Music Reviews
11:35 am
Wed June 12, 2013

Fame Studios And The Road To Nashville Songwriting Glory

Originally published on Thu June 13, 2013 7:57 am

Wallace Daniel Pennington grew up singing. His father played guitar and his mother played piano, and by the age of 9, the young man had a guitar of his own. The family attended church on Sunday and Wednesday each week, and to this day, Dan Penn says he remembers the entire Methodist congregation belting out hymns.

As his family's only boy, Penn got his own room, and in it was a little green radio he used to smuggle beneath the sheets at night so he could listen to WLAC from Chicago. He particularly favored black gospel music, in which he recognized some of the same feelings his white church music evoked. He started playing in bands, and at one point took over the caller's position in a square-dance combo. One of its musicians was Billy Sherrill, who invited Penn to Florence, Ala., to make a record. Not much came of that, but one day in 1960, one of his songs — "Is a Bluebird Blue" — found its way to Nashville, where Conway Twitty recorded it and turned it into a hit.

The next five years saw Penn writing songs at Fame and playing in a band, Dan Penn and the Pallbearers, at fraternity and bar gigs all over the South. The piano player was an old friend, Donnie Fritts, and they started writing together.

The song "Rainbow Road" convinced Penn he was on the right track, although the artist they wrote it for, Arthur Alexander, didn't cut it for many years and it remained unissued. Then, in 1965, the entire Fame studio band — who were also the Pallbearers — left en masse for Nashville. Penn says he remembers getting the news and sitting in his car in front of the studio feeling awful. He kept staring at the door.

"And then it occurred to me," he told researcher Alec Palao, "that's not only a door, that's the door." Performing was just one way to do what he wanted, and it was contributing to his drinking problem and keeping him poor. He walked in the door, determined to make records, learn to produce and keep writing songs.

The band's departure meant that new musicians arrived almost immediately, including a skinny keyboard player named Spooner Oldham. He and Penn sat down to see if they could write together. As it turned out, they could.

Fame soon became known not only as a place that had a great studio band and a great engineer, but also a place where some of the best songwriters were working. A lot of people took advantage of it. In fact, there was so much good stuff on those Dan Penn demos that a lot of it never got covered.

Penn didn't much like making records himself, and Rick Hall, Fame's owner and engineer, wasn't letting him produce them. In the summer of 1966, another Fame alumnus, Chips Moman, lured Penn to his studio in Memphis, and the first part of Penn's story was over. He would continue to write great songs, of course — and, now that he's older and more comfortable with performing, he plays the occasional gig. But it was at Fame that the Dan Penn legend was cemented.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Dan Penn is one of America's great songwriters and he's written dozens of soul classics, usually in partnership with keyboardist Spooner Oldham. For a while in the '60s the two were on the staff of Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Recently an entire CD of demos from Fame called "Dan Penn: The Fame Recordings" was compiled by Ace Records. Rock historian Ed Ward has a review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

DAN PENN: (Singing) Well, my rent sure costs a lot and one little room is all I got, but in my eyes it's a castle that I live in. Whoa-whoa-whoa. Because I'm living good, whoa-whoa-whoa, I'm living good. I've got your sweet love, and darling, I'm living mighty good. Sometimes my...

ED WARD, BYLINE: Wallace Daniel Pennington grew up singing. His father played guitar and his mother played piano, and by the age of nine the young man had a guitar of his own. The family attended church on Sunday and Wednesday each week, and to this day Dan remembers the entire Methodist congregation belting out the hymns.

As his family's only boy, he got his own room, and in it was a little green radio he used to smuggle beneath the sheets at night so he could listen to WLAC from Chicago, particularly black gospel music, in which he recognized some of the same feelings his white church music had. He started playing in bands and at one point took over the caller's position in a square-dance combo.

One of its musicians was Billy Sherrill, who invited Penn to Florence, Alabama to make a record. Not much came of that, but he began hanging around and one day in 1960, one of his songs - "Is a Bluebird Blue" - found its way to Nashville, where Conway Twitty recorded it and turned it into a hit.

The next five years saw Penn writing songs at Fame and playing in a band, Dan Penn and the Pallbearers, at fraternity and bar gigs all over the South. The piano player was an old friend, Donnie Fritts, and they started writing together.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAINBOW ROAD")

PENN: (Singing) Uh. Ah. Uh. Ah. I was born of a poor, poor man. All my life I've had hard working hands. But I sing this song as I carry my load. For I had a dream about a rainbow road. And one day a stranger came along and heard me play and sing my song. He bought me fine clothes and gave the money I owed and put me on the way to the rainbow road.

WARD: "Rainbow Road" convinced Dan he was on the right track, although the artist they wrote it for, Arthur Alexander, didn't cut it for many years and it remained unissued. Then, in 1965, the entire Fame Studio band - who were also the Pallbearers - left en masse for Nashville. Penn remembers getting the news and sitting in his car in front of the studio feeling awful. He kept staring at the door.

And then it occurred to me, he told researcher Alec Palao, that's not only a door, that's the door. Performing was just one way to do what he wanted, one that was contributing to his drinking problem and keeping him poor. He walked in the door, determined to make records, learn to produce and keep writing songs.

The band's departure meant that new musicians arrived almost immediately, including a skinny keyboard player named Spooner Oldham. He and Penn sat down to see if they could write together. As it turned out, they could.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M THE PUPPET")

PENN: (Singing) Pull a string and I'll wink at you. I'm the puppet. I'll do funny things if you want me to. I'm the puppet. I'm yours to have and hold. Darling, you've got full control. I'm the puppet.

WARD: Fame soon became known as a place that not only had a great studio band and a great engineer, but a place where some of the best songwriters were working. A lot of people took advantage of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT TEARS ME UP")

PERCY SLEDGE: (Singing) I see you walk with him, see you talk to him. It tears me up. It tears me up. And starts my eyes to crying. Oh, lord, I just can't stop crying. I see you kiss...

WARD: In fact, there was so much good stuff on those Dan Penn demos that a lot of it never got covered.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

PENN: (Singing) The party's going strong but we've been here too long. People everywhere getting in my hair. And the crowd is too loud, too bad. I guess the music is fine. But dancing's not on my mind. I want to hold you near. Girl, let's get out of here. Yeah, come on. Let's be gone. Let's disappear. Far from the maddening crowd. Far from the maddening crowd where we can hide away. And if we want to stay until the break of day we'll be all alone. We'll be on our own.

WARD: Penn didn't much like making records himself, and Rick Hall, Fame's owner and engineer, wasn't letting him produce them. In the summer of 1966, another Fame alumnus, Chips Moman, lured Penn to his studio in Memphis, and the first part of Penn's story was over. He would continue to write great songs, of course, and now that he's older and more comfortable with performing, he plays the occasional gig. But it was at Fame that the Dan Penn legend was cemented.

GROSS: The music Ed Ward played is from "Dan Penn: The Fame Recordings" on Ace Records. You can download podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org and you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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