Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Woman Left Lonely, Janis Joplin (1971)

Managing expectations - This post is going to be more about the co-writer of this song (with Spooner Oldham), the almost unbearably-talented Dan Penn, than it will be about the singer.

Since I started this blog, I've been trying to determine which of Janis' songs best showcased her ability to unleash her unbridled pain. I keep coming back to A Woman Left Lonely. And now I know why. Dan Penn - singer, songwriter and producer extraordinaire - wrote it.

Those who don't know Penn need to rectify that situation, as he is still alive and kicking. Among the insanely sublime songs he wrote for others:

Don't Give Up on Me (with Carson Whitsett and Hoy Lindsey) for Solomon Burke
I'm Your Puppet (with Spooner Oldham) for James & Bobby Purify
The Dark End of the Street (with Chips Moman) for James Carr (but Penn singing his own masterpiece trumps it, in my opinion - don't listen to this on a day when you're not pretty strong - it could kill you)
Do Right Woman, Do Right Man (with Spooner Oldham) for Aretha Franklin
Cry Like A Baby (again with Spooner Oldham) for the Boxtops; he also produced but didn't compose The Letter
Is A Bluebird Blue? (at the age of 15!) for Conway Twitty

I'll stop now. I'm afraid I'll find even more. The man's output is staggering.

A native of Vernon, Alabama, Penn is one of a handful of white musicians who was lucky enough (his characterization) to work side by side with black musicians to create some of the most significant soul music of our time. Working out of the crucibles of Muscle Shoals, Memphis and Nashville (where he still lives), Penn time and time again has excavated primal emotions and unfurled them in ballads that approximate perfection.

It's hard to say from whence his talent for working across color lines comes. Fresh Air's Terry Gross tried, in an interview with Penn in 2001, to get at the magic formula, but like most artists, he couldn't really articulate his gift. He did say, however, that after Martin Luther King was assassinated, the peaceful co-existence of black and white artists in the studio all but evaporated, something I've heard Stax' Steve Cropper say as well. One of many side tragedies emanating from the original one.

Penn does perform on his own and with Spooner Oldham upon occasion, has released several recordings (Nobody's Fool and Do Right Man are two) and continues to produce - most recently, the Tucson-based Hacienda Brothers. If he appeared anywhere within a hundred mile radius of me right now, I'd be there in a minute.

1 comment:

karmasartre said...

Awaiting your next Pearl of wisdom....