Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham

Dan Penn was a producer and songwriter who always wanted to write soul songs and had the ability to do so quite well.  When he teamed up with a dude named Spooner Oldham, a fellow songwriter, producer and organist, some would say magic occurred quite often.  

Magic occurred in 1966 in the form of "I'm Your Puppet," a Top 10 hit which was written for a couple of cousins named James and Bobby Purify.  Penn and Oldham wrote a lot of songs for the Purify cousins, but to this day, "I'm Your Puppet" with it's wonderful vocal and horn harmonies, B3 organ and fairy godmother glockenspiel, remains James and Bobby's best known hit.  It's a GREAT song and one of many Penn and Oldham hits.  By the way, their songs have been reinterpreted by a variety of artists including Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, Huey Lewis and Cat Power.  

"I'm Your Puppet" by James & Bobby Purify

One year later, the team of Penn and Oldham was hired to produce a young blue-eyed soul group (that means soul music sung by white people) called The Box-Tops.  Though the group's hit was another Penn/Oldham composition called "The Letter,"  The Box-Tops also recorded a version "I'm Your Puppet."   This version has no harmonies (except on the backing vocals) and uses slightly sharp bells in place of the glockenspiel.  The bells, and the dissonance of their sharp pitch against the rest of the instruments, are actually quite chilling.

The majority of the members of The Box-Tops were rather ordinary musicians.  Many session dudes came in to augment a lot of the songs with more instrumentation and vocals.  The one stand out star was the group's lead vocalist, Alex Chilton, who at 16 years old possessed one helluva husky voice.  He really sells his vocal on "I'm Your Puppet" and can deceive you into thinking he's an old seasoned pro.  

"I'm Your Puppet" by The Box Tops (Remember, the kid singing is 16!!)

After The Box-Tops broke up, Alex Chilton met a dude named Chris Bell and formed the power pop outfit known as Big Star.  Shockingly, Chilton's voice changed by the time this band formed.  No, it didn't get huskier.  It actually became clearer and higher pitched—how often does that happen?  Here's one of their best songs, a song which has been recorded by everybody from Tom Petty to Counting Crowes.  

"The Ballad of El Goodo" by Big Star (Can you believe it's the same kid singing?)

Big Star never really made it big, which is a real shame because they made great music.  Today, there isn't anybody who knows Big Star who doesn't believe they should have been huge.   Fact is, if it wasn't for red tape and record label bureacracy, they probably would have been.  Perhaps their best known song is a song which was later rerecorded by Cheap Trick.  If you've watched a lot of TV in the 90s and early 2000s, I'll bet you a coke that you know this number.

"In The Street" by Big Star (sung by Chris Bell)

You probably owe me a coke now...

Finally, I'd like to show you this album by the aformentioned duo Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham.  This is from a concert recorded in 1999.  They begin with our favorite song, "I'm Your Puppet."  It's shocking that nobody from the audience interrupts this song with applause when they start to play it!  That an audience could be so quiet for the entire duration of such a hit is a testament to both the song and the audience. These simple performances really emphasize just how good these songs are.  I highly recommend you check this out.

Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham: Music From This Theater