Chuck Berry And The Birth Of Rock ’N’ Roll

A couple of weeks have gone by since the passing of Chuck Berry, and I’ve wrestled with what to say or to recommend to you. So many people have commented on his death, his music and his impact. The New York Times alone had several wonderful articles including one about his best hits and another about the songs that influenced several of his hits followed by subsequent recordings that were in turn influenced by those same hits. Frankly, I really had nothing to add.

Then I came across an album that is a compilation of his early blues tracks for Chess Records. It’s called simply:

Chuck Berry Blues

The album features Chuck covering sixteen tunes primarily from the 1940’s and early 1950’s blues canon – tunes like “House of Blue Lights,” “Route 66,” “Confessin’ The Blues,” “Driftin’ Blues,” “Worried Life Blues” and “I Just Want To Make Love To You.”

On these cuts, you hear an artist looking for his identity, his own original sound. You hear influences of Nat King Cole, Charles Brown, Louis Jordan, and Elmore Leonard, but also you hear a performer who wants to innovate rather than duplicate . In this sense the album reminds me of the Sun Sessions compilation by Elvis Presley. Both albums fall short in places, but both tease us with glimpses of what’s to come. Fittingly, the album ends with the strongest evidence that Chuck was evolving into something special, a scintallating version of W.C. Handy’s “St Louis Blues” that breathes sparkling new life into an old chestnut. The riffs and swagger are clearly emerging.

Beyond Berry’s guitar playing and singing, his songwriting, especially his lyrics, is what not only separated Chuck from other artists, but also separated his music from everything that came before. He captured the day to day joy, frustrations, trials and tribulations of young Americans in the mid-fifties – black and white – and put them to an ebullient beat that defied anyone to sit still when they heard it. In doing so, he converted R&B, with a tiny country seasoning, into a music that galvanized a generation. In my not so humble opinion, he along with three others were the alchemists of rock ’n’ roll.

Rock ’N’ Roll’s Mount Rushmore

In 1955, the top selling record for the year was Perez Prado’s “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White.”  Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock” was the only rock ‘n’ roll record in the top 30. Just one year later, as an old song goes, rock ’n’ roll was here to stay. There were twelve rock ’n’ roll songs in the top 30, five by Elvis who held the top two spots, plus another two by the Platters who were evolving from easy listening to become a precursor of black vocal groups like the Dells and the Temptations. It’s hard to describe how revolutionary the change was at the time. Here’s what a top ten hit sounded like before the earth moved between 1955 and 1956.

I was there, listening to radio and records, when Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard hit the scene. Yes, there were earlier artists who planted the seed, and giants like Ray Charles, Big Joe Turner and Bill Haley and His Comets were making waves and upsetting the programmers on “Your Hit Parade.” Ray in particular was laying the foundation for what would one day become “Soul” music. But nobody, I mean nobody, generated electricity and heat like Chuck, Elvis, Jerry Lee and Little Richard.

I’m going to list for your consideration my favorite early record by each of these “big four.” Before I list them for you, however, I first must submit that the greatest record in the history of rock ’n’ roll is by far and away Chuck Berry’s “Johnnie B. Good.” It wasn’t the first rock ’n’ roll record. It wasn’t even Chuck’s first hit. But from the opening riff, its story and the musical way it tells the story define the genre. There’s not even a close second. I’ve heard it at least 1000 times including this very afternoon. Without exception, every time I hear it, I’m over taken with glee; I play air guitar; I pound on the steering wheel if I’m in the car; I jump from my chair if I’m at home; I hop out of my booth and onto the dance floor if I’m at a juke joint; I turn it up, and I sing out loud. Having said that, here are my other personal favorites by the Big Four.  When you hear any one of them, you know you’ve heard rock ‘n’ roll.

Chuck Berry – “School Days”

Next to “Johnnie B. Good” this tune best defines rock ’n’ roll in a teenager’s life, the cure for the humdrum and anxiety of high school. There was a joint right across the street from my high school, The Varsity Grill, which fits Berry’s description to a “T,” right down to “dropping the coin right into the slot.”

Elvis Presley – “Heartbreak Hotel”

This was Elvis’ first release on RCA after departing Sun Records, and it went on to be Billboard’s top selling single record for 1956. It’s a different tempo from most of his early rockers, more bluesy and featuring a tinkling piano along with the guitar. But from the opening line, Elvis’ voice commands your attention, and he never lets go.

