James/Bobby Purify: I’m Your Puppet
From S/T (Bell, 1967). Also on Shake a Tail Feather.

The Sweet Inspirations: Sweet Inspiration
From S/T (Atlantic, 1967). Also on Girls Got Soul.

Aretha Franklin: Do Right Woman, Do Right Man
From I Never Loved a Man The Way I Love You (Atlantic, 1967)

(Ed.: This is the second in a three part series by Charles Hughes on the legacy of Muscle Shoals in soul music. –O.W.)

The Muscle Shoals Sound, Pt. 2, by Charles Hughes

No other songwriters symbolize the interracial exchange in Muscle Shoals soul like Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, two true individuals who, over the course of a decade-long success streak, wrote literally dozens of classic R&B, pop and even country songs. 

Both men grew up in rural Alabama, listening (like most Southern soul veterans) to country, R&B and gospel.  Penn, in particular, became a nearly trans-racial figure, rejecting white music to such a degree that his band (which featured many future Muscle Shoals session players) was banned from some white-only venues because they drew too many black fans.  (Many consider Penn, unrecorded in his prime, to be the best blue-eyed soul singer they ever heard.)  Like most of the Shoals’ white songwriters and musicians, Penn cherished (sometimes imperfectly) the opportunity to work with black musicians in such a highly creative context.

Combining Penn’s passion and eccentricity with Oldham’s quieter brilliance (and supple keyboard playing) resulted in handfuls of classics. Some of them not included above: “Dark End Of The Street,” “It Tears Me Up,” “Out Of Left Field” and “You Left The Water Runnin’.”  Penn and Oldham continue to write and record to this day, and I can’t recommend their performances and recordings highly enough.

I love Penn and Oldham’s writing for several reasons.  First, and most important of course, is the simple fact that it’s uniformly excellent; they have a tremendous gift to capture emotions simply and effectively.  Then there’s the fact that two white country boys from Alabama are responsible for writing so many great Southern soul songs.  Also, Penn/Oldham’s sheer versatility marks them, and the three tracks I chose to single out speak to that, deep soul hewn from pop (“I’m Your Puppet”), gospel (“Sweet Inspiration”) and country (“Do Right Woman”).  It is this versatility, and the resulting mixture, that defines much of Muscle Shoals soul.