In the first few pages of Peter Guralnick's superb book Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm & Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, the author describes Dan Penn as "the renegade white hero of this book," and Penn has been widely and justly celebrated by many music historians as one of the great songwriters to emerge from the 1960s soul music boom, penning classic tunes for Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, James Carr, Otis Redding, James & Bobby Purify, and many more. Penn is less widely acclaimed as a great soul singer, largely because so few people have heard his work; while Guralnick and other writers have spoken rhapsodically of the publishing demos Penn cut in the '60s, Penn put out only four obscure singles prior to making his misbegotten debut album in 1973, and his body of recorded work remains elusive. Thankfully, Ace Records has finally made it possible for fans to hear the recordings that so impressed Guralnick; The Fame Recordings includes 24 numbers Penn recorded at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama between 1964 and 1966, all but one of which has never before been released. While a few of these songs would be major hits for other artists, nearly all of them sound like winners, and unlike most songwriters demo-ing their material, Penn's performances are raw, passionate, full-bodied, and soulful; he was a white kid from the deep south in love with the sound of Ray Charles and Bobby "Blue" Bland, and on the best cuts here, he goes past conjuring an approximation of their sound, revealing a voice and style all his own that suggests he influenced the singers who would cut these songs almost as much as they influenced him. While Penn could mimic other artists -- "I'm Living Good" is an uncanny Sam Cooke lift, and "Take a Good Look" finds Penn channeling Otis Redding -- he puts in enough force and sheer belief to make these performances his own no matter how well you may already know these songs, and with a number of legendary session men backing him up, these recordings are remarkably accomplished, slightly rough but full of the sound of musicians thrilled by the act of creation. (And one can hear more than a bit of what Penn taught Alex Chilton when he produced the Box Tops' original string of hits, transforming Chilton's British Invasion instincts into some of the most soulful pop of the '60s.) The Fame Recordings is a valuable lost chapter in the history of Southern Soul, and confirms the legend that Dan Penn's publishing demos were more than just talk -- anyone with a taste for vintage R&B owes it to himself to give this a listen.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming