Dan Penn: 'A Little Something I Like' in Music The late 1960s were the golden age of Soul music. In studios located in Muscle Shoals, Ala., and Memphis, Tenn., legends like Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge and Otis Redding were recording songs that proved timeless. And many of them were made with Dan Penn.

Dan Penn: 'A Little Something I Like' in Music

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(Soundbite of song Do Right Woman, Do Right Man)


The late '60s were the Golden Age of soul music. Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, Otis Redding and many others were recording songs that proved timeless.

(Soundbite of song You Left the Water Running)

Mr. OTIS REDDING (Singer): (Singing) You left on the water running when you left me behind...

MONTAGNE: Many of those classics came from Dan Penn, one of the best and most consistent songwriters of soul. Dan Penn recently was lured out of semi-retirement to produce and write music for a new band. He played some of his songs and spoke with Ashley Kahn about his newest project.

(Soundbite of The Dark End of the Street)

Mr. JAMES CARR (Singer): (Singing) At the dark end of the street...

ASHLEY KAHN reporting:

In the '60s and '70s, James Carr was one of the many soul singers who benefited from the pen of Dan Penn. He's a songwriter with an uncanny ability to create the words and music that allow singers to reach deep within, deliver music filled with emotional power and make time stand still.

(Soundbite of song) )

Unidentified Man: (Singing) I feel like I'm dyin'. Oh, I must be dyin'...

Mr. DAN PENN (Songwriter): It took a lot of effort for a white person to write rhythm and blues, even in the '60s. It took the white person, me, and the black person, the artist, standing there saying, come on, bring it to me, you know, let's have a song.

KAHN: Penn wrote songs that became well-known hits for not only singers, but also gospel groups...

(Soundbite of song Sweet Inspiration)

THE SWEET INSPIRATIONS (Musical Group): (Singing) I need your sweet inspiration...

KAHN: And even bands that delivered blue-eyed soul.

(Soundbite of song The Letter)

THE BOX TOPS (Singing Group): (Singing) Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane. Ain't got time to take a fast train. Lonely days are gone, I'm a-goin' home. My baby, she wrote me a letter...

KAHN: Dan Penn was born in Alabama in 1941. He took up the guitar and grew up playing country, rockabilly and a lot of blues. I asked him to play the one tune that best reflects his musical personality and his choice was interesting, since he remained on the sidelines while others sang his songs and got the spotlight.

Mr. PENN: I guess I'd play I'm Your Puppet. That's pretty much what I think it is. Lot of things you could play but...

(Soundbite of song I'm Your Puppet)

Mr. PENN: (Singing) Pull a string and I'll kiss your lips, I'm your puppet. Snap your fingers and I'll turn you some flips, I'm your puppet. Your every wish is my command. All you gotta do is wiggle your little hand, I'm your puppet.

(Speaking) To me it's a true R&B song. In my heyday, I guess that's what I was trying to do. By that I mean I didn't want to hear anything that wasn't R&B inspired. That's how big a blinders I had on.

(Soundbite of Is a Blue Bird Blue?)

KAHN: Despite Penn's passion for R&B music, it was a country song that first put the teenager on the map in 1960.

Mr. PENN: Is a Blue Bird Blue? was my first hit, and Conway Twitty. The way I got that is this ol' boy kept saying one night all night long any time anybody'd ask him a question, hey, Jed, you want a Coke? Is a blue bird blue? Did you make out last night? Is a blue bird blue?

I thought, you know, that'd make a good little song.

(Soundbite of Is a Blue Bird Blue?)

Mr. CONWAY TWITTY (Singer): (Singing) And I wouldn't be at all surprised, is a blue bird blue? Can a big wheel roll? Mmmm, if a blue bird's blue, then honey, I love you.

KAHN: There's a down-home conversational quality in Penn's lyrics and there's always a strong rhythmic feel, whether it's a country or a soul song.

Mr. PENN: I like a good groove. I'm not looking for a big mental statement. Just give me a groove and tell me a little something I like.

KAHN: For more than 25 years, Dan Penn has lived in Nashville, where he's had success writing hits for singers like Ronnie Milsap. But his lasting love of soul makes him feel a bit like a stranger in the home of country music.

(Soundbite of country music)

Mr. PENN: I appreciate Nashville. It's a good city to live in. But you know, I've never really been a big fan of the Nashville sound, I have to say.

KAHN: Nonetheless, Penn recently returned to the studio to produce and write music for a new band from Tucson, Arizona, The Hacienda Brothers

(Soundbite of song What's Wrong With Right?)

THE HACIENDA BROTHERS (Musical Group): (Singing) So what's wrong with right? Do I hold you too tight?

Mr. PENN: These boys, the Hacienda Brothers, they've been taking me to school in the old country.

(Soundbite of song What's Wrong With Right?)

THE HACIENDA BROTHERS: (Singing) And what's wrong with love? Don't we fit like a glove?

KAHN: The Hacienda Brothers sing both classic country and soul ballads with equal conviction. You could call it the DNA of the core of their second album, What's Wrong With Right?

(Soundbite of song It Tears Me Up)

THE HACIENDA BROTHERS: (Singing) I see you smile at him, never tire of him...

Mr. PENN: They had the idea about bridging country and soul. But, you know, all music is soulful. Gospel quartet is soulful. I mean, a good opera is mighty soulful, you know?

(Soundbite of song It Tears Me Up)

THE HACIENDA BROTHERS: (Singing) And it tears me up. It tears me up. There ain't nothin' I can do about it, baby...

KAHN: At the age of 64, Penn is proud of his place in Nashville, but remains dedicated to his first love, rhythm and blues. Every once in awhile he tours, playing the songs that helped teach America about a thing called soul.

(Soundbite of song The Dark End of the Street)

Mr. PENN: (Singing) At the dark end of the street, that's where we always meet...

MONTAGNE: Ashley Kahn is the author of The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. The Hacienda Brothers' second CD, What's Wrong With Right?, has just been released.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Mr. PENN: (Singing) At the dark end of the street, you and me...

(Speaking) I'm not a James Carr, but...

KAHN: That'll do.

Mr. PENN: That'll do.

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