Jerry Lee Lewis – “Great Balls of Fire”

Jerry Lee only knew one way to play. All out and on fire. Following closely behind Elvis at Sun, he lit up the radio waves with songs like “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Breathless,” but for me “Great Balls of Fire” stamped Jerry Lee and rock ’n’ roll itself as something just a little bit dangerous.  Jerry Lee re-recorded the tune for his bio-pic starring Dennis Quaid. Though not the original, this clip from the movie aptly illustrates the mania surrounding early rock ‘n’ roll and recreates a legendary encounter between Jerry Lee and Chuck. Although Jerry Lee got the best of Chuck here, he’s on record quoting his mother as saying, “You and Elvis are good, son — but you’re no Chuck Berry.”

Little Richard – “Lucille”

The first rock ’n’ roll record I ever owned was Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” and it was soon followed by the two sided “Ready Teddy” and “Rip It Up” along with “Long Tall Sally.” I give the nod here to “Lucille,” however, based on its almost subversive opening with the distinctively throbbing rhythm contrasted by sparse well placed piano single note key strokes, then Richard’s pleading squeal – “Lucille, you won’t do your sister’s will.” Little Richard always seemed on the verge of coming completely unglued while pounding his piano and leading his relatively large band. He was early rock ’n’ roll’s most flamboyant showman and set a standard that influenced a wide array of artists from James Brown to Prince, as I think you’ll agree seeing this clip from 1969.

These four records cover the spectrum from day to day teen life to heartbreak to hot new love to pleading for a departed lover to “come back where you belong.” I don’t think anybody can deny that Chuck Berry belongs on rock ’n’ roll’s Mount Rushmore of the genre’s founders. Who do you think should be up there with him? What are your favorite songs from the launch years of rock ’n’ roll? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Meanwhile… the one and only Chuck Berry with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band still rockin’ and rollin’ forty years later.



Allen Toussaint – An Appreciation

If ever a man should have died at home, one would think Allen Toussaint should have died in New Orleans.  Rarely has a person been so much of the fabric of his home town as Toussaint was of New Orleans.  He was the most enduringly influential character in the music scene of the Crescent City from the early fifties until just last week when he took his last breath.  Of course, we can’t pick where nor when we will die, so he died in Madrid.

On the other hand, he died just hours after sharing his music and love with fans who likely as not had never experienced it before. Somehow I think that, although he might not haven chosen the place, he might have been at peace with the time, still basking in the warmth of his audience’s pleasure.  As he sings in “It’s a New Orleans Thing” from his live album, Songbook, recorded at Joe’s Pub in New York City in 2009,

“Anywhere I go, something goes along with me,
It’s the sound of the city, the Crescent City in me.”

Not only was Toussaint one of the giants of contemporary American popular music as a songwriter, arranger and producer, he was by all accounts a truly lovely man. Here are a few great ways to enjoy the incredible music he made.

All Star Allen Toussaint Play List

This is a build-your-own playlist of the master’s greatest songs by a stunning array of artists. In many cases, they are the original recordings meaning they were most likely arranged and produced as well as written by Toussaint. In others, and sometimes as alternatives, I’ve suggested different versions, so you can see how other artists have interpreted his oeuvre.

  • “Mother-in-Law” – Ernie K. Doe’s version is so definitive that virtually nobody else ever even gave it a try. There is one pretty interesting instrumental version on an early album collection by jazz guitar master Kenny Burrell called Soulero.
  • “It’s Raining” – there’s the original early 1960s Irma Thomas recording and also an even nicer version on her live album Live – Simply The Best from 1991.
  • “Lipstick Traces” – Benny Spellman. There’s is also a strong version by the O’Jays from 1965, but it’s hard to find as a single cut, and another by Delbert McClinton on Live In Austin.
  • “I Like It Like That” – Chris Kenner.
  • “Holy Cow” – Lee Dorsey. There’s also a good version on The Band’s Moondog Matinee album.
  • “Get Out of My Life Woman” Toussaint said this is his most recorded song. I believe the original is by Lee Dorsey, but since he’s already on the list, I like Solomon Burke’s version on I Wish I Knew, or the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s take on East-West. There’s also a strong version from jazz greats Joe Williams, Mel Lewis and Thad Jones.
  • “With You In Mind” is a beautiful song. From among several versions, I go with Aaron Neville’s on Warm Your Heart followed by Paul Carrack’s on 2003’s Still Groovin.’
  • “Sweet Touch Of Love” – no way to choose here, so toss a coin between Irma Thomas from The Soul Queen of New Orleans – 50th Anniversary Celebration and Etta James from 1978’s Deep In The Night.
  • “Working In A Coal Mine” – Lee Dorsey again on the original, but also check Harry Connick, Jr.’s snappy, jazzy version on Oh, My Nola.

