Moments From This Theatre

Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, who helped shape the development of southern soul music with their legendary songwriting, musicianship and production, made a live album in the U.K. in 1998 called Moments From This Theatre: Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham Live. The masterfully understated album features soulfully intimate renditions of many of their hits, including “I’m Your Puppet,” “Sweet Inspiration,” “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” “I Met Her in Church” and “Lonely Women Make Good Lovers” — 14 songs in all, nine of them Penn-Oldham collaborations. No Depression called the LP “a “master class with two great soul men.” Moments gives music lovers the opportunity to hear the hits stripped down to their essentials, with nothing but Penn’s deeply soulful vocals and acoustic guitar and Oldham’s Wurlitzer and occasional singing. With these two consummate musicians, that turns out to be more than enough to cast a spell. Now, seven years after the recordings were made, Moments has finally been released in the U.S., thanks to Proper American Recordings (distributed by Ryko).

“You can put me and Spooner in a band and we just disappear, and our songs disappear — within a band,” Penn explains of their motive for performing those dates. “That’s why we decided to start playin’ some gigs where it was just us, where we could show our songwriting.”

A native of Vernon, Alabama, Penn moved to the Florence/Muscle Shoals area while still a teenager and assumed the role of lead vocalist in a local group calling itself the Mark V Combo. When asked what kind of music they played, Penn replies, “R&B, man. There wasn’t no such thing as rock. That was somethin’ you picked up and throwed.” He laughs. “Or threw.” It was around this time that he penned his first chart record, Conway Twitty's “Is a Bluebird Blue,” and became friends with Oldham, whose given name is Dewey Lindon. During the early ’60s, Penn began working with Rick Hall at Fame Studios in Florence, first as an artist under then name Lonnie Wray, and then as a neophyte songwriter.

Around that time, Oldham, who was then going to college in Florence, started cutting classes in order to hang around the studio, and, Hall, recognizing the kid’s keyboard chops, started hiring him for sessions. Oldham’s reputation grew in this musical hotbed, and he worked at other local studios as well, playing the indelible organ part on Percy Sledge's “When a Man Loves a Woman”—not on a Hammond B3, as is generally thought, but on a Farfisa. “He had it on low growl,” Penn quips. “There’s one of them settin’ right here in my studio, because of that record.” As the keyboard player in the Fame house band, working alongside guitarist Jimmy Johnson, bassist Junior Lowe and drummer Roger Hawkins, Spooner played on groundbreaking albums by Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin, among others.

While at Fame, Oldham left his imprint on the sound and evolution of southern soul music with his inimitable keyboard playing, but he turned out to be just as skilled and distinctive as a songwriter. In the evenings, after the sessions had ended, Oldham would hole up with Penn, who was engineering at Fame and had the key to the studio, on songwriting sessions, and both immediately became aware of what Penn describes as “some sort of chemical deal together,” and that led to effort and inspiration. “We’d write two or three songs a night,” says Penn. “We were young. We just wrote and wrote and wrote, and we put the demo down, too.” Their early collaborations included “I’m Your Puppet,” which became a hit in 1965 for James & Bobby Purify, and “Out of Left Field,” performed so memorably by Sledge. These boys had a way with metaphor. Together and separately, the pair also wrote hits for Joe Simon, Jimmy Hughes and Wilson Pickett.

“I became a staff keyboard player, and then Dan and I became exclusive writers for Fame Publishing Co. for about three years,” Oldham remembers. “It was sort of an in-house thing, where artists were comin’ and goin’, askin’ for songs, and there was sort of a built-in opportunity to try to be commercial songwriters, which both of us wanted to be. So, as fate would have it, we were in a good place at a good time. And we enjoyed the process of writing. We’d demo it, just him and I putting it on tape that night — we’d be tired and worn out from our endeavors, and then, the next day, there was a whole band wantin’ to play in the studio, and we’d get them to do the demo. So we’d live with those songs a couple days runnin’. And then, if we were lucky, maybe two or three weeks later, somebody might want to record it, and we’d get to play it again.

