During the recent Christmas holidays, my eldest daughter Leah began pestering my wife and I to watch a television series running on Netflix called Derry Girls. Leah claimed that it was the perfect combination of comedy, music, history and storytelling and that we would love it if we gave it a chance. So, we gave it a try and boy, am I ever glad we did! Derry Girls is a fantastic series. It is set in the town of Derry, Ireland, and in much the same way that the Vietnam War permeated every aspect of the landmark comedy, M*A*S*H*, “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland make their presence felt all through this show, too. What connects Derry Girls to today’s post is something that happened in passing in the final episode of the series. All throughout the series, real historical references were liberally added to the storyline. In the closing episode, two of the female characters were having dueling 18th birthday parties and were competing to have Derry-born singer Bronagh Gallagher sing at their party. Gallagher is someone who helped make Derry proud because of her important role in the Irish movie, The Commitments, in which she plays a singer in an Irish band that is seeking to emulate the 1960s Soul and R & B sound of the American South. Gallagher ends up making a cameo appearance in the finale and helps to wrap the series up on a very satisfying and appropriate note. The soundtrack to the series Derry Girls is absolutely fantastic and comes highly, highly recommended.
This brings me back to The Commitments. The music was excellent all throughout that movie as well. The two soundtrack CDs that came out of that project both featured some of the most iconic Soul and R & B recordings ever made. In fact, for a movie known for its music, The Commitments is one of the only movies of its type ever made that features no original songs. All of the music came from pre-released classic tracks from some of music’s most famous names, all performed as covers by the actors who played the roles of band members in the movie. For those who have never watched The Commitments, it, too, comes highly recommended. It was based upon a book by Irish writer Roddy Doyle and ended up being nominated for an Academy Award, as well as winning the British Film Award for Best Picture of the Year. The storyline is simply about a dream that one young Irish man has about forming a Soul band because he believes that music is the most “real” of all musical genres. In the film, it comes out that one of the characters knows singer Wilson Pickett and boasts of being able to have him appear on stage with them during one of their shows. The connection with Wilson Pickett is a very important one because of Pickett’s musical background. In real life, “Wicked” Wilson Pickett shot to fame on the basis of several songs, the most famous being “In The Midnight Hour”. *(I wrote a previous post about this song that you can read by clicking here). A majority of Pickett’s hits were recorded at the F.A.M.E. music studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. That is an important connection because almost all of the songs found on the original The Commitments soundtrack CD had their origins in Muscle Shoals, including two songs, “Dark End of the Street” and “Do Right Woman/Do Right Man” that were co-written by today’s singer/songwriter, Dan Penn. So, even though The Commitments is an Irish movie about an Irish band, it is really a historical nod to the legacy of excellence that emanated from the F.A.M.E. music studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and is a tip of the hat to those like Dan Penn who did such groundbreaking work there. The story of Soul music in America is not just about Motown in Detroit. It is just as much about Muscle Shoals, too, as you shall soon see.
Muscle Shoals, Alabama is a relatively small town of approximately 12,000 people that sits in the upper northwest corner of Alabama, along the Tennessee River. Muscle Shoals came into existence as a result of Franklin Roosevelt’s economic stimulus initiative known as the Tennessee Valley Authority Act. Among the many things that this Act did was to bring industry to those communities situated along the Tennessee River. It accomplished this by laying down power lines and modernizing the infrastructure of formerly rural, under-developed places like Muscle Shoals. One of the first industries to come to Muscle Shoals was the Ford Motor Company. It built an automobile assembly line factory there that brought with it a workforce that swelled the ranks of Muscle Shoals citizenry. During the 1950s, an entrepreneur named Rick Hall saw an opportunity to take advantage of Muscle Shoals’ improved economic situation by opening a recording studio just as Rock n’ Roll was set to become the next big thing in America. However, more than just being a business owner, Hall was a white man who believed that laws that separated the races in America were wrong. Hall loved music, and, in particular, he had a fondness for Soul music. So, at great danger to himself, he opened a music studio called F.A.M.E. (which stood for Florence, Alabama Music Enterprises) with the intention of making it a fully-integrated recording facility. As you may know, integration was a very loaded word in the American South at that time and there were many who thought that Hall’s idea that “music should be colourblind” was outrageous and naive. But Hall thought otherwise and set out to prove the naysayers wrong. One of the first acts to record in Muscle Shoals was Wilson Pickett. One of the next to come through the F.A.M.E. studio doors was a young black female singer named Aretha Franklin. Aretha was no Queen of Soul in those days. Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, she was just starting out in her career. As such, Franklin was in need of good songs to sing. One of the songwriting teams assigned to work with her was the team of Dan Penn and Chips Moman. From their creative minds came the song “Do Right Woman/Do Right Man”, which ended up becoming one of the songs that launched Aretha Franklin’s career. The team of Penn and Moman also wrote a song called “Dark End of the Street”, which they gave to a singer named James Carr. Carr’s version of this song is considered by most fans and critics as being the definitive version of this classic Soul track.
