Dan Penn has been described by music industry insiders as one of the great white soul singers of all time. His versions of his own songs are characterized by lack of ornamentation, deep feeling, and stripped-back to-the-bone humanity. I’d favorably compare his renditions of his own work to Haogy Carmichael’s (the author of Stardust) heart rending handling of his own material. In the new age of singer-songwriters Penn is a towering historical figure who will likely pass away in the shadow of lesser artists.
Dan Penn - crafting songs before rock and roll - may be one of the most unknown-known songwriter to come out of the Muscle Shoals & Memphis R&B melting pot. He was among a group of young white southern guys attracted to ‘race-music’ and whose grafting of a hill-billy existentialism onto the emotional fire of R & B led directly to identifiable rock & roll.
You may not have heard of (or heard) Dan Penn, but it’s likely you’ve heard one version or another of hit tunes, such as - “Do Right Woman, Dark End of the Street, I’m Your Puppet, Cry Like a Baby, A Woman Left Lonely, or The Letter.
Penn’s songs were sought out early by artists such as Otis Redding, Conway Twitty, James & Bobby Purify, Percy Sledge, Sweet Inspirations, Alex Chilton, Aretha Franklin, and James Carr.And artists as diverse and original as Clarence Carter, Elvis Costello, Ry Cooder, Frank Black, Gram Parsons, Janis Joplin, Richard & Linda Thompson, Emmylou Harris, Etta James, Joan Baez, Marva Wright and Willie Nelson, Sam & Dave, Dionne Warwick, Elton John, Irma Thomas, Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell, Peter & Gordan, Janis Joplin, Charlie Rich, Cat Power, Irma Thomas, Rita Coolidge, Patti Page, The Supremes, Vonda Sheppard, Rita Coolidge, Wilson Pickett, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Jerry Lee Lewis, Albert King, Alex Chilton and Nick Lowe have recorded Penn’s work.
Here's a clip of Dan Penn & longtime writing partner Spooner Oldham performing Penn's Dark End of the Street. I've followed it with a clip of Ry Cooder and band performing the same song. I'd be hard pressed to identify, with any degree of accuracy, which is the most moving version.