When eventually, someone decides to write the definitive history of Southern Soul, Dan Penn’s name will loom large. At last, one of Southern Soul’s reluctant heroes will receive the credit they deserve. A quiet, unassuming man, Dan Penn’s modesty belies that fact that, for over thirty years, he was one of the most influential and successful people in Southern Soul. During that period, Dan worked with Aretha Franklin, Irma Thomas, James Carr, Solomon Burke, Dionne Warwick and Janis Joplin. Along with a variety of songwriting partners, Dan Penn cowrote numerous Southern Soul classics. 

Dan’s most successful songwriting partnership was with Spooner Oldham. Together, they cowrote numerous Southern Soul classics. The songs that Dan and Spooner cowrote are just a few of the near five-hundred tracks Dan Penn cowrote. Many of these were with various other songwriting partners. This includes the twenty-four tracks that feature on Ace Records recent compilation A Road Leading Home-Songs By Dan Penn and Others. It’s the followup to the critically acclaimed and award-winning compilation Sweet Inspiration: The Songs Of Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham which Ace Records released in 2011. 

A Road Leading Home-Songs By Dan Penn and Others features tracks that Dan cowrote with Rick Hall, Chips Moman, Donnie Fritts and Marlin Green. These tracks were covered by everyone by Irma Thomas, The Sweet Inspirations, The Drifters, Esther Phillips, Bobby Patterson, Ronnie Milsap and Albert King. Familiar tracks and hidden gems feature on A Road Leading Home-Songs By Dan Penn and Others, which I’ll tell you about.

Opening A Road Leading Home-Songs By Dan Penn and Others is Ted Taylor’s Without A Woman. Released in 1968, Ted was something of a musical nomad before he signed to Stan Lewis’ Ronn Records.  Without A Woman was the B-side of Honey Lou. Dan cowrote the song with Quin Ivy and Drew Miller. It was recorded at FAME Studios, and produced by Roger Hawkins and Jimmy Johnson of the Muscle Shoals rhythm section. Ted delivery’s is heartfelt, filled with sincerity and emotion, as he sings about what life would be like “Without A Woman” in his life. If the rest of tracks on the compilation are as good, we’re in for a treat.

Covering a track where another artist has already recorded the definitive version, is no-win situation. Regardless of whether the cover version is a minor classic, it’s always going to be second best. This is the case with Roy Hamilton’s cover of Dark End Of The Street. Dan cowrote the track with Chips Moman and in 1967, James Carr recorded the track. While that version will never be surpassed. Roy’s version comes close. Laden with emotion, it’s as if Roy’s lived and experienced, every word of this Southern Soul classic.

For many people, when you mention The Sweet Inspirations, they think of their work as backing singers. However, there’s more to The Sweet Inspirations than that. Formed in 1967, in New York, the released eight albums. Their most successful period was at Atlantic Records, where they recorded five albums between 1967 and 1970. Oh! What A Fool I’ve Been opened their 1967 debut album The Sweet Inspirations. Written by Dan with Spooner Oldham and Darryl Carter, gospel, Southern Soul and hooks are combined by the swinging Sweet Inspirations, soulfully and seamlessly.

By 1965, when The Drifters recorded Far From The Maddening Crowd their career was already twelve years old. This was a track from sixth album I’ll Take You Where Music’s Playing, released on Atlantic Records. Written by Dan Penn and Martin Greene, it was as if they’d written Far From The Maddening Crowd with The Drifters in mind. Spurred on, The Drifters raise the roof, fusing their trademark soulful strains with power and passion.

When someone suggested to Brenda Lee that she cover Do Right Woman, Do Right Man she must have realized that she was facing a near-impossible task. After all Aretha Franklin made this Dan Penn and Chips Moman penned song her own. Brenda’s version is quite different. Her husky, charismatic vocal is filled with emotion as she delivers the familiar lyrics. Then when you expect The Sweet Inspirations to sweep in, you realize they’ve been replaced by strings. They’re no match for The Sweet Inspirations’ fusion of soul and gospel. Despite this, Brenda Lee charismatic, husky vocal gives a familiar track a new twist.

Esther Phillips is one of these artists who should’ve enjoyed much more critical acclaim and commercial success than she did. As Little Esther Phillips, she enjoyed a degree of commercial success. Sadly, later, the success she’d enjoyed started to elude her. Sidetracked by personal problems, Esther never fulfilled her true potential. The most successful period of her career was at Kudu, during the seventies. Before that, she was signed to Atlantic, and released five albums. Cheater Man was one of the final singles Esther released on Atlantic. Written by Dan and Chips Moman, Esther combines charisma, sass and power. Soon, this slice of Southern Soul starts to swing, thanks to one of music’s best kept secrets.

