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American Routes Shortcuts: Dan Penn

Dan Penn
American Routes
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We’re delving deep into the words and music of Dan Penn, whose songs made the charts with so many great artists from Aretha Franklin to Conway Twitty and the Box Tops. Born Wallace Daniel Pennington on a farm along the Mississippi-Alabama border, Dan Penn gained some of his musical knowledge in the Methodist church, where his father led the singing. He was also drawn deeply to the blues. Penn sang dozens of demos, while working as a songwriter at Fame Recording Studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama with his friend and co-writer, pianoman Spooner Oldham. We started our conversation with Dan talking about the early days when he had a surprise hit, his first, with rockabilly Conway Twitty in 1960.

 

 

Dan Penn: I started calling square dances in this little band up in Sulligent, Alabama, which is ten miles north of Vernon, and Benny Cagle and the Rhythm Swingsters was the band. This cat played drums with a fiddle bow, and he just did square dances, and then he would go to a rock and roll song or something, and he’d go ahead and play with the fiddle bow. And he was good! In that band was a guy named Billy Sherrill.

Nick Spitzer: The great producer. 

DP: The great producer. Well he was playing electric saxophone at that time. One night after the thing, he come over and said, “I hear you write songs.” I said, “Yeah, I write 'em.” I thought I did anyway. And he said, “Play me one.” I played him one, and he said, “Why don't you come up to Florence? We've got a studio up there. We might cut a record on you.” 

NS: This is Florence, Alabama, in the Tri-Cities.

DP: Florence, Alabama, yeah. So I went up there, I didn't cut a record that day, but I did put those four songs down on the little tape recorder and went on back to Vernon and didn't think much more about it. And this guy came down from Nashville and heard the song, Gary Walker, took it to Conway Twitty. And next thing I know, I'm in the music business, you know. 

DP: What I really liked about it was Tom Stafford, he ran the SPAR place up there–

NS: That little studio over the drugstore. The famous little studio.

DP:  Where Billy and Rick and everybody was, and I met everybody I ever met up there. Anyway, Tom called me, and he said, “You know, you got a song on the charts.” And I said, “What's a chart?” He said, “Well, it's what they show what's new and what's making it and what ain't.” He said, “It's moving up ten places every week.” I said, “Great!” He said, “Do you know what that means?” He said, “You need to sign with BMI.” He said, “They'll give you some front money.” I said, “Oh, they will?” And he said, “Yeah.” So he said, “How much money you need?” And I said, “Send me $700.” And my uncle had a '54 Chevy I'd been trying to buy. You know, I asked him, “If you're going to sell it, what would you have to have for it Uncle Ruben?” He studied a little bit. He said, “Oh, I guess I'd have to have about $700.” That was back when that was a lot of money. And he knew I had no money so he could price it. So anyway, I went back down there, and I had my money in my pocket, and I said, “I come after this car.” And he said, “I told you it ain't for sale.” I said, “I thought I heard you say you would take $700 for it.” And he said, “I don't remember that.” About that time I pulled out my $700. I said, “Well, if you do want to sell it here, I've got the money.” He looked at money, he looked at that car, and he looked at me. He'd go around and around. Finally he snatched the money. He said, “Give me the money.” He said, “I'm a man of my word.”

NS: I love it. I love it. So “Is A Blue Bird Blue” got you that '54 Chevy.

DP: That got me my '54 Chevy. What else in life do you need?

NS: At that point not a whole lot! 

To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.