Saturday, November 7, 2009
It Tears Me Up, Percy Sledge (1966)
One of the performers at the event was keyboardist Spooner Oldham who, along with the virtuoso songwriter Dan Penn, wrote the definitive, the most raw, anthem to love's anguish, It Tears Me Up. Drenched in pain, the song is a portrait of someone quite simply reeling from betrayal. Many have sung it but the great Percy Sledge was its first interpreter.
Wexler was probably the single reason we even knew about Sledge. Wanting to establish a recording base in the Deep South for Atlantic, Wexler decided to distribute Sledge's signature song, When A Man Loves A Woman, at a pivotal time in Atlantic's A&R evolution. It became a sensation. (My prior post on that story is here.)
After that, Wexler began to send more and more artists to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to record. Oldham was one of the session musicians working there, which gave rise to hit after hit. Said Sledge in Gerri Hirshey's Nowhere To Run, "What drew everybody to Muscle Shoals ... well, it sits right at the bottom of the mountains. ... When you got mountains standing that high up over you, all the way around for, like, fifty, sixty miles, then you've got a bass track."
The partnership of Penn and Oldham was one of the most fertile out of that southern crucible, that also included Memphis. Penn, who once said, "I can't tell where Spooner stops and I begin when we write a song," is a gigantic (and, I feel, unsung) talent - a man through whose songs every emotion no one wants to feel can be experienced. A Woman Left Lonely, I'm Your Puppet, Out of Left Field and Cry Like A Baby were other songs the two co-wrote, and Penn has written many, many more that everyone recognizes with numerous other collaborators.
More recently, Penn took on a new project, producing western soul men the Hacienda Brothers, based out of Tucson. I have never heard a more heartwrenching or redefining version of It Tears Me Up, bolstered particularly through its use of pedal steel guitar where horns were in the original version. You could be the happiest person alive and you'll want to slit your throat after hearing it. Find their 2007 album What's Wrong With Right and prepare to suffer.