(found this wild aggregation of talent from a live performance in 1989)

  • “Yes We Can Can” – The Pointer Sisters. Get the version on The Pointer Sisters – Live At The Opera House; it’s much hotter than the studio version. Or try Marc Broussard’s cut on SOS: Save Our Soul. Of course Toussaint himself brings an almost anthemic, spiritual quality to the song in his many recorded versions.
  • “A Certain Girl” – Ernie K. Doe had the original hit. The Yardbirds covered it. But the most fun version is Toussaint with The Levon Helm Band on The Midnight Ramble Sessions, Vol. 3.
  • “Old Records” – Irma Thomas singing Allen Toussaint never grows old.
  • “What Do You Want The Girl To Do” – Boz Scaggs from Silk Degrees. One of Boz’s very best.
  • “Southern Nights” – There’s no question Glen Campbell’s version is terrific, so I’m tempted to go with it.  But I also really dig Toussaint’s collaboration with his Nashville counterpart, guitar maestro Chet Atkins, from the great album Rhythm, Country and Blues.

To close the playlist in zestful style, I’m going to eschew excellent versions by the hitmakers and go with Allen’s live versions, all previously unreleased until done so on 2004’s The Complete Warner Recordings:

  • “Freedom for the Stallion”
  • “Brickyard Blues”
  • “Shoo-Ra, Shoo-Ra”

(Note: if you can find the version of “Shoo-Ra” by the Zasu Pitts Memorial Orchestra, Live at the Great American Music Hall, you owe it to yourself to grab it up. I have it on a vinyl LP I bought in 1985. I have never found it digitally, but I see it’s available in vinyl on Amazon through third parties. In addition to “Shoo-Ra,” the whole album is hot.)

In addition to the all star playlist, here are three particularly fine albums from the last few years, two by Toussaint and one by a terrific New York based band.

Swingadelic – Toussaintville

I learned of this album in 2013 from a blog I’ve mentioned before, JazzWax. (See link to JazzWax in the right hand column of this page.) The blog’s writer Marc Myers caught my eye when he described this as “one of the most surprisingly imaginative CDs to cross my desk in some time. The music is an intelligent and swinging fusion of big band jazz and soul-pop.”

Swingadelic came together during the retro swing dance craze in New York in the late 1990’s. There are fourteen musicians in all with four different singers trading off vocals. The song list includes several from our playlist above plus some great adds. The album closes with a special tribute number titled simply, “Mr. Toussaint.” The arrangements integrate highly accessible jazz into Toussaint’s classics. Again, to quote Myers in summing up the appeal of this great set: “It’s just big sophisticated fun, with one foot in the big bands and the other in the bit easy.”

Allen Toussaint – Songbook

Following Hurricane Katrina, Toussaint lived for a few years in New York City.  During that time, he performed regularly at a small club called Joe’s Pub. Two of his shows were taped in 2009 and combined into this album. The song list replicates many of the numbers from our playlist above and from Swingadelic’s Toussaintville. The difference is that here they are stripped down to just Toussaint’s voice and piano in an intimate setting. Whereas the other versions will stir you to get up and move, here it’s just you, the man and his music. Adding to the one-to-one feel are the occasional personal introductions to certain tunes. In addition to these relatively quiet renditions of several of his hits, there are wonderful smile inducers like “I Could Eat Crawfish Everyday” and “Shrimp Po Boy, Dressed” with it’s tasty refrain, “Give me a shrimp po boy dressed and a cold, cold beer.”

Toussaint closes the set with “Southern Nights.” This version is decidedly subdued and includes a beautiful, poetic spoken rendering of a trip through childhood memories to warm nights on the porch of the old family home in the rural south. His gentle voice takes me right there with him as his words paint a picture so easy to see.  When he returns to the refrain and the final notes play out, he’s rendered not so much a song as an elegy for times long gone but held close again in memory and heart.

Allen Toussaint – The Bright Mississippi

After producer Joe Henry worked with Allen Toussaint and Elvis Costello on their 2007 collaboration, The River In Reverse, he got the feeling that beneath Toussaint’s great layer of R&B and pop-soul, he would find a marvelous jazz pianist. He urged him to record this great selection of jazz standards, all connected in some way to New Orleans, with some closely identified with the city. Toussaint has freely stated that he had devoted his life to R&B producing and writing, and thus he was not very familiar with some of the songs and had rarely if ever played others. Certainly anyone raised in New Orleans would be familiar and could almost by hereditary instinct play certain local classics like “St. James Infirmary.” He just had never really had a reason.

So here we have one of contemporary music’s great songwriters playing nary a one of his own tunes, playing in a new genre, accompanied by musicians with whom he’d rarely if ever worked. And the result? Brilliant! The darn project garners the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Famer’s first ever Grammy nomination, and it’s for Best Jazz Instrumental Album.  Ah, but far more important, what it garners for the listener is well over an hour of marvelous music.

