Dan Penn is not only among the finest soul and country songwriters of all time, but he’s just as fine a vocalist as many of the greats that he’s produced and penned hits for since the 1960s. But Penn never sought individual stardom, and in fact has done only a handful of recordings.
It’s even more rare an occasion when he performs in public, which makes Wednesday night’s “An Evening with Dan Penn and Bobby Emmons” at the Bluebird Café even more of a special occasion.
“Bobby’s one of my best friends in the business going back a long, long time and he’s someone that I really enjoy being around and working with and we don’t often get that much of a chance to do things together,” Penn said. “We’d been talking for a long while about doing something and this just kind of came around here.”
Their relationship also goes back decades, when both were major figures in soul’s prime period as a popular music force. At American Studios in Memphis, Penn co-wrote with Chips Moman immortal songs like “Dark End of the Street’ (cut by Clarence Carter, Aretha Franklin, Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt and James Carr to name only a few), “Do Right Woman” (Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson) and “Out of Left Field” (Percy Sledge).
He also produced “The Letter” for the Boxtops, and subsequently has had tunes recorded by numerous soul, blues, country, pop and rock greats.
Emmons, originally a Mississippi native, has been an acclaimed session musician (keyboards, organ and acoustic piano) and songwriter for five decades, enjoying his initial impact as a member of Bill Black’s Combo. He was a major part of the studio bands at both HI Records and American Studios, and also participated in historic sessions at Sun, Phillips International, Sounds of Memphis, Stax and Ardent.
The list of artists that have recorded his tunes include B.J. Thomas, Waylon Jennings, Tanya Tucker, George Strait and most recent Norah Jones. Emmons’ playing can currently be heard on several songs from the new deluxe reissue From Elvis in Memphis, including classic hits “In The Ghetto,” “Kentucky Rain” and “Suspicious Minds.”
Both remain active today, and Penn has recently released a pair of recordings on his own Dandy label, Blue Nite Lounge and Junkyard Junky. They showcase his still formidable, deep and soulful voice, plus his fondness for a more restrained, less intrusive production style.
“I don’t really listen to all that much in terms of today’s sound,” Penn confessed. “I guess I’m much more of an old-school guy in that I really want to hear the words and the singer, not so much background things. With all the technology available, you can really do a lot in the studio. But that’s not what really interests me.”
While saying that he’s always enjoying working with almost everyone, Penn will reluctantly cite a few names and situations that stand out for him if asked.
“Well I think James Carr’s version of “Dark End of the Street” is the best one that I’ve ever heard in terms of what we had in mind for the song,” Penn admitted. “There have really been many, many good versions, but James really put something into it that no one else ever has.”
IF YOU GO
What: An evening with Dan Penn and Bobby Emmons
When: 9 p.m. Wednesday
Where: The Bluebird Café, 4104 Hillsboro Rd.