The Ford Motor Company left Muscle Shoals, Alabama in 1971. However, instead of drying up as many one-industry towns do when that one industry up and leaves, Muscle Shoals doubled down on music. Since then, this small community has become the epi-centre of music production in the American South and has seen artists as varied as Duane Allman, Joe Cocker, Willie Nelson, Paul Simon, Cher, Rod Stewart, Cat Stevens and many more all record there. Regardless of which artist was recording at any one time, the F.A.M.E. music studio has always been fully integrated with engineers, mixers, session players, back-up singers and so on all being the best available people regardless of gender or race. One of those who has worked there for over six decades now is Dan Penn. Although Penn is most known as a songwriter for hire, he has produced several albums of his own material and is well-regarded as an authentic voice of a sub-genre of music known as “Blue-eyed Soul”. It is, therefore, not surprising that Dan Penn’s name should appear not once but twice on the soundtrack for the movie The Commitments for his songs “The Dark End of the Street” and “Do Right Woman/Do Right Man”. After all, when writer Roddy Doyle wrote about an Irish band singing “blue-eyed soul” it is only right that he should go directly to the wellspring of its source, Mr. Dan Penn, for material.
Dan Penn was nominated as a Reader’s Choice selection by my friend Andrea Storm. Andrea is a retired teacher who used to work with my wife, Keri, which is how I first came to know her. Since then, Andrea and I have teamed up to create this very post that you are reading (and all of the others that I create). Andrea has volunteered to act as my copy editor and in that role is responsible for reducing my use of commas by over fifty percent at least for each post. Andrea is also a music lover and regularly attends more concerts in one year than I have seen in my lifetime. So, thank you Andrea for your help with these music posts and for nominating such an interesting and important figure from the world of music in the form of Dan Penn. To anyone else reading this post, I happily take requests for artists, bands and songs from any era and from any genre of music. If you have a good suggestion for one of these Reader’s Choice profiles, then by all means send it along and I will be happy to oblige at some future date. Until then, thank you all for being part of this music blog experience. I hope to see you all again in a week with the next installment of Reader’s Choice. Bye for now.
The link to the video for the trailer to the Netflix series Derry Girls can be found here.
The link to the video for the trailer to the movie The Commitments can be found here.
The link to the video for the song “Do Right Woman/Do Right Man” written by Dan Penn and Chips Moman and sung by Aretha Franklin can be found here. ***For the lyrics version I can only find the Jennifer Hudson cover version which is here.
The link to the video for the song “Dark End of the Street” written by Dan Penn and Chips Moman and sung by James Carr can be found here. ***Once again, I could only find cover versions for the lyrics version. So, from the movie The Commitments, here you go. Their version is here.
The link to the video for the trailer of a documentary called “Muscle Shoals” about the history of Muscle Shoals and the F.A.M.E. studios can be found here.
The link to the official website for the F.A.M.E. music studio can be found here.
The link to the official website for Muscle Shoals, Alabama can be found here.
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