The stellar cast includes the only other New Orleans born member Nicholas Payton on trumpet, Marc Ribot on acoustic guitar, Don Byron – clarinet, Dave Piltch – upright bass, and Jay Bellerose on drums and percussion. Pianist Brad Mehldau guests on Jelly Roll Morton’s “Winin’ Boy Blues” as does tenor sax man Joshua Redman on the Ellington – Strayhorn beauty “Day Dream.” They all shine whether in lead or supporting roles, but it’s Toussaint’s arrangements and piano playing that breathe fresh air into well worn classics.

The music never strays far from traditional New Orleans jazz principles like engaging rhythms and improvisation that builds off of rather than hides the melody. Yet, Toussaint reimagines how this particular collection of instruments should execute these principles. A great example is “West End Blues.” Louis Armstrong seemed to stamp this song as a trumpet number. Here, Payton’s trumpet is still vital, but it is joined equally in the spotlight by Toussaint’s piano and Ribot’s acoustic guitar. In fact I’d have to say the biggest surprises are the twists Ribot provides on guitar throughout the album whether in foreground or background. They culminate in his marvelous closing dialog with Toussaint’s piano on Duke Ellington’s exquisite “Solitude.”

The Bright Mississippi delivers a marvelous listening experience whether you’re using it as background music while getting some chores done or enjoying a cocktail with friends, or if you’re focusing intently on the intricate interplay of musicians weaving their magic around each other.  For that matter you may even want to dance with your baby a time or two.  What it also demonstrates is the man was music; music was steeped in his being.

Toussaint told JazzWax’s Marc Myers in an interview for the Wall Street Journal that once when he was a teen he showed his dad some music he had written.  His dad, who had been a professional musician, looked at it, then looked at him, smiled and said, “You’re a genius.”  We all know that supportive dads will say something like that to a youngster. This dad was right.

For most of his career Toussaint worked in the background preferring for other singers of his songs to take the spotlight. He gave us ample gifts doing just that. Then over the last decade or so he began to step forward into the spotlight, albeit reluctantly, giving us all a chance to know the man and his full range of talents.

Thank you Allen, and rest in peace.

Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?

Ten years ago, on a hot mid-August day, I gazed out of a top floor window in the Marriott on Canal Street in downtown New Orleans. I had been lucky to visit New Orleans several times, often on business attending conventions with a nice expense account to entertain clients. I had come to love the city, so usually I stayed a few extra days to enjoy its pleasures on my own dime, sampling wonderful restaurants, finding treasures of music off the beaten path, and indulging myself with a stroll down Bourbon Street.

Yes,  this now ranks among the tackiest streets in the world with crowds chanting for college girls to show off their assets in exchange for a string of plastic beads. Regardless it’s the place where I once heard Al Hirt blow his horn, where with several friends I stumbled into the Absinthe Bar for an amazing show by blind bluesman Brian Lee backed by an exhilarating horn section – we stayed for three sets, and where just around the corner I sat in a small box of a room thrilled by the old timers in the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.  One night in 1968 Joe Pitt and I even saw a woman balance two champagne glasses on her…well I think they were real, and I know they were spectacular.

So I had seen New Orleans many times, but never from such a lofty perspective. As I took in the view of the French Quarter down Decatur Street toward Jackson Square and Cafe du Monde – ah those beignets, I noticed how incredibly high above the street level behind the levee the mighty Mississippi flowed. Startled by what I was seeing, I commented to a friend standing with me, “geez, look at that! If the levee ever fails this city would would be washed off the face of the earth.”

Two weeks later in the wake of hurricane Katrina, another of New Orleans levees did fail. While the French Quarter was largely spared, other parts of the city – an area several times the size of Manhattan – were quickly submerged. Among the victims were some of the city’s treasured musicians. Those in town that week scrambled for their lives as well as their possessions. The great Fats Domino was feared lost, then was happily found among those rescued from their rooftops as the waters rose around them. Others who were away on the road performing lost instruments, priceless charts and arrangements and memorabilia as the waters surged through their homes. The musicians were just a fraction of the lost or displaced, of course, but to many they were like the soul of the city. I watched on television as New Orleans clung to life. Forget the political finger pointing blame game. Anyway you cut it, Katrina and her aftermath were an unmitigated catastrophe.

I sought solace in my music collection and listened to recordings like Louis Armstrong’s “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans” and “Basin Street Blues.” I thought about Jerry Jeff Walker meeting an old dancer in a New Orleans jail who “drinks a bit” yet still can “jump so high, then lightly touch down.” I listened to Pete Fountain, Sidney Bechet, and Wynton Marsalis. I danced a little to Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas, Ernie K. Doe, and of course Fats. I even pulled out an old CD I had bought from a band playing guitars, kazoos and washboards on Royal Street just off Jackson Square. The I remembered I had a compilation CD with some zydeco and cajun music by the likes of CJ Chenier. And I thought, where would American music be without New Orleans? To hell with thinking, though. I wanted to listen, to hear the full spectrum, to savor every taste in the New Orleans musical gumbo. (Yeah, I know that’s a cliche, but it’s earned.)

