Various Artists - Do Right Men: A Tribute to Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham (2017)

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Do Right Men: A Tribute to Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham

Muscle Shoals, Ala. was an unlikely locale for a laboratory of inter-racial artistic cooperation, and it is about the last place anyone would put a studio that stands as one of the capitals of 1960s era soul music. The Alabama of the 1960s was state that strictly enforced, cradle to grave legal segregation that outlawed everything from interracial marriage to interracial checkers playing. The Alabama of the 1960s is the state of “Bombingham,” and where George Wallace first applied the racialized populism on a state level that quickly went national.

Do Right Men: A Tribute to Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham

Muscle Shoals, Ala. was an unlikely locale for a laboratory of inter-racial artistic cooperation, and it is about the last place anyone would put a studio that stands as one of the capitals of 1960s era soul music. The Alabama of the 1960s was state that strictly enforced, cradle to grave legal segregation that outlawed everything from interracial marriage to interracial checkers playing. The Alabama of the 1960s is the state of “Bombingham,” and where George Wallace first applied the racialized populism on a state level that quickly went national.

Yet, two white Alabama kids were transfixed by the sounds of Ray Charles and other R&B artists that they heard on the radio (neither Wallace nor the White Citizen Councils could sanction radio waves for race mixin’). One of them, Wallace Daniel “Dan Penn” Pennington, came to Muscle Shoals with the music of Ray Charles ringing in his head and fronting a band that covered his songs. Dewey Lindon “Spooner” Oldham, the man who became Penn’s longtime collaborator for a number hits in the last half of the 1960s, decided music making was for him after receiving $12 for a gig and realizing writing songs and playing keyboards was more enjoyable than earning an equivalent amount picking cotton.

The two met and hit it off professionally and they also became good friends. The friendship made it easy for Penn and Oldham to spend hours writing songs, and the two soon became a country-soul hit factory: “I’m Your Puppet,” “Cry Like a Baby,” “Out of Left Field,” “You Really Know How to Hurt a Guy,” “You Left the Water Running” and “Do Right Woman” are just a few of the hit tunes that Penn and Oldham were a part of writing, and which are featured on Do Right Men: A Tribute of Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham.

When producer Jerry Wexler wanted to get grittier arrangements for Aretha Franklin than could be coaxed out of the jazz oriented musicians at Atlantic, he eventually took her to Fame Studios, and the Queen of Soul wound up with “I Never Loved a Man,” as well as  “Do Right Woman,” written by Penn and Chips Moman. The latter tune appears on Do Right Men with vocalist Sandy Jackson Johnson lending vocals that lean more to the country side than the Queen’s church drenched soul. Adding a second ‘voice’ in the form of J.J. Johnson’s saxophone solo frees the song from too faithful a reproduction of Franklin’s version – which is never a good idea.

Stax Records alum Steve Cropper contributes his guitar chops to the Jimmy Hall led “You Left the Water Running,” an effort that must have been especially meaningful to the guitarist, as his good friend and fellow Stax artist Otis Redding cut a version marked by his trademark combination of muscular yet vulnerable vocals.  

Penn and Oldham hail from small town Alabama and both country music and gospel came naturally to them. This project, produced by Scott Ward, leans a bit more to the country side than many of the famous versions cut by R&B artists in the 1960s, but their background meant the Oldham and Penn were able to write country tunes as well. This compilation includes “Is a Bluebird Blue,” a tune made famous by Conway Twitty and features an acoustic version by the duo NMBR 11.

In one respect, Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham’s hit making days were remarkably brief. The mixture of blacks and whites creating music in Alabama was something that challenged convention, and by 1968 the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. upset that delicate balance. Oldham said the dynamic changed for them after King’s assassination. The presence of black executives and songwriters  and the continued production of good music likely helped Stax avoid the same fate even though King got shot in that racially charged city. But even though their time atop the mountain was brief, this compilation reminds us that Penn and Oldham created timeless music that sounds good whether its funked up or countrified. Recommended

By Howard Dukes

 

 
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