was just him and Spooner (and never Rick Hall) who penned the song, one which Jimmy Hughes used as his follow-up to “Why Not Tonight”, which Etta James would cut also at Fame for her “Tell Mama” album and one which Jamaican duo The Blues Busters would cut in fine style for Shout at Fame in 1968 (this one mistakenly getting included on the first pressings of their Shout 235 single before being replaced by “I Can’t Stop”).

“Come On Over” from 1965 is an unimpressive rocking piece of pop which Ben Atkins cut at Fame using the same backing-track but which only saw release on Youngstown (a Chips Moman label) in 1967 after Penn had migrated to Moman’s studio.

1964’s “Rainbow Road” (a Penn and Donnie Fritts collaboration) has Rick Hall on banjo and a chain-gang “oh-ah” vocal back-up, apparently inserted at Rick’s request to make the song potentially more commercial. Both Fritts and Penn confirm the song was never written about Arthur Alexander but simply potentially for him to record sometime after his early Fame hit “You Better Move On”, although with Arthur moving to Dot, the singer never cut the song till much later. Percy Sledge, Joe Simon and Bill Brandon all cut it before Arthur did, and Brandon’s version is the most soulful to my ears, and certainly vastly superior to the unimpressive Penn demo.

“Unfair”, a Penn tune written even earlier than its late 1963/early 1964 recording date, is a soundalike of the seemingly ever-popular (though certainly not with me) “Since I Fell For You”. Dan’s vocal abilities are well demonstrated but on a ‘nothing’ song which, to her credit, Barbara Lynn later managed to make something of.

“Strangest Feeling” was another early demo from Dan (cut with his then group the Mark V) of a song that I’ve never rated. It’s simply a run-of-the-mill late-night blues song with an incongruous introductory and occasionally interjected jazzy-tempoed guitar riff. I’m not even all that keen on Bill Brandon and Ted Taylor’s later versions.

Forget altogether the naff quasi-uptown July ’65-cuts “The Thin Line”, which deservedly never got taken up by anyone, the very schmaltzy teeny pop-ballad “I Do” and  “Do Something”, which the sleeve-notes accurately describe as Boondocks-meets-Motown and could only have been made even mildly palatable by someone like, perhaps, Gene Pitney.

Earlier still, in January 1965, Dan produced a very lay-back pop ballad called “I Need A Lot Of Loving” which Louis Williams gave the Sam Cooke treatment on the Ovations 1966 version for Goldwax, while the wicked Pickett gave it a bit more oomph on his May ’66 cut used on his 1967 “The Sound Of” album. The best-ever version by a mile, though, is the driving-soul Fame recording of it for Amy, cut shortly after Pickett’s version, by Mighty Sam (McClain).

Also ala Sam Cooke was Dan’s appealing lay-back Spring ’65 demo of “I’m Living Good” which again proved just fine for Louis Williams when he duly lead the Ovations on it, while Arthur Conley also made a good job of the song and Rosey Grier and Freddie Waters went on to later cover it too.

Back again to January 1965 and “Take A Good Look” is a nicely humourous piece of country-soul. Once more, it’s very Joe Tex orientated although the issued version was recorded by James Barnett.

From the same period, Dan’s fine demo of “It Tears Me Up” again includes a mid-track rap, never included by Percy Sledge on his big hit of the song. Later versions I like are Johnny Adams’ ‘take’ for Rounder in 1998 and one by the impressive Charles Walker, whose 2003 interpretation for Zane retains the mid-track rap and is so good that for me it even rivals Percy’s imperious recording.

Spring ’65 saw Dan demo the poppish mid-pacer “Power Of Love”, recorded at Fame for Papa Don on Amy 985 by the girl duo Double Image, who were 16 year olds Charlyne Kilpatrick and Shirley Paris. They’d been singing around Pensacola, Fla. since they were about 13 as two-thirds of the Sandpipers. If you absolutely must, you can hear their teeny-pop Amy version of this song here.

I wouldn’t bother!

“Everytime” is appalling pacy dross and best track-skipped!

“You Left The Water Running”, possibly from as early as 1964, has an extremely corny (probably farfisa) organ riff and is Sam Cooke-ish in its vocal delivery. This very basic early demo really doesn’t lend itself to many re-plays, which is surprising for a fundamentally fine song which was so well interpreted by the likes of Sam & Dave, Maurice & Mac and the Purifys (who all ‘duo-ed’ it), Don Varner, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Doris Allen and James Govan, who all ‘solo-ed’ it and even Booker T, who instrumentalised it. However, the best-remembered hit-version remains that by Barbara Lynn.

Spring 65’s demo of “Slippin’ Around” is a competent enough run-through of this bouncy soul opus which became an unexceptional Fame vehicle for Art Freeman, Jimmy Hughes and Clarence Carter.

So much better, though, is Dan’s emotive if very country-styled recording of his song “Take Me (Just As I Am)”, which was actually released as his own second Fame single in May 1965 under the name Lonnie Ray. The song became immortalised as a southern-soul gem thanks to the likes of Arthur Conley, Solomon Burke and Spencer Wiggins. Mitty Collier also cut a decidedly tougher-sounding unissued-at-the-time version at Fame in 1968 for Chess and Z.Z. Hill did it due credit at Quinvy on 7 October 1969.

“Long Ago” was co-penned with Bob – not Buddy – Killen, who was the organist with the local various-personnel live group and Quinvy recording artists, the Wee-Juns. Ben & Spence cut a very fine unissued version at Fame (which now appears on “Hall Of Fame Volume 2” on CDKEND 386), but I believe the song was first commercially recorded by Bobby Patterson in ’67 on Jetstar 108 and then, in ’68, by Ted Taylor on Ronn 33 (as well as on his “You Can Dig It!” Ronn LPS 7529 LP). The sleeve-notes to Kent’s “Hall Of Fame” Volume 2 set tell us that these two recordings were also both cut at Rick’s studio.

I’ve never liked “I’m Your Puppet” (originally called by Dan simply “The Puppet”). It’s a sad little song with good lyrics but it’s always been just too pop and too fey for me, and that even includes the Purify’s hit version. Many others have cut it, including fellow duos Sam & Dave, Mel & Tim and even Marvin Gaye and Tami Terrell, plus solo artists like Geno Washington and Irma Thomas.

CD Rating: historical importance 10/10. Aural soul quality 6/10.


March 2013