“We got a song or two on a lot of albums, and I got to play on all that stuff and have fun,” Oldham continues. “And Dan was learning to engineer, partly because he had access to the equipment at night, and he and would do our demos. He was a songwriter who wanted to produce and engineer; I was a songwriter who wanted to play keyboards. So we had similar but different sidelines. And he was singin’ a lot, and I was not singin’ hardly ever. But we had a good rapport, and the piano-and-guitar thing seemed to work well. I liked piano and he liked guitar. He had a great way with words—not that I didn’t participate in the words. He and I both participated in words and music, but he was really there from the gitgo with his approach to words. We never knew where it was gonna come from—an idea or him strummin’ the guitar or me strummin’ the piano. We had a kaleidoscope of approaches. We’d make it all work, it seemed like. Whatever angle it came from, we’d try to connect on the idea of the song or the chord changes. If we weren’t interested, we’d just move on to another one real fast. We’d usually come up with a few ideas, sometimes only one, sometimes none. So we’ve approached it from all kind of ways.”

Says Penn of their process: “When me and Spooner are doin’ it, I usually write the lyrics ’cause he’s got his hands full with the piano, just so we get one set. That’s what I use when I sing the demo, and I always sing the demo, which has helped us get a lot of cuts in the past. Not that I sung it properly, but I sung it to where people could understand it, especially black singers. Y’know, we don’t have any soul music, and we don’t really have any outstanding black singers that I know. I mean, we have black singers, they come and go and they’re still good, but the kind of records they make are not the kind of records I like to hear. So whatever’s called R&B today ain’t R&B to me. Don’t care for hip-hop — that stuff just misses me because there’s not any songs too much involved. But just as a rule, we don’t have any R&B. I don’t think they should’ve called the new stuff R&B; they should’ve picked another name.”

According to Penn, the reason people hear touches of country in his brand of R&B is “because I’m an old hillbilly myself. Took me about 30 years to find out I was still a hillbilly. But compared to R&B, country is much easier. You ain’t got to struggle. Anybody can sing, ‘Because you’re mine, I walk the line.’ Go try to write ‘Out of Left Field’; go find all those chords and what all that means. So a hillbilly I am, but in the ’60s I was pretty smart to love black music, ’cause there was a lot of it to love. I loved Jimmy Reed, Bobby Bland, Ray Charles, Little Milton, James Brown… I always respected the black singers because they were always there — we was trying to get there. Knowing that the black singers wanted my songs inspired me.”

A number of their classics were written for particular singers. “’Sweet Inspiration’ was written for the group the Sweet Inspirations, ‘Cry Like a Baby was written for Alex Chilton, ‘Out of Left Field’ was written for Percy Sledge,” says Penn. “I either was involved in the production or I was real close to the production teams, so when you’re in the middle of a clique, you got the power to either do it right, do it wrong or get out of the way and let somebody else do it.” One gets the impression that Penn and Oldham weren’t the kind to get out of the way. “But you have an opportunity to score, and sometimes we scored. By that I mean comin’ up with a song that was good enough to get on the session. And then, if it come out and was a hit, the score was really complete at that point. So first you had to get on the session, and then the big question was, did it come out? And then the next question was, is it the single? At least back then.

“Some of these songs weren’t written that way. ‘Do Right Woman’ wasn’t written for Aretha, nor ‘Dark End of the Street’ for James Carr. Me and Chips Moman just wrote those songs and we didn’t have anybody in mind. We worked great together while we were together—we’re so lucky to have those two songs—but we didn’t stay together.”

In 1967, Penn relocated to Memphis and began producing at Chips Moman’s American Recording Studios, with Oldham joining him a few months later. While at American, Penn and Moman co-wrote “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” which Franklin turned into a soul classic, along with “Dark End of the Street,” stunningly recorded by James Carr, while Dan and Spooner came up with “Cry Like a Baby” for the Box Tops and “A Woman Left Lonely,” chosen by Janis Joplin for her classic album Pearl.