I did what any collector might do. I rummaged through my library and built a playlist. The only criteria was that the performers must be either from New Orleans or have spent an important phase of their career there. In many cases, the tunes would be about the city, but this was not a hard and fast rule. Initially, the playlist had to be limited to 80 minutes in order to fit onto a CD. Devices today, however, allow playlists to be practically unlimited in length. Still, I feel that somewhere around an hour and a half is about as long as anyone will ever spend with one batch of music, me included.

I shared my original playlist with several friends as a Christmas gift in 2005. Here is my slightly amended list as a Hurricane Katrina – Ten Years After gift to you. (I’ve checked and all of these recordings are available on iTunes, and I’m guessing they’re on Amazon as well.)

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

“Louisianna 1927,” the opening video, by Aaron Neville from the album Warm Your Heart, is a tale of the aftermath of a different flood, this one in 1927, written – and previously recorded, by Randy Newman, who spent many boyhood summers in the “big easy.”

“Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans” is this time recorded by Charmaine Neville on Live At Bourbon Street Music Club, although it does include a Louis Armstrong impersonation either by her or a band member.

“Goodby Charlie” by the Kitchen Syncopators, the street buskers I mentioned earlier, is the tune I originally used, but I can’t find it anywhere except my closet. I did find on iTunes a song called “Satisfied” by a similar sounding band of the same name. It’s on an album called Pickathon Music Festival 2003.

“Little Old Town Called New Orleans I Know” has the old street singer Jerry Jeff Walker from his album Gonzo Stew accompanied by tinkling piano, trombone, 4-string banjo, clarinet and maybe a tuba in there somewhere. Dixieland meets cow jazz.

“Drop Me Off In New Orleans.” Kermit Ruffins is one of the most popular trumpeter/singers working the French Quarter the last twenty years or so keeping the old style New Orleans jazz alive. The tune is available on multiple albums. You’ll find the images on the video more pleasant to see than on the opener.

“Jambalaya.” I found this Cajun flavored version by CJ Chenier & The Red Hot Louisanna Band on Alligator Records 30th Anniversary Collection.

“Mother – In – Law” is of course the R&B classic by Ernie K. Doe written by the great Allen Toussaint.

“Time Is On My Side” is performed here by three legends: Irma Thomas with Allen Toussaint  and the orchestra featuring Dave Bartholomew for the HBO show Treme. It’s on the soundtrack album, Treme, Season 1 (Music From The HBO Original Series.) Of course you can include anything from Irma Thomas, and I’m happy.

“We Are One” is from a collection of new recordings done in June, 2005, by Rhino and Starbucks’ Hear Music called I Believe To My Soul. Allen Toussaint’s vocal here brings a spiritual quality to a song that seemed in the post Katrina context to be a kind of reconciliation between mankind and a mother nature who reeked such havoc.

“In The Court Of King Oliver” is performed by trumpet star Wynton Marsalis with help from his father Ellis on piano from the album Standard Time Volume 3: Resolution of Romance. King Oliver was, or course, the first great trumpet star to be recorded. He move up river from New Orleans to Chicago and later recruited his protege Armstrong’s mentor.

“The Blues Are Out Of Town” is an upbeat contemporary jazz vocal by New Orleans native Laverne Butler from her album Blues In The City. Love her album.

“West End Blues”  written by King Oliver is arguably the song that made Louis Armstrong a star with its soaring intro that leaves other trumpeters breathless. He recorded it several times over the years, this one in the fifties.

“Black and Blue” by Fats Waller and popularized by Armstrong is done here by Sidney Bechet on the Blue Note album The Fabulous Sidney Bechet. Bechet is featured on the soprano sax here and also played the clarinet. As a pioneering soloist, he did for the sax what Louis did for the trumpet.

“Mardi Gras In New Orleans” is an iconic New Orleans tune written by Professor Longhair done up this time in big band jazz style by Harry Connick, Jr. from Chanson Du VIeaux Carre.

“Red Hot Pepper” was written by Jelly Roll Morton who often claimed to be the inventor of jazz. Whether he was or not, he was one of the first great jazz composers. This version is by his fellow New Orleans master Wynton Marsalis from Mr. Jelly Lord: Standard Time Vol. 6.

“Mack The Knife” brings together two New Orleans contemporary greats featuring Dr. John vocalizing with Nicholas Payton and his 14 piece band on the trumpeter’s admirable tribute album, Dear Louis. I could have chosen any of several pieces from Payton’s album.

