The night was billed as “An Intimate Evening with Dan Penn,” and intimate was certainly an accurate description. A who’s who of some of Nashville’s best songwriters (both well-known and emerging) gathered to help Penn celebrate his birthday, and it was abundantly clear that they held him in the highest esteem.
“I get tired of telling these stories," Penn said, "but people still seem to want to hear them.” He was talking about the story of writing “Cry Like a Baby” with Spooner Oldham for the Box Tops. Penn relocated to Memphis from Muscle Shoals where he had written or co-written a string of hits, in the legendary Fame Studios. He decided he wanted to try his hand at producing and began working with Chips Moman at American Sounds Studios. While at American Sound, Penn produced the Box Tops' smash hit single, “The Letter.” When the follow up failed to sell as well, Penn said, people stopped sending him songs, so he and Spooner Oldham set out to write a song for the band. Frustrated and feeling defeated, the pair decided to call it a night and went to the diner across the street. It was there that Oldham said, “I feel like I could cry like a baby,” and in a flash, the song was born. The pair dashed out of diner without eating, and returned to the studio to write the song, which became a number two hit.
The stories and the songs kept coming for over two hours. The first part of the show was dominated by some of Penn’s best known and most successful songs -- among them: “I’m Your Puppet,” a hit for James and Bobby Purify; “Sweet Inspiration,” written for the Sweet Inspirations, “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” recorded by Aretha Franklin, and perhaps Penn’s best-known song, “Dark End of the Street,” which was a hit for James Carr.
Penn closed the first set of music this night with a powerful version of “A Woman Left Lonely,” which Janis Joplin included on her classic album, Pearl.
The second set of music featured a mixed bag of songs: more recently written songs, the title track from Penn’s 1973 album, “Nobody’s Fool,” his first hit song (written while he was still in high school) “Is a Bluebird Blue?” and songs from 2012’s The Fame Recordings. That album included 24 songs Penn recorded at Fame Studios, 23 of which had never been released. He ended the night with “Feed the Flame” from that same recording.
To seal the deal, the intimate evening ended with a rendition of “Happy Birthday” from the City Winery audience.