Director Greg “Freddy” Camalier’s 2013 documentary Muscle Shoals brought some long-overdue attention to Rick Hall’s Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama – a hotbed of southern soul that attracted some of the most notable artists in rock and soul, from The Rolling Stones to Aretha Franklin. But the folks at Ace Records have never overlooked Muscle Shoals’ immeasurable contribution to the sound of American soul. Two recent compilations cast further light on the historic music that made the city a destination on the map.
A Road Leading Home: Songs by Dan Penn and Others is a follow-up to 2010’s Sweet Inspiration: The Songs of Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham as well as 2012’s Dan Penn: The Fame Recordings. Penn is somewhat of an unsung hero of popular music, despite having co-written such classic songs as “I’m Your Puppet,” “Cry Like a Baby,” “Do Right Woman (Do Right Man),” and “The Dark End of the Street.” Sweet Inspiration compiled Penn/Oldham songs by artists including Dionne Warwick, Percy Sledge, Solomon Burke, Tommy Roe and Ronnie Milsap, while the latter offered Penn’s own solo recordings made in Muscle Shoals. The various-artists compilation A Road Leading Home turns the spotlight primarily onto Penn’s songs not written with Spooner Oldham. As such, it’s the latest essential volume to chronicle Penn’s discography. Though Penn is rightly considered an architect of southern soul, his songs were recorded by artists of all genres, as these anthologies show. But at their heart is the sound and style of Muscle Shoals and of Memphis, where Penn relocated in 1966 at the behest of Chips Moman’s American Studios.
A number of artists featured on A Road Leading Home also appeared on Sweet Inspiration, among them Ronnie Milsap, Irma Thomas, Ted Taylor, Percy Sledge, Tommy Roe and, yes, The Sweet Inspirations. Penn and Rick Hall co-wrote Roe’s 1963 “Come On,” a stylistic successor to Roe’s hit “Everybody.” Taylor’s 1968 “Without a Woman” from Penn, Quin Ivy and Drew Miller was a quintessential anguished ballad, much like The Sweet Inspirations’ 1967 “Oh, What I’ve Fool I’ve Been” by Penn, Oldham and Darryl Carter. The girls brought their gospel-influenced sound to the track, arranged by the great Ralph Burns (Broadway’s Sweet Charity, Chicago) with appropriate grit. Irma Thomas offers one of the compilation’s most recent tracks, a smoking 2000 re-cut of Penn, Oldham and Fritts’ “Zero Willpower,” which she had first recorded in the 1970s. Spooner Oldham even plays piano on the tune which lyrically quotes “I’m Your Puppet.”
There are many delightfully surprising inclusions, too, showing off Penn’s stylistic range. Jerry Lee’s sister Linda Gail Lewis’ 1965 “Break Up the Party,” co-written with Oscar Franck and Rick Hall, is a raucous teen rocker as arranged by Ray Stevens and produced by Felton Jarvis. Jeanie Fortune’s obscure “Once More with Feeling” from Penn and Marlin Greene is another rocker, a blend of country and pop with Fortune recalling young Dolly Parton. Penn and Donnie Fritts’ “(Almost Persuaded to Give Him) One More Try,” as sung by Linda Carr, brings to mind Diana Ross fronting the Shangri-Las! And even the quintessential New York uptown soul act The Drifters got into the Penn act, recording Penn and Marlin Greene’s “Far from the Maddening Crowd” in a sublimely brassy Bert Keyes arrangement produced by Bert Berns in 1965. Penn and Roger Hawkins’ “I Can’t Stop,” heard here in a 1968 recording by Jamaica’s Blues Busters, can’t hide its debt to the melody of Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t It Peculiar,” but it’s an intriguing deep-soul spin on Motown.
After the jump: more on Songs by Dan Penn plus details on James Govan’s The Fame Recordings. Plus: full track listings with discography, and order links!
Other treats include Penn’s own, rare “Is a Blue Bird Blue” from one of his two 1965 MGM solo singles, and the Penn/Greene “So Many Reasons,” the B-side of James and Bobby Purify’s Penn/Oldham hit “I’m Your Puppet.” Brenda Lee’s 1970 Memphis Portrait, recorded at Chips Moman’s American Studios, didn’t become another Dusty in Memphis or From Elvis in Memphis, but based on the quality of Lee’s atypically fiery “Do Right Woman,” it’s worthy of rediscovery. “Do Right” was the work of Moman and Penn as co-writers; so was Esther Phillips’ sassy “Cheater Man,” recorded when Phillips became Atlantic’s first artist sent down to American when the label switched their affiliations from Fame to American in 1967. Ronnie Milsap’s 1973 “I Hate You” gave Penn his first true country hit not directed at pop and/or R&B audiences. And Penn has successfully continued on that path to the current day. Ted Roddy and the Tearjoint Troubadors’ 2000 “Tearjoint” (originally recorded by Penn himself in the early 1970s) is pure twangy country-and-western, and the compilation brings Penn’s story up to date with The Hacienda Brothers’ 2006 “What’s Wrong with Right.” Penn co-wrote the song with the Brothers’ David Gonzalez, and it, too, is a three-hanky weeper in the best C&W tradition.
Bob Dunham and Tony Rounce have expertly curated and annotated A Road Leading Home: Songs by Dan Penn and Others, and Nick Robbins has remastered all tracks, most of which are heard in their original mono recordings.
