Sweet Inspiration: The Songs Of Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham (Ace)

Students of 1960’s r&b will be familiar with the names Dan Penn and Spooner OIdham, together and with other collaborators they wrote, produced and/or played on records by Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge and The Box Tops, among many, many others. Penn and Oldham were part of the musical community that played sessions in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and at American Studios in Memphis, Tennessee.  Their sound was steeped in gospel, blues and country and it pretty much defined the soul music of the late 1960s.

This 24-track collection focuses on the songwriting prowess of the two venerable artists. Although they’ve written their fair share of hits (Cry Like A Baby, I’m Your Puppet) there’s a whole lot more from these two that didn’t get a wide audience back in the day. You won’t hear Aretha or Wilson or Otis here, but you will hear stunning performances from Arthur Alexander,  Tony Joe White, Barbara Lynn, Solomon Burke, Etta James, James Carr and a host of other r&b artists that cranked out one gem after another during this fertile period .

Percy Sledge leads the collection off with Out Of Left Field. Sledge never had a hit a big as his first one, When A Man Loves A Woman. Listening to this, his 5th single for Atlantic, released in 1967, you’ve gotta wonder why. Penn and Oldham have written a beautiful, gospel-tinged song and Pledge is in fine voice.

Dionne Warwick is a surprise entry here. Known for her, slick, polished hits written and produced by Bacharach and David, she stops in to Memphis for a little soul food and comes up with this gritty (for her) reading of I’m Your Puppet.

Dionne’s aunt, Cissy Houston (mother of Whitney) is all over this compilation as a backing vocalist. Her group, The Sweet Inspirations, gets a shot in the spotlight with a song Penn and Oldham wrote specifically for them, called, not surprisingly, Sweet Inspiration. It a good, funky track and features some fine guitar work from session man Reggie Young, who is also on many of these tracks.

One of the trademarks of Penn and Oldham’s style is the combination of r&b and country. That aspect is best exemplified on Charlie Rich’s version of A Woman Left Lonely. The song was originally recorded by Janis Joplin for her Pearl album and her version was a deep-felt blues/soul rendition. Rich, who would later hit with Behind Closed Doors and The Most Beautiful Girl, strips the tunes down to its essence and finds its country heart.

Another highlight (and there are many) is Etta James’ version of I Worship The Ground You Walk On. Chess sent Etta down to Muscle Shoals to soak up some of Aretha’s mojo, and she came back with a vocal performance that owes more than a tip of the hat to James Brown. The result is magnificent.

I could go on and on…The Ovations, Solomon Burke, Arthur Alexander, even Tommy Roe all benefit from the heart and soul of Penn and Oldham and the musicians and producers who made these wonderful records.

One last endorsement; the extensive liner notes will be illuminating to both the beginner and the seasoned soul connoisseur. By the time you’ve read and listened to this set, you’ll be an expert on what’s commonly known as “Northern Soul”, and you will have heard some of its finest examples.

Marty Duda

Click here to listen to I Worship The Ground You Walk On by Etta James (1968):