Dan Penn Walks Down Memory Lane, A Story That Leads to ‘Living on Mercy’

Dan Penn is best known as the songwriter behind songs such as “The Dark End of the Street,” “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” “Cry like a Baby” and “I’m Your Puppet.” But he started out as a singer, and he’s a singer still. Even today, at age 78, he’s still working the mic; this month he released the enjoyable album, Living on Mercy, full of the same kind of compact, hooky, country-soul songs that made him famous.

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In the early ‘60s, Penn was the lead singer in Mark V, a band that gigged around northern Alabama. His bandmates (pianist David Briggs, bassist Norbert Putnam, drummer Jerry Carrigan and guitarist Terry Thompson) were the house band at the legendary FAME studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. They developed such a reputation that the backing musicians were lured to the big money in Nashville, leaving their singer behind.

“They went to Nashville and left me alone in Muscle Shoals,” Penn remembers. “I’m sitting there, looking at the door, feeling dejected and rejected. And I told myself, ‘What are you feeling blue about? All you have to do is walk through that door and learn everything you can about producing, engineering and writing.’ And that’s what I did. I went through that door, and I didn’t come back for 25 years. I was basically a fly on the wall. Do you need a burger or a coke? I’ll go get it for you. Do you need a song? I’ll write it for you.”

Rick Hall, the owner of FAME and its primary producer, gradually gave Penn more and more responsibility. Hall would let his protégé do a little engineering, a little singing, a little writing. It was the best possible education in the music business.

“Now people go to school to learn all this,” Penn says over the phone from his Nashville home, “but it’s more personal like I did it. And if Rick Hall tells you something, it means something more than if some guy at school tells you. Rick would say, ‘I’ve got a singer coming in, and I need a song by Thursday.’ I was young and had a lot of energy, so I did it. The songs were pretty good, even when they weren’t hits.”

When he wrote those songs, his co-writer was most often Spooner Oldham, the keyboardist in the new house band at FAME. By now, Penn had a key to the studio, so he and Oldham could come in at night after the paying customers were gone. That made a big difference, because they could try out their new songs on really good equipment. Everything sounded better, and that encouraged them. “We’d write two or three songs a night,” Penn remembers, “and one of them might be good.”

When Hall traveled to Nashville to pitch some of those songs to producers Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins, he brought Penn along. “Owen and Chet would play the tape for a little bit,” Penn recalls, “then jump to the next song. They’d listen to that for a little bit and then jump to the next one, the same with all the songs. When we were driving back to Muscle Shoals, I asked Rick, ‘Why didn’t they listen to my whole song?’ He didn’t know, but I figured maybe I should move all the good stuff to the front. I’d been holding the title back, but now I was going to move it up.”

So when he and Oldham worked on a new song after that trip, Penn put the title in the first couplet: “Pull the string, and I’ll wink at you; I’m the puppet.” Penn had just bought a Stella 12-string guitar, and he checked the tuning by playing chiming harmony notes. Oldham added some piano underneath. ”I’ll do funny things, if you want me to,” Penn added in his handsome high tenor, “I’m the puppet.” They added some strings and sold the track to MGM Records in 1965. Nothing happened.

A year later, Pensacola producer Don Schoeder brought James and Bobby Purify, a new duo in the Sam & Dave vein, to FAME. They had that “sweet soul music” sound, but they didn’t have any songs. So Hall sent them upstairs to a room where all the songs in FAME catalogue where on reel-to-reel tapes that could be played on a Wollensak recorder.

A few hours later, Schroeder came back with a song he liked: “I’m the Puppet.” He and his two singers changed the hook to “I’m Your Puppet” and gave it more of a soul feel. Penn was the engineer on the session and Oldham the keyboardist.

“I was a bit touchy back in those days,” Penn admits, “and I didn’t think much of what they were doing. I felt like they were messing with my song, to tell you the truth. But when I heard it later on the radio, it sounded better to me. And when I got that first check for $4,000, I thought it was the best record I’d ever heard. When I got that big check, I said, ‘OK, I’m a real songwriter.’ I got a lot more confidence and it started to click.”

That’s the way it is in the music business. If you don’t know which career path to take, the business will tell you. When Penn had more success in songwriting than singing, he began to focus on the former. He wrote not only with Oldham but also with Chips Moman, Donnie Fritts, Carson Whitsett, Bobby Emmons, Bucky Lindsey and Buzz Cason. These partnerships, forged during Penn’s youth in the ‘60s, have endured across the decades; Oldham, Whitsett, Lindsay and Cason all contribute to the songs on Living on Mercy.

“I write some songs on my own—two of them are on the new album—but I prefer co-writing,” Penn says. “For one thing, it’s a lonely deal if you’re alone, because everything stays inside you. When you’re writing with someone else, it comes out and gets some air. If you write by yourself, you don’t know what you’ve got, because you don’t have anyone to ask. Plus it’s a lot more fun to hang out with someone that you like. But a lot of guys write by themselves. Wayne Carson, who wrote ‘The Letter,’ would get up in the morning, have a coffee and write three songs. And two of them would be good.”