When the golden age of southern soul came to an end, Oldham moved to California, where he played with artists like Jackson Browne, the Everly Brothers, Linda Ronstadt and the Flying Burrito Brothers. Additionally, he played keyboards on a series of acclaimed albums by Neil Young, starting with Harvest in 1972. In 2005, Young tapped Oldham as a linchpin player on his moving new album, Prairie Wind. “He’s so soulful and so gospel and so spiritual, he’s playing from this special place,’ Young says of Oldham. “He’s so great, an amazing musician.”

Penn and wife Linda relocated to Nashville in the ’70s—where he recently co-wrote and produced Bobby Purify’s comeback album, Better to Have It, in his basement studio, with Oldham on keyboards, naturally; the well-received album was released on Proper American in the summer of 2005. Oldham and his wife Karen have been living in Rogersville, Alabama — “close to home,” he says—since 1991.

Penn and Oldham have now been friends and cohorts for nearly a half century. And Moments From This Theatre celebrates, with characteristic understatement, this partnership for the ages, providing captivating evidence of their continuing “chemical deal together,” which adds up to quiet brilliance.

Dan Penn Talks About Some of His Hits

“I’m Your Puppet”: “We’d done our usual, which was go get a barbecue plate or a burger. Then we came to the studio, and I had just bought a little 12-string that sounded pretty good, so I just started playin’ [voices the guitar line from the song], and Spooner just slid in with [we makes the familiar keyboard sound]. Next thing you know, we’re into this song. I started writin’ stuff down, we cut a little demo on it and me and Rick came up to Nashville and put some strings on it. Actually, it was a record that was out on me, I believe on MGM, but it was called ‘The Puppet’—wasn’t no ‘Your.’ My little record didn’t do anything, and it went to the demo file. So when Spooner brought the Purify brothers in, they went to the demo file and they picked that one out. When they started singin’ it, they sang ‘I’m your puppet’—they couldn’t remember, I guess. And I didn’t like it anyway; I thought it was too fast, kind of a rip-off of Sam & Dave, I thought. At least that’s what I was thinkin’ then. Later on, when it came out and became a hit, I loved it. It was easy to get on board later.”

“Out of Left Field”
: “People say it’s a baseball metaphor, but I always think it’s a farm metaphor, like an old tractor bringin’ some hay in. The chords Spooner came up with and the places we went are kinda strange. I just love it ’cause it’s a heck of a way to say ‘She walked in out of nowhere.’”

“Do Right Woman, Do Right Man”: In January 1967, Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler brought Aretha Franklin to Fame to record “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You.” In an interview with British journalist Neil Rushton, Penn recalled the scene. “When she walked in she was like a young queen. Most of the guys in the studio pretended not to be paying too much attention to her, but they were looking at her from the corner of their eyes. She appeared so calm, but I knew she was scared to death. She just sat down at the piano, calmly took a deep breath, lifted her hand up and then just hit the unknown chord! The instant she did that all the guys stopped eating or talking or whatever and just headed for their guitars and drums to play. You just knew history was going to be made that day.”

Wexler okayed the recording of “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man’ as a perfect b-side, provided that Penn was able to come up with a usable bridge on the spot. A few minutes into the job, Aretha came up to him. “She said, ‘Dan, bay-bee, what you got?’ I said, ‘This is what I’ve got, Aretha: “They say it’s a man’s world, but you can’t prove that by me,”’ and she comes right back and says, ‘I’ve got the next line: “As long as we’re together baby, show some respect for me.”’ And I said, ‘Thank you, Aretha.

