Penn has performed as a guitarist and singer in his own right – owner also of a wonderful white soul voice. But he’s best known for his producing and songwriting abilities. He, erm, penned a couple of soul’s biggest hits early on in his career (Do Right Woman, Do Right Man and Dark End Of The Street).
Oldham played on Aretha Franklin’s version of I Never Loved A Man and Percy Sledge’s When A Man Loves A Woman and Wilson Pickett’s Mustang Sally – career highlights for any musician, surely. He has toured and recorded regularly with Neil Young and is still a sought-after backing musician, recording hundreds of sessions.
Together Penn and Oldham found they could pump out a version of soul that traced around pop music (see Dionne Warwick’s version of I’m Your Puppet) and country (check out Charlie Rich singing A Woman Left Lonely). That was informed by gospel and R’n’B, by blues and rock’n’roll. It was soul music – always soul music in one way or another – but they were never boxed in (nor should that ever be the case) by any label or genre-definition. They were always searching outside and away from the obvious soul templates.
Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham played on many of the recordings they wrote, produced and arranged them – shaped the sound in so many ways. And played the supporting roles, serving the music, creating so many great songs for artists such as Solomon Burke, James Carr, Irma Thomas, Etta James, The Box Tops, The Sweet Inspirations, Patti LaBelle, Tony Joe White, Arthur Conley and Sandy Posey.
The Sweet Inspiration compilation album rightly claims to be “an awe-inspiring masterclass in the art of songwriting from two fabled sons of America’s Deep South”. (That’s a quote from the back-cover; a tagline of sorts).
Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham wrote for black and white for male and female for solo and group; they wrote for themselves and they wrote for everyone.
And they’re still doing it. Still trucking out songs – still shaping great music.
But to hear the 24 songs that make up Sweet Inspiration is to marvel at a (significant) part of what this duo has offered the world of song.
Oldham and Penn wrote to order but it never feels like some Hallmark sentiment; each three or four-minute blast of soul – rendered either as a funk-stomper or a tender ballad; charging high or coasting low – feels like its own musical world: a movie of sound.
We could never hope for a return to these values or this level of talent – but we don’t need to. We have it all here, lovingly assembled.
It’s not new music – but some of it might be new to you. Even if you know all of it (and chances are there are one or two surprises/rarities here) this is a must-have album. I’d like to think that anyone serious about any sort of career in music, in writing songs, would take this on board – listen, absorb, live inside this marvellous music. And then go out and do your best to make your own. I’d like to think that anyone in love with music – as a listener – would want to hear all of this music in the one place. Together. Finally.
Oldham and Penn still perform together and in fact I first heard part of the duo’s great range of songs via Moments From This Theatre. What it lacks in any polish – it’s the duo performing a range of their own songs, soul’s biggest hits – it makes up for in honesty, in heart. In (actual) soul. I’d still recommend that too if you haven’t heard it already.
But if you’re looking for a great album for right now and for years to come grab a copy of this; a textbook of songwriting class, a collection of mini-masterpieces. A history of two of songwriting’s greatest champions.