“New Orleans Stomp” is found on McCoy Tyner’s album Illuminations. On the one hand, this selection is an exception to the rule because Tyner is not from the Crescent City, but the tune captures the feel of a New Orleans second line, and Tyner’s trumpet player is New Orleans born and bred Terrence Blanchard.

The medley “Bye and Bye and The Saints Go Marching In” is the second selection on the list that I discovered on Putumayo Presents: New Orleans. Featuring Dr. Michael White and Greg Stafford these tunes are quintessential New Orleans.

“Basin Street Blues.” I know Satchmo pervades this list as influential player and singer, songwriter and muse, but I had to have one more serving from the master himself.

“Walking To New Orleans” by Fats Domino – could the list end any other way? When Fats was rescued by Coast Guard helicopter from Katrina’s waters, he was evacuated to Baton Rouge. It took awhile, but eventually Fats was able to return home to New Orleans.

To paraphrase Fats’ lyric, “New Orleans is our (musical) home, that’s the reason why we’re gone, walking to New Orleans.”

The Dan Penn Connection

(Quick reminder: If you are a subscriber to email notification of each of my new posts, you can read the entire text from the email.  I do embed video and audio clips, but you must go to my actual blog site at to see those links.)

My friend Tommy Baysden says that anyone who hasn’t yet seen the acclaimed 2013 documentary film “Muscle Shoals” should go straight to assisted living. I have to agree, but in case you haven’t see the movie, it’s the story of how in the 1960s a bunch of largely white country boys mainly from northern Alabama and Mississippi combined with a remarkable array of black singers to create many of the all time great R&B hits. In a place and time often marked by hatred and too frequently by violence between the races, these cats filled a studio with love, respect, a groove and soul.

If you have seen the movie, you already know that one of the featured characters is musician, songwriter, and producer Dan Penn. Although not touched on in the movie, Penn was, and still is, a pretty darn good soul singer in his own right. Penn and others of his cohorts in Muscle Shoals have said that although they were country boys, they grew up much more enamored by the likes of Ray Charles and other black singers than they were country singers. R&B was the music they tried to emulate as they started out, feeling like the notes and chords they were hearing carried so much more power and emotion. Interestingly, when I think back on the early records I was buying, and the music played by the regional bands we danced to in the Carolinas, it was almost all R&B. Late at night, when the signals from far away AM radio stations would come in loud and clear, we’d hear disc jockeys with patter like “Solomon Burke can handle the work and Otis Redding’s got the heading.”

A few months ago, Penn was a guest on Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale’s wonderful show on Sirius/XM’s Outlaw Country channel. He was discussing his association with Muscle Shoals in the context of the recent release of his CD, The FAME Recordings. This is essentially a collection of demo recordings he made of songs he wrote (or co-wrote) while working at FAME Studio. As Penn said, these recordings were not made for release but rather to attract the attention of an established singer like, say, Percy Sledge.

Although many of the other great FAME studio musicians helped out, as demos these tunes didn’t get the full studio treatment. While it’s still fun to listen to so many good tunes in their more raw form, I prefer Penn’s fully developed CD Do Right Man, released in 1994. He’s in fine voice and is accompanied by many of his old friends from the Muscle Shoals 1960’s hey day, this time with a horn section in fully produced form. He does about a dozen of his best known songs plus a couple more lesser known but still strong tunes. I recommend you check it out.

What’s also really fun is to connect and compare Penn’s performances of his songs to those by some of the more well known singers who in many cases made them hits or otherwise gave memorable performances. Of course, you can also make a playlist of Dan Penn songs as recorded by others. You can mix up tempos as well as song orders, use some hit versions and some that were album cuts, and check female versus male versions to end up with several entertaining variations.

Here is the track listing from Do Right Man of those songs covered by other artists, several of which became big hits. ** denotes hit version; * denotes it’s in my collection

“The Dark End Of The Street” – James Carr** *, Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, Greg Allman, Linda Ronstadt*, the Flying Burrito Brothers* and many more.

Check out the great James Carr.

And here is Dan Penn with the great keyboardist Bobby Emmons, who played on the Carr recording, in an appearance on David Letterman.

“Cry Like A Man” – Christy Moore

“It Tears Me Up” – Percy Sledge** *, Johnny Adams, The Box Tops, The Hacienda Brothers*

“You Left The Water Running” – James & Bobby Purify*, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, Barbara Lynn**, Huey Lewis & the News*.

“Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” – Aretha Franklin** *, Etta James, Phoebe Snow, Dionne Warwick*, Flying Burrito Brothers* and many others.