Since 1993, James Govan has been performing in Memphis at Beale Street’s Rum Boogie Café, and has even received to the key to that great music city for his contributions to the area’s cultural scene. But Govan wasn’t quite as lucky when it came to his recording career. The Mississippi-born, Memphis-raised singer with the uncanny vocal resemblance to Otis Redding recorded a number of songs at Rick Hall’s Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, but only four sides were released: one single in 1969 and another in 1971. All these many years later, Ace’s Kent label has unveiled Wanted: The Fame Recordings, with both sides of Govan’s two 45s plus twelve more songs. It makes for a perfect complement to Kent’s indispensable box set The Fame Studios Story.
Govan and producer Hall drew on a wide variety of material: standards (“Bye Bye Blackbird”), contemporary standards (two Bob Dylan songs, George Harrison’s “Something”), country classics (“Jambalaya”) and fresh southern soul compositions from writers like Dan Penn and George Jackson. The A-side of Govan’s first single, Leonard Caston and Lloyd Webber’s “Wanted: Lover (No Experience Necessary)” didn’t do much to dissuade anybody of the opinion that James Govan was a vocal ringer for Otis Redding. Its supremely brassy horn arrangement very much recalled Redding’s Stax hits, but Govan gave the song (originally recorded by Laura Lee) all he had. Indeed, a pure desperation tinged his raspy growl of a voice. He could loosen up, too, such as on the rollicking flipside, Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya,” and on the rip-roaring, previously unissued “That’s Alright Mama.”
Both Dan Penn and George Jackson were turning out top-quality songs at a prolific rate, and Govan was comfortable with both of their work. His persuasive takes of Penn’s “You Left the Water Running” and “Take Me Just As I Am” have just the right amount of pathos and drama; the latter even boasts a spoken rap from Govan. Jackson, whose own Fame recordings have also been chronicled by Ace, supplied a varied array of songs for Govan including the brassy, up-tempo “You Get a Lot to Like” (“when you love me, baby”) and the funky “Your Love Lifted Me.” All told, there are five Jackson compositions here.
But the most unexpected treats might be the most familiar songs. The A-side of Govan’s second single was his smoking-hot take on The Beatles’ “Something,” a big production with horns and a female backing choir. In Martin Goggin’s new liner notes, producer Mickey Buckins (who helmed “Something” and its flip, the aforementioned “You Get a Lot to Like”) comments, “A lot of people told me they preferred James’ version [to The Beatles’]. I don’t know about that, but I liked it!” Doubtless soul fan George Harrison would have, too. Govan also rendered Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman” and particularly the stirring “I Shall Be Released” as delicious southern-soul morsels. Even the 1926 standard “Bye Bye Blackbird” became unexpectedly torrid in Govan’s treatment. Another incredibly comfortable fit was Carole King’s “Way Over Yonder,” sung in a passionate, straightforward fashion.
Ace/Kent can be relied upon for routinely excavating treasure from the recesses of American soul music; James Govan’s Wanted: The Fame Recordings is no exception. The disc has been remastered by Nick Robbins and features new notes by Martin Goggin. Both A Road Leading Home: Songs by Dan Penn and Others and Wanted: The Fame Recordings can be ordered at the links below!
- Without a Woman – Ted Taylor (Ronn 25, 1968) (*)
- You Left the Water Running – Billy Young (Chess 1961, 1966)
- I Tried to Tell You – The Entertainers (Chess 1953, 1966)
- Break Up the Party – Linda Gail Lewis (ABC-Paramount 10636, 1965)
- Is a Blue Bird Blue – Dan Penn (MGM 13415, 1965)
- Once More with Feeling – Jeanie Fortune (RCA Victor 47-8704, 1965)
- The Dark End of the Street – Roy Hamilton (AGP 113, 1969)
- (Almost Persuaded To) Give Him One More Try – Linda Carr (Bell 654, 1966)
- Come On – Tommy Roe (ABC 10515, 1963)
- Oh What A Fool I’ve Been – The Sweet Inspirations (Atlantic 2449, 1967) (*)
- Far from the Maddening Crowd – The Drifters (Atlantic 2298, 1965) (*)
- Up Tight Good Man – Laura Lee (Chess 2030, 1967)
- So Many Reasons – James and Bobby Purify (Bell 648, 1966)
- Do Right Woman, Do Right Man – Brenda Lee (Decca 32734, 1970) (*)
- Cheater Man – Esther Phillips (Atlantic 2417, 1967)
- Long Ago – Bobby Patterson (Jetstar 108, 1967)
- I Can’t Stop – The Blues Busters (Shout 235, 1968)
- Rainbow Road – Percy Sledge (Atlantic 2848, 1972) (*)
- Tearjoint – Ted Roddy & The Tearjoint Troubadors (The Music Room CD, no cat. no., 2000) (*)
- What’s Wrong with Right – The Hacienda Brothers (Proper PRPCD 004, 2006) (*)
- Better to Have It – Ben Moore as Bobby Purify (Proper PRPCD 022, 2005) (*)
- I Hate You – Ronnie Milsap (RCA Victor 74-0969, 1973) (*)
- Like a Road Leading Home – Albert King (Stax LP STS 2040, 1971) (*)
- Wanted: Lover (No Experience Necessary) (FAME 1461, 1969)
- You Left the Water Running
- Take Me Just As I Am
- I Bit Off More Than I Can Chew
- Just Like a Woman
- Bye Bye Blackbird
- You Get a Lot to Like (FAME 1473, 1971)
- Your Love Lifted Me
- Oh Baby What You’re Doing to Me
- I’ve Gone Too Far
- Something (FAME 1473, 1971)
- I Shall Be Released
- Way Over Yonder
- Stuck on Her
- Jambalaya (FAME 1461, 1969)
- That’s Alright Mama
All tracks previously unreleased except Tracks 1, 7, 11 & 15