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Dan Penn, "Do Right Man"; Sire

July 14, 1994|RANDY LEWIS

It's a safe bet that at least one of the '60s soul hits written by Penn was echoing through John Hiatt's head when he wrote "Memphis in the Meantime," which includes a plea for a dose of Penn's brand of classic R & B: "One more heartfelt steel guitar chord, girl it's gonna do me in / I need to hear some trumpet and saxophone, you know, sound as sweet as sin."

That's probably a yearning Penn feels every now and then in his home in Nashville, Tenn., too. Although Penn's name may not ring a bell, his songs certainly should. They've been recorded by Aretha Franklin ("Do Right Woman Do Right Man"), James & Bobby Purify ("I'm Your Puppet"), Linda Ronstadt ("The Dark End of the Street"), the Box Tops ("Cry Like a Baby") and many others.

Penn has recorded versions of his music, but only sporadically--it's been 21 years since his last album. For this one, he set up shop in Alabama's famed Muscle Shoals studios and enlisted such top session players as organist Spooner Oldham (also Penn's longtime songwriting partner), guitarists Reggie Young and Jimmy Johnson and, of course, those sweet-as-sin Muscle Shoals horns.

As a vocalist, Penn sounds an awful lot like Eric Clapton, though his dusky voice is slightly heartier. And while he won't make you forget the original versions of his most famous compositions, his own perspective on them is every bit as valid. He brings a more melancholy edge to "I'm Your Puppet" and a plaintive cry to "Do Right Woman. . . ."

In "Zero Willpower," one of several less-famous songs here, he sings "I leave myself wide open / I'm a door that you walk through" in a way that perfectly captures the tune's vulnerability.

The '60s soul feel of the production as a whole feels timeless, never dated. Let's just hope it's not another 21 years before we hear from Penn again.

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