“Memphis Women and Chicken” – T. Graham Brown

“Zero Willpower” – Irma Thomas

“He’ll Take Care Of You” – T. Graham Brown (with Vince Gill), Bonnie Bramlett*

“I’m Your Puppet” – James & Bobby Purify** *, Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell, The Box Tops, Dionne Warwick*, Irma Thomas and many others.

I only found one track on the album that did not have other covers, “Where There’s A Will There’s A Way,” but that only means that somebody missed out on a golden opportunity for a hit.  What do you think?

Still, as long as we’re building a playlist of hit songs co-written by Dan Penn, let’s include these, a couple of which can be found on Penn’s The Fame Recordings:

“Cry Like A Baby” – The Box Tops** * (he also produced their hit “The Letter,”) Cher, Betty Wright, Lulu, Arthur Alexander, The Hacienda Brothers*.

“(Take Me) Just As I Am” – Solomon Burke, Spencer Wiggins*

“Uptight, Good Woman” – Solomon Burke**, Wilson Pickett, Spencer Wiggins*

“Out Of Left Field – Percy Sledge** *, Hank Williams, Jr, Al Kooper

“Sweet Inspiration” – The Sweet Inspirations** *

“A Woman Left Lonely” – Janis Joplin, Irma Thomas, Charlie Rich

“Is A Bluebird Blue?” – Conway Twitty, The Band of Oz

This last song was Penn’s very first and helped convince him and others that he could make it in the music business. And what a long career he’s had. While most of these songs represent classic sixties soul music at its finest, Penn has endured as an in demand producer and writer, and still performs as he recently did at Lincoln Center in New York City with several of his Muscle Shoals era friends.

In fact, I’ve found the Dan Penn connection extends in more varied directions than I first imagined. Here are just two albums released in the last few years that show his influence across the entire spectrum of Classic Cowjazz R&B.

Greg Trooper – Make It Through This World

When I was checking some of the information used in this post, I discovered that Dan Penn had in 2005 produced an album for a singer/songwriter originally from New Jersey, Greg Trooper. So I sought out this album and was blown away. I immediately added it to my music library and listened to it two or three times in a row.

Although he was born in New Jersey and at one point had a band in New York, Trooper has apparently lived most of his adult life in Austin, Texas, and Nashville, carving out a place in the Americana niche. I had never heard of him, yet he’s very respected in the music world. For example, he’s worked with Larry Campbell, who is so well known for his years with Bob Dylan and Levon Helm, and he had an earlier album produced by Buddy Miller.

Having said that, I checked out all of his music that I could readily find, and for my money, his album with Penn stands apart. Mind you, this is not R&B. Still, Penn seasoned his songs with a hint of groove, a rhythmic underpinning and mix of instruments that brings to Trooper’s songs and his singing, something I can’t quite find a word for that makes me want to hear them again and again. But don’t misunderstand, it’s not just what Penn did, its how it showcases Trooper’s lyrics, melodies and singing. The match up just works.

I can’t find a loser in the bunch, but I have found a couple of early favorites.  As you heard, “Dream Away These Blues” is actually an upbeat prognostication of how the singer will feel after he recovers from his blues. He’s down today, but he knows he’ll be up tomorrow. I love the way Penn employed the organ on this and other tunes to bring a little gospel feel to the proceedings. Then, you have to love a lyric that goes: “If you don’t like my peaches, don’t know where they’re grown, I’ll walk all the way to Georgia, just to bring one home to you, ‘This I’d Do’…” as Trooper recounts all the things he’ll do to prove his love. Again, it’s that organ that pulls you into the the song most flavored by R&B.

Great lines abound, for example “lonely as a cheap hotel” from “Don’t Let It Go To Waste.” The one I keep coming back to, however, is “I Love It When She Lies,” in which Trooper sings about a girl so wonderful she couldn’t possibly be telling the truth “when she looks into my eyes, and tells me I’m the prize, I love it when she lies.”

It’s not all sweetness and light, however. “Close To The Tracks” is the story of a woman trying to understand why her perfect romance went bad. “She called her mom and her dad, but they wouldn’t understand, they say ‘what did you do to that hard working man.’” And there’s the poignancy of “I’ve got all that I wanted, got all that I’ve dreamed, and I’m So Lonesome For You Now” about a man who’s reached the pinnacle, alone. Still despite the blue times, for Trooper on this album there is always hope as in “When I Think Of You My Friends” when he sings, “out of work, out of luck, but never out of dreams.”

In case you missed my point: I love this record.”

The Hacienda Brothers – What’s Wrong With Right

What do you get when you put together a band – led by two southern Californians, one a country underground hero who sang everything from country to rockabilly to Tejano to Philly soul, and the other a song writing guitar god from a cult band with a penchant for equally cross genre adventures – and an old swamper from north Alabama? I’m not sure, even after several listenings. Thus, I’m not sure this album is for everybody, but I am sure everybody should give it a try and see for themselves.