From the opening bars of Percy Sledge’s Rainbow Road, you realize that something special is about to unfold. Soon, you realize that this is a minor Southern Soul classic. Dripping in emotion and sadness, Percy paints pictures with Dan and Donnie Fritts lyrics.  Shut your eyes and you can see the scenes unfold before your eyes. You experience Percy’s hurt and sadness, as he grows old and weary dreaming of that Rainbow Road.

Irma Thomas’ Zero Willpower # 2 finds The Soul Queen Of New Orleans back to her best.Taken from 2000s My Heart’s In Memphis-The Songs Of Dan Penn. Penned by Dan, Spooner Oldham and Donnie Fritts, Irma delivers a heartfelt, Magnus Opus. Power, passion and emotive reading of this track. The result is a track that’s not only captivating and enthralling, but the highlight of A Road Leading Home-Songs By Dan Penn and Others.

Ronnie Milsap’s I Hate You was the first song Dan wrote that gave him a hit in the country charts. Previously, Dan’s music had been heard be a pop or R&B audience. This meant a whole new audience were hearing his music for the first time. Written by Dan and Leroy Daniels, it’s like an outpouring of emotion, frustration and hatred. Years and years of little things all come to the surface and Ronnie almost spits out the words: “I Hate You.”

Closing A Road Leading Home-Songs By Dan Penn and Others is Albert King’s Like A Road Leading Home. Written by Dan and Don Nix, this track closed the veteran bluesman’s 1971 album Lovejoy. Released on Stax and produced by Don Nix, a bluesy, soulful, soul-baring song unfolds. Vaguely reminiscent of Dark End Of The Street, it shows a very different, much more sensitive side to Albert King’s music.

To compile A Road Leading Home-Songs By Dan Penn and Others, compilers Bob Dunham and Tony Rounce have dug deep. They’ve discovered a compelling collection of tracks. Mind you, they’d plenty of choice. After all, Dan Penn wrote nearly five-hundred tracks during his long, illustrious and successful career. With so many tracks to choose from, narrowing this down to a mere twenty-four couldn’t have been easy. What Bob and Tony have chosen is a mixture of familiar tracks, classics and hidden gems. Each sit comfortably side-by-side on A Road Leading Home-Songs By Dan Penn and Others. 

Many of these tracks on Do Right Woman, Do Right Man will be familiar, but not the versions of the tracks. Rather than include James Carr’s version of Dark End Of The Street. Roy Hamilton’s version is chosen. Similarly, Brenda Lee’s cover of Do Right Woman, Do Right Man is chosen rather than Aretha’s definitive, classic version. Both bring something new to each track. Having said that, surpass such stonewall classics was always a long-shot. However, there’s much more to Do Right Woman, Do Right Man than these track.

Apart from these tracks, Do Right Woman, Do Right Man reads like a who’s who of soul. Percy Sledge, The Drifters, Esther Phillips, Irma Thomas, The Sweet Inspirations and Bobby Patterson. Then there’s the country sound of Ronnie Milsap and veteran bluesman Albert King. It seems whether an artist was singing soul, R&B, country or blues, Dan Penn was just as comfortable writing songs for them. That’s something many other songwriters aren’t capable of. Dan Penn was no ordinary songwriter. 

Describing Dan Penn as a songwriter as a songwriter is an understatement. He’s also a singer, musician and producer. Dan was just as comfortable working as a producer and produced The Box Tops, Esther Phillips, Solomon Burke and Patti LaBelle and The Bluebells. Then there was Dan’s career as a singer songwriter. Although it neither replicated the success he enjoyed as a songwriter, nor producer, Dan released a series of well received albums. It seemed that whatever Dan Penn did, he did well. Despite this, Dan Penn remains a quiet, unassuming and modest man. A Road Leading Home-Songs By Dan Penn and Others is Ace Records’ fitting and lovingly compiled tribute to a true legend of Southern Soul, Dan Penn. Standout Tracks: The Sweet Inspirations Oh! What A Fool I’ve Been, Esther Phillips Cheater Man, Percy Sledge Rainbow Road and Irma Thomas Zero Willpower # 2.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: