Legendary songwriter Dan Penn returns to the Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant in downtown Minneapolis for shows this coming Sunday and Monday, August 5 and 6. Penn’s site is here; his bio is here. The show is an almost unbelievable review of Penn’s almost unbelievable career at the heart of soul/rhythm and blues over the past 50 years. I have a pretty good idea what he’ll be doing at the Dakota next week because I attended both of Penn’s two beautiful shows there almost exactly a year ago.
You can buy tickets for this year’s shows online here or call for tickets at (612) 332-1010 during business hours. Penn’s appearance in Minneapolis presents a rare opportunity — it does not appear that he is touring — to see a man without whom much of modern soul music would not exist, at least not in the form it took.
Last year Penn appeared in Minneapolis through the good offices of local record store owner Mark Treehuis of Treehouse Records, in the first of Mark’s planned “unsung legends” series. As applied to Penn, the appellation of “unsung legend” was a slight misnomer. Penn is a legend who has been sung, so to speak, by Peter Guralnick, in his great book Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom. Guralnick designates Penn the “secret hero” of the book:
Dan Penn is in many ways the secret hero of this book. A singer-songwriter-occasional guitar player from Vernon, a tiny town eight miles south of Muscle Shoals, he arrived in Florence [Alabama] with a song that he had written (“Is a Bluebird Blue?”) which everyone knew was going to be a hit and which subsequently became one for Conway Twitty in 1960. He also came as something of a fully formed personality, even at the age of sixteen or seventeen….Dan Penn…was as definite about his musical likes and dislikes as he would be ten or twenty years later — after he had teamed up with Chips Moman, written dozens of classic r&b hits (“Dark End of the Street,” “Take Me (Just As I Am),” “Sweet Inspiration,” “Out of Left Field,” “Do Right Woman”), with either Chips or Spooner Oldham, produced the Box Tops’ #1 hit, “The Letter,” and tossed off hundreds of rough demos and studio versions of his own songs, which by the account of most of the participants easily surpassed the records that were actually released.
In his show Penn ranges widely, conjuring up the spirits of Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, James Carr, Jerry Wexler, and many others with whom he has worked in the course of his distinguished career. Penn’s own voice is deeply soulful and emotive. As Guralnick’s account intimates, Penn’s versions of the songs shine even by comparison with the hit versions. In the video below, for example, dating back to a 1999 performance with his sometime collaborator Spooner Oldham, he performs “I’m Your Puppet,” a smash for James and Bobby Purify in 1965.
At the first of last year’s shows at the Dakota I ran into KFAI deejay Pete Lee, the omniscient proprietor of Bop Street, the long-running Monday afternoon drive-time show from which I have learned so much over the past twenty years. I asked Pete why Penn was the hero of Guralnick’s great book. Pete patiently explained: “Because he wrote the songs.” That is about the size of it.