Allow me to elaborate. The swamper as you no doubt have guessed given the subject of this article is Dan Penn. Somehow Penn got connected with singer/songwriter Chris Gaffney and Dave Gonzales, guitar picker extraordinaire for The Paladins. Gaffney and Gonzales founded a genuine honky tonk band called The Hacienda Brothers. Working together in 2005, Gaffney, Gonzales and Penn pushed the boundaries of country honky tonk toward soul music on the band’s eponymous first album. Then in 2006, on What’s Wrong With Right , they pushed a little farther toward soul and in my opinion found a sweet spot. Penn called is “western soul.”

“Midnight Dream,” written by the band, sets the tone from the moment Dave Berzansky’s pedal steel meets Joe Terry’s organ. The soul flavor is enhanced by the inclusion of Penn’s classics “Cry Like A Baby” and “It Tears Me Up” along with “Cowboys To Girls,” the Intruders hit from the sixties. I know it sounds incongruous that a cowboy bar band could pull these off, but the Hacienda Brothers are up to the task. Careful though; just when you think the guys are all about soul, they hit you with “The Last Time,” a beer joint country two stepper in the grand tradition – Gonzales has said that he had imagined he was writing the song for Ray Price – and a great cover of Charlie Rich’s “Life’s Little Ups And Downs.” Gaffney’s weathered voice hits just enough right notes with just enough passion to pull off all these gambles. Gonzales’ guitar is restrained, but about the time you miss it, he zings you with the perfect fill you and the song need. Plus on the instrumental finale, “The Son of Saguaro” he gets to strut his trademark deep twangs in the company of Gaffney’s lonesome western accordion along with pedal steel and gut string guitar to eerie, slow burning effect.

On this album, The Hacienda Brothers cross all the borders. Give a listen; it’s a journey you might want to take.

How important was Dan Penn to the album’s sound? That’s the essence of the question NPR’s Terry Gross posed to Gaffney and Gonzales in an interview on her show “Fresh Air.” Gonzales responded that Penn just has a feel for how to enhance a song. “He knows how to find the groove, how to find the soul” in the song. In a separate interview on NPR’s “Morning Edition, Penn commented on the characterization of his songs as having “a down home, conversational quality in his lyrics…and always a strong rhythmic feel.” He said, “I like a good groove. I’m not looking for a big mental statement. Just give me a groove and tell me something I like.”

Take the title track which Gonzales co-wrote with Penn. He told Gross that all he had was the title. He and Penn were hanging out in Vernon, Alabama, when he asked for Penn’s thoughts on it. “I looked him straight in the eye and said, “what’s wrong with right,” and he looked right back at me and said, “do I hold you too tight?” They knew they had something and finished the song that night.

Penn has repeatedly said that he prefers collaboration rather than writing solo. Yet even though he’s had many co-writers, and has produced records in multiple genres, almost any song he’s touched has something you can feel, that groove and soul Gonzales describes, that connects James Carr and Percy Sledge to newer performers like Greg Trooper and The Hacienda Brothers.

(Special note: I’m digressing slightly off my titular subject, but I just feel you need to know more about Chris Gaffney. Before he hooked up with Dave Gonzales and Dan Penn, he showed off his versatile vocal chops on his own 1995 album, Losers Paradise. His voice was a decade younger and stronger, thus slightly less weathered yet still filled with the soul that gave him such range across genres. He flat kills the title track as well as Tom Russell’s “The Eyes Of Roberto Duran,” which explains the futility of fighting with his woman, and “The Man of Someone’s Dreams,” as sad a requiem for wasting a chance at love as you’ll ever hear. He also presages The Hacienda Brothers with his solo version of “Cowboys To Girls” on which he’s supported by the haunting harmony voice of the inimitable Lucinda Williams.  At the very least, you’ll want to cherry pick at least those four tunes.”)

Let’s close out by cherry picking from among Dan Penn songs you may have never heard, or perhaps have heard but didn’t connect them to him.

“I Hate You” – Bobby Blue Bland
“Got a Feeling For Ya” – Kelly Willis
“Blue In The Heart” – Irma Thomas
“I Won’t Cry For You” – Irma Thomas
“I’m Not Through Loving You Yet” – Pegi Young (Neill’s wife)

I can hardly think of a better way to close this discussion than with one of my all time favorites Irma Thomas singing a Dan Penn song:

Closing note: I will be traveling next week to the wedding of one of my nieces, so I won’t be able to do a post. I’ll be back in two weeks with more music news and thoughts. If you’re enjoying what you’re reading and hearing, please pass along the link to your friends.