‘Elvis was as pilled up as me!’ Dan Penn on writing hits for Aretha, Otis, Dolly and more

<span>‘I had the biggest head for a while’ … Dan Penn.</span><span>Photograph: David Redfern/Redferns</span>
‘I had the biggest head for a while’ … Dan Penn.Photograph: David Redfern/Redferns

Aretha Franklin was six years into a hit-free career when Dan Penn wrote her a song that would go on to become a classic, synonymous with her name. “Aretha walks in and she’s got this aura around her,” says Penn of the recording session, which took place at the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama. “The girl was special, that was obvious. I sang her Do Right Woman, Do Right Man, accompanied by just a little drumbeat and an organ.”

It was 1967 and Do Right Woman, Do Right Man – which Penn co-wrote with Chips Moman – spent 11 weeks in the US charts, peaking at No 9 and ultimately making it into Rolling Stone’s Greatest Songs of All Time list. Penn has a seemingly endless stream of stories about stars like Franklin and the hits he wrote for them, although one singer – arguably the biggest of all – got away.

We took a break from playing poker. There was a guitar there and – bingo! bingo! – we wrote The Dark End of the Street in 15 minutes

In 1969, Moman produced Elvis Presley’s comeback hits In the Ghetto and Suspicious Minds. Although Penn played no role in these sessions, he was called on for another service. “Chips said, ‘Dan, bring your camera down.’ So I took shots of Elvis and the musicians. People are amazed I didn’t say anything to Elvis but what would I have said? ‘Hey, you’re as pilled up as me’?”

He laughs then adds: “Sadly, Elvis never recorded one of my songs. I heard he was going to cut Nobody’s Fool but then he died.” Nobody’s Fool – a toe-tappingly irresistible jangle fest co-written by Penn and Bobby Emmons – was popularised instead by Alex Chilton, the teen genius who grew into a booze-and-drug-addled cult rocker.

Wallace Daniel Pennington was born in Vernon, Alabama, and grew up addicted to the radio. “Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and Perry Como during the day,” he recalls. “Ray Charles and Jimmy Reed at night.” Although Vernon was segregated, Penn says: “Everyone got on without any big problems – they came later.”

Penn loved soul, blues and gospel and, from his early teens, demonstrated a gift for singing. But his gift didn’t stop there. Soon, he was writing songs. One made its way to the ears of a Nashville scout and before long Conway Twitty had turned Is a Blue Bird Blue into a hit. “I was still in high school,” says Penn. “I had the biggest head for a while.”

After leaving school, Penn got a job working in a tiny recording studio in Florence, Alabama, co-owned by an aspiring record producer called Rick Hall. “I owe everything to Rick,” says Penn. “I learned from watching him work, soaking it up.” In 1961, Hall moved his Fame Studios to nearby Muscle Shoals and continued to record local black singers, with young Penn employed to provide songs. Penn teamed up with pianist Spooner Oldham and, in 1966, the duo scored a huge hit when James & Bobby Purify recorded I’m Your Puppet. “Man, that changed everything,” says Penn. “I realised just how much money there was to be made in music.”

Suddenly Penn and Oldham were in demand and Hall passed their songs to the likes of Percy Sledge, Clarence Carter and Wilson Pickett. “Those were fun times,” says Penn. “We’d have long sessions, writing and recording. Rick had great ears but sometimes he missed someone. I recorded Percy Sledge’s initial demo featuring the song that would become When a Man Loves a Woman – but Rick didn’t get it.”

One song Penn co-wrote with Hall was the folksy breakup track You Left the Water Running. While everyone from Pickett to Ken Boothe would later record it, Penn was surprised to find out decades later that Otis Redding had dropped by Muscle Shoals and recorded it as a scratch demo. “You left the water running,” the song goes. “It’s running from these eyes of mine.” Finally made available by Redding’s estate in 1987, Penn loves this version, seeing it as a great example of how songs can take on a life of their own. “I’m always amazed when I hear who has recorded one of my songs. Amazed and happy when I receive my royalties!”

Although Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals was quickly becoming a hit-making machine, Penn was getting restless. “Chips, who was producing hits in Memphis, invited me to join him, so off I went.” Getting started in 1966, they wrote The Dark End of the Street for James Carr. This beautifully dark and eerie song about forbidden love has since been recorded by everyone from Dolly Parton to Lee “Scratch” Perry and Cat Power.

How did it come about? “Chips and I had been playing poker all night in a hotel room,” says Penn. “We took a break and there was a guitar and – bingo! – we wrote that song in about 15 minutes. It just dropped out of the sky. Then James sang it superbly.”

Janis Joplin? Just a bunch of screaming

Moman next assigned Penn production duties for a Memphis band called The Box Tops, giving him a tape of songs as possible material. Penn chose one, The Letter, and drilled the band and its 16-year-old singer – Chilton – until they delivered a take that he liked. The sweat paid off. In September 1967, The Letter topped the US charts for four weeks.

“I produced, engineered and wrote most of the first three Box Tops albums,” says Penn. “Spooner and I wrote their second hit, Cry Like a Baby.” With Penn guiding them, the band scored a slew of pop-soul hits. “The Box Tops were a lot of hard work,” he says, “but Alex was always a pleasure to work with. He was a vocal prodigy and could sing all kinds of ways. Some people now make out that he didn’t like me, but I always found him friendly and respectful.”

Chilton’s post-Box Tops band Big Star initially achieved zero commercial success, yet went on to influence every indie band from REM to Teenage Fanclub. That is quite an achievement, but Penn is unimpressed. “Big Star were too flowery for me,” he says. “Alex never sold any records after we stopped working together.”

While the 1960s had seen Penn on one giant hit-making streak, the 70s and 80s proved a struggle. “Memphis was an amazing place for music,” he says. “They play the blues different. But after Martin Luther King’s murder, things weren’t the same. Everything changed, including the music.”

Gram Parsons’ The Flying Burrito Brothers recorded Dark End of the Street and Do Right Woman on their debut album, while the Penn-Oldham song A Woman Left Lonely is the strongest track on Janis Joplin’s final album Pearl, yet Penn had no great love of hippies. “Just a bunch of screaming,” he says of Joplin.

Relocating to Nashville, where he continues to live, Penn kept writing but no longer scored huge hits. “I may be a country boy,” he says, “but my songs don’t really work for country singers.” Solo albums made little impression while other recordings either went unreleased or unpromoted.

That is now about to change. A 2005 album he co-wrote and produced for Bobby Purify has now been reissued as The Inside Track on Bobby Purify. The reissue features Penn’s original 10-song demo, providing a fascinating glimpse of how song sketches transform into soul bangers. “I’m real happy with it,” says Penn, now aged 82. “The demos sound so good. And it’s great that Bobby’s album will finally be heard. He was such a fine singer.”

Royalties from Penn’s classic hits ensure he can work at his own slow pace. “If I’d stayed on the road I would have burnt out,” he says. “I’ve got a home studio and I love to get in there and record new songs. If they aren’t what people now listen to, so be it.” Then his face lights up as he gives a big smile and says: “Songwriting’s been good to me.”

• The Inside Track on Bobby Purify is released by The Last Music Company.