Sunday, February 22, 2009

A Memphis Melody

On September 20, 2008, I had the pleasure of hearing former American Studios/Press Music Co. staff writer Dan Penn and Memphis Boy keyboardist Bobby Emmons perform at Fort Payne, Alabama’s Boom Days First Federal Songwriters’ Showcase. The show had the feel and tone of a roomful of old friends listening to a couple of old friends playing their favorite songs… An intimate setting and a night I’ll never forget.

After being moved to tears, “whoo”-ing, cheering – essentially making a fool of myself throughout the whole show, I had the honor of meeting these gentlemen after the set. As a 37-year-old who started out 17 years ago as a DJ spinning their songs on vinyl (a job I couldn’t believe someone would actually pay me money to do), these guys are iconic legends to me. Just getting to shake their hands – as I stammered and trembled – and pose for a picture was overwhelming.

As a fellow Alabamian, Dan Penn is one of the many musicians who hail from my home state who make me so very proud. A native of Vernon (in Lamar County – where I also have scads of family), Dan cut his teeth on the R&B he heard on his little green radio, listening to Nashville’s WLAC late at night when he was supposed to be in bed. He was still in high school when he wrote “Is a Bluebird Blue,” recorded in 1960 (# 35, b/w “She's Mine”) by Friar’s Point, Mississippi-born Harold Lloyd Jenkins (née Conway Twitty).

Energized by the triumph of that hit, Penn trekked northward on Highway 17 to Florence to form “Dan Penn and the Pallbearers,” a band that traveled to gigs throughout the Southeast in a hearse. I can just imagine that sight! But the guys did know how to market themselves, no? Among their ranks emerged the first FAME Studios rhythm section, playing on historic Arthur Alexander records such as "You Better Move On" and "A Shot of Rhythm and Blues.” Penn’s FAME duties would include songwriting, engineering and cutting an occasional side of his own.

Over the years, many kindred spirits weaned on that same R&B gold beaming through crackling transistor radios joined forces in Florence and then Muscle Shoals, once heralded as “the hit recording capital of the world.” Though some 150 miles apart, Muscle Shoals and Memphis were sister cities joined at the soul musically – and it was a natural move for the songwriters and musicians to commute between the two in practicing their craft. Penn met up with fellow Alabamian Dewey Lyndon “Spooner” Oldham, with whom he quickly formed a bond that stands to this day. This dynamic Bama duo estimates they’ve written between 400 and 500 songs since 1967! In the late 1960’s, they found themselves as staff writers at American Studios as part of Press Music Co. Hundreds of artists have recorded their gems, much to our enjoyment.

After the show last September, I picked up Dan’s albums, Junkyard Junky and Blue Nite Lounge. It’s difficult to pick a favorite among all these great, soul-stirring songs (that I’ve listened to over and over). They are all sincere, soulful, melodic and just outstanding. But I just have to mention the haunting "Holding On To God," which has an interesting story of being recorded in a 173-year-old church with a 140-year-old pipe organ – and ends with the comforting sound of a rainstorm. Now, how did he know I love listening to rain on a tin roof? Any soul reared in the country has a special affinity for that sound... All that great music, plus the ambient sounds of a spring shower that made me feel like I was there on that fishing trip with them. It took me back to my youth.

Also, for pretty obvious reasons, “Down Around Birmingham” was one I wanted to hear – and its snappy tune and bright lyrics had me up dancing. That was quite a feat considering I was still recovering from surgery. Only Dan Penn could get me on my feet ("see you later, gator.. down around Birmingham!") Then with the reverent reminiscences of “A Memphis Melody,” I found myself wiping away tears. Dan takes us on a musical tour of the town that all these guys still carry with them in their hearts. Mine too. I could envision those streets in my mind's eye. When he sang the line, “Hello, Mr. Chips… Where you been? Ain’t it great to be American?” – well, that was it. It sets the tears flowing like a faucet everytime I hear it. Hey Dan… you left the water running! I wonder what Mr. Chips thinks of that song – and if he knows how much he's truly appreciated?

Dan has a great website – and his albums can be found here:

There is so much more to say about the work of Dan Penn... the unassuming, Liberty overall-clad Southern R&B master, but I’ll share these links that capture some of his contributions rather nicely. This NPR interview is excellent… and we need more pieces such as this to remind everyone just what greats these guys are. They all deserve so much credit!

This is a great Rolling Stone article (although Vernon isn’t in south Alabama; it’s in northwest Alabama):

I’ll have more on Dan and Bobby at this year’s Eighth Annual Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans… The Big Easy is in for a real treat with these two.

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