Penn and Carson did get together to co-write both the title track of Living on Mercy, a midtempo, broken-hearted soul lament, as well as the Stonesy rocker, “Edge of Love.” Two of the album’s best songs were co-written with Ernie and Earl Cate, leaders of the legendary Arkansas roots-rock band, the Cate Brothers. “Soul Connection” is a snappy R&B number with a chirping guitar riff, while “Blue Motel” is an R&B ballad about the site of an ongoing adultery and its final breakup. In the final verse, Penn sings, “It’s a long way from paradise to the dark end of the street.”

That, of course, is an allusion to Penn’s most enduring song, “The Dark End of the Street,” a top-10 R&B hit for James Carr in 1966. Penn and Moman wrote it in half an hour on a break from a poker game during a country-music radio convention in Nashville.

“It didn’t seem like a big deal,” Penn says today, “until I heard James Carr sing it. He gave it a depth it needed. We had cut the backing tracks with Chip’s players but without James over at Hi Records, because Chip’s studio was being renovated. Finally the repairs at American were done, and we cut the vocals there. James was singing it but not with the fire we thought it needed.

“Chip said, ‘Go out there and sing it for him.’ So I went out there and said, ‘James, give me the mic and let me show you how I do it.’ He looked at me kind of funny, but he gave me the mic. I gave it everything I had, and the very next take he had it. I said, ‘Chip, do you have an empty track?” He said he did, and I said, ‘I have an idea; let me put it down.’ And I sang the harmony like a black woman and that’s what you hear on the record.”

The astonishing recording that resulted sounded like holy-roller gospel, even if the lyrics were about an adulterous affair. “At the dark end of the street,” Carr sang in his immense low tenor as if confessing his sins in church, “that’s where we always meet, hiding in shadows where we don’t belong, living in darkness to hide our wrongs.” Carr’s Penn-modeled performance inspired dozens of others to try the song themselves—singers as diverse as Aretha Franklin and Elvis Costello, Gram Parsons and Cat Power.

The song’s religious flavor made sense, because Penn’s first exposure to music was in the churches of his childhood home: Vernon, Alabama. “Daddy would lead the singing,” he recalls, “and Mama would play the piano. I was in the front row just hollering, and Daddy would come over and say, ‘Hold it down a little.’ I was always loud and full of energy.” At first the young Penn would listen to country music on WVOK in Birmingham, but then he discovered WLAC out of Nashville.

“The disc jockeys were white, but they were playing R&B, blues and black gospel,” Penn explains. “It was unlike anything I’d heard. They played Jimmy Reed and all that stuff, but I also heard Reverend Franklin and the preachers. I soaked it all in and it came out in my songwriting. I was barely a teenager. Then I got into Elvis and Jerry Lee and all that white stuff. But when Elvis started making movies, I slid off that. Luckily, Ray Charles came along, and he was my guy.”

That’s why Penn could not only write for the top soul singers in the Muscle Shoals/Memphis studios, but he could also sing the song for them in a way that raised the bar that they had to clear in their own vocal. As good as he was at songwriting, though, Penn had a hankering to do some producing. Hall didn’t want to share those duties, so Penn moved to Memphis where Moman promised him a spot behind the control board.  

“I don’t know why,” Penn says, “but I had a hunger to do it. I’d seen all these people produce, and I realized there wasn’t a whole lot to it. Some producers get the gig just because of politics. I co-produced some sessions with Moman, but I ended up just saying, ‘Yep’ or ‘Nope,’ when he asked if I liked something.

“I told Moman one night, ‘I want to cut a record on my own, without you around. Give me your worst artist, and I’ll give you a hit.’ That was the Box Tops. Finally I didn’t have anyone in the studio but me. But when I heard the group, I didn’t like their singer. So I said, ‘Find another singer and come back in two weeks.’ They came back with Alex Chilton; we cut ‘The Letter,’ and it was a hit.”

Wayne Carson’s “The Letter” was #1; the follow-up, Carson’s “Neon Rainbow,” was #24, and the third single, Penn and Oldham’s “Cry Like a Baby,” was #2. “But the Box Tops was just a one-time thing,” Penn admits; “I had just wanted to prove something to myself. After that, I didn’t care that much. I had made up my own set of rules about how to cut a record, so I was a wild cat in the studio. I’d play on my head if I thought it sounded good. I was a little too unorthodox for some people.”

Having scratched his producing itch, Penn went back to his main focus: co-writing songs with his friends. Producers and artists kept asking him for songs, and that made it easy to write.

“If I look in somebody’s eyes,” Penn says, “I can tell how they’re feeling, and a song title will come to me. But that only happens when I’m looking for a song. Sometimes, I’m just living my life and not looking for a song. It’s that need for a song, the sense that someone needs a song that gets me going.

“I like to start with a title. Once you have a title, you’ve got something to hang onto. No matter what happens in the session, you always know where you’re going. And if you hit a dead end, you can back up and start over again. ‘Cry like a Baby’ is a really good title, but it took us two days of talking before we got it. ‘I Do,’ one of my old songs that I put on this new album, is a good title. I’ve always liked short titles, because they’re easier to remember.”

Now that he’s 78, the thrilling luster of his younger voice has worn off, and he had to get over on the strength of his canny phrasing. The titles keep coming to him, but not as often.

“I’d like to write a song every day,” he confesses, “but I’m an older guy now, and I don’t have as much energy. When I set up an appointment with someone, I pray, “God, I need a title, and if you can’t give it to me, give it to him.’”

Check out our review on Living on Mercy. Order or download it on this smartlink.

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