But Wexler canceled the session the next day, choosing instead to cut the two sides in New York. Penn and co-writer Chips Moman flew up to check out the results. “We went to the Atlantic building up in the elevator and Jerry Wexler says, ‘Dan, you and Chips come with me. He took us to the Atlantic studio control room and played us what they done to our little song. Aretha had redone the vocals, they had added her sisters (Erma and Carolyn) and I was hearing this big, big sound. It was astonishing, one of the most amazing moments in my life.”

“The Dark End of the Street”: “We tracked at Hi, and a few weeks later we bought James Carr to American and did his vocal overdubs and I did some background vocals,” Penn told Rushton. “We thought James was fantastic; he had made some good records before, and we knew we had made a good record. Did we realize it was going to become hailed as a masterpiece? Not really, but I liked the song and the record a lot. What did I think of Aretha’s version? There are no other versions, not even mine!”

Now, Penn explains further: “I’ve heard other people sing it besides James Carr, but they weren’t thinkin’ about the lyric. I’ve heard a lot of ‘heady’ versions of it, a lot of singers that are mentally right up there, but you can tell that they’re not thinkin’ about those words. Singers shouldn’t be thinkin’ of anything except what that lyric means to him. And if that lyric don’t mean nothin’ to him, he shouldn’t be cuttin’ that song. That’s why writers are so good when they sing their own songs—because those words actually meant somethin’ to them somewhere along the line. Then you don’t have a chance, really, to mess up. If you start thinkin’, you’re in trouble.”

“You Left the Water Running": Otis Redding did a demo for me on ‘You Left the Water Running,’” Penn told Rushton. “I got to be around him the day he cut Arthur Conley on ‘Sweet Soul Music’ at Fame. Otis was the most effective record producer I have ever seen.”

“Cry Like a Baby”: “Everybody thinks I coaxed [Alex Chilton] into doing a lot of vocal tricks, but it’s not true—he just had it. The only thing I ever told that young man to do was sing ‘aeroplane’ instead of ‘airplane’ on ‘The Letter’—I was just tryin’ to make it flow better. Anyway, we’d had a big hit on ‘The Letter’ [which Penn produced], and around ‘Neon Rainbow,’ the record company started talkin’ about wantin’ ‘The Letter #2,’ and I’d go, ‘No, I don’t do sequels.’ I was pretty adamant, and still am, about that. But I did know we had to go uptempo. Nobody would send me any songs and nothin’ was comin’ to me, so I called Spooner and said, ‘Spooner, we’re gonna have to write this next Box Tops hit.’ ‘Ok. When do you wanna start?’ I said, ‘Well, tomorrow night.’ ‘OK.’ We stayed in the studio two or three days, we’d write stuff down, tear it up. We were doin’ everything we could to write a song—stayin’ up, drinkin’ coffee—but nothin’ was happenin’ and we were dead. So I said, ‘Spooner, I guess we just need to go on home and forget about it. We just didn’t catch any this time.’ ‘OK.’

“So we went over across the street to a place called Porky’s to have a meal. We were sittin’ there lookin’ at each other all dejected, and Spooner just laid his head on the table and said, ‘I could just cry like a baby.’ I said ‘That’s it!’ I’m sure my eyes must’ve flashed. I said, ‘To hell with the food. Here’s some money—just keep it.’ By the time we got halfway across the street, I was already singin’, ‘When I think about the good love you gave me, I cry like a baby.’ And then the key was in the lock to open the studio back up, and I said, ‘Spooner, you run to the organ, piano or whatever you wanna play; I’ll get the lights on and the gear runnin’ again. So I got the lights on and he was crankin’ up the little organ. I had the mike open, I got one of the machines going, I put on a reel of tape, went out into the studio and we wrote it before that reel of tape was done. After we did that, it was just like we’d had eight hours of sleep. Alex was supposed to be there the next morning at 10 o’clock, so my back was against the wall, and it was just like it dropped out of the sky. They came in, I gave it to Alex, everybody loved it and we cut it in a few takes. So there’s nothin’ like right now. When you try your best, I think the Lord just gives you somethin’, you know?”

# # #