Dan Penn: Inside Track on Bobby Purify

Dan Penn: Inside Track on Bobby Purify

Dan Penn: Inside Track on Bobby Purify

March 8, 2024
Malcolm Mills

Reviewing Bobby Purify’s album “Better to Have It” in 2005, critic Bud Scoppa wroteWhen connoisseurs of soul music hear the names Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham, David Hood, Jimmie Johnson, Reggie Young, Wayne Jackson, and Carson Whitsett, they perk up, because those names are all over the credits of some of their most treasured records.  It isn’t every day that these legends of Memphis and Muscle Shoals lore come together, but the entire magnificent seven eagerly converged on Penn’s studio in Nashville when they heard the news: Bobby Purify had returned.”  

So here we are in 2024, releasing an expanded version of material from Bobby’s album to highlight the work of Dan Penn.  In my view, the complete range of Dan’s skills as a songwriter, arranger, producer, and performer are perfectly represented in this collection of recordings that I have named “The Inside Track on Bobby Purify”.  The twenty tracks on the album comprise ten demo recordings sung by Dan Penn that were the prototype for the accompanying full studio versions by Bobby Purify that Dan produced.  I’ve already told some of the story of Dan’s demos in a previous blog and you can read that at the link below, so I don’t repeat myself.

I ran into this Bobby Purify project of Dan’s slap dab in the middle of a US road trip with Paul Riley back in 2003.  Having already released “Moments from This Theatre” by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham some years previously, we’d arrived in Nashville after a few days in New York and wanted to drop over and say hi to Dan and his wife Linda to see if there was anything cooking…besides Linda’s sensational cornbread.  Dan coyly told us that he’d been writing more songs like “Don’t Give Up on Me” because since Solomon Burke had a hit with it for them, the songwriting team of Dan, Carson Whitsett, and Bucky Lindsey decided to continue in the same vein and now had enough for an album.

He went on to tell us that Bucky Lindsey and his partner Lisa Best down on the Gulf coast around the Alabama/Florida border had run into a blind guy performing solo at a party in 2002 and that he was the ideal singer for their new songs.  Dan had also been down to check him out and concurred.  That’s because the guy was Ben Moore – p.k.a Bobby Purify.  Ben had worked with and behind the likes of Otis Redding, James Carr, James Brown, and the Tams before becoming half of Ben & Spence, who cut several sides for Atlantic in the ’60s before hooking up with James Purify in 1971.  Adding to the confusion is the fact that Moore was the third individual to take the name Bobby Purify in this duo who had had a big hit with Dan and Spooner’s “I’m You Puppet”.  After glaucoma caused him to go blind in 1998, Purify was thrown into the depths of despair, frightened and alone.  Then one day the phone rang, and Bobby found himself talking with Ray Charles. “I had met him a while ago out there on the road,” he explained to Bud Scoppa, “and a friend of mine told him that I had went blind.  So, Ray called and told me, ‘You don’t need no eyes to have soul.  If you got soul, keep on goin’.  Just use that thing in there as a crutch for bein’ blind, to keep your mind occupied.’  So, I started goin’ back out on the road, blind, but without Ray, I’d still be sittin’ back there in that room.”

Now when Dan Penn tells you that he’s found the right guy to sing his songs, that gets your attention.  I was still drinking in those days but fortunately, the impetuosity that came with it had generally been favourable for me in business.  My ears were up.  Dan goes on to say that if he can get the funding for an album, he’ll pull in some of the big-name session men that could make this a southern soul classic.  Well by now, he had my full attention and I was mentally multi-tasking a revised itinerary while trying not to appear too eager to take things further.  “Where are you guys heading next” he asked.  We told him that the rest of our working trip included a few days in Austin, Texas and then we’d planned to stay in New Orleans for a while before heading home.  Then my enthusiasm needles went into the red and next thing, Dan’s on the phone to Bucky and Lisa trying to figure out how Paul and I can get to hear Bobby Purify for ourselves because this sounded like exactly the kind of thing we’d want to put out on Proper Records.  We rerouted and instead of spending a lot of time in New Orleans, we agreed to rendezvous with Dan and Linda a few days later at Bucky and Lisa’s house and Bobby would be there to show us what he’d got.  After an entertaining and eventful journey via Texas and New Orleans, we duly arrived on schedule to “audition” Bobby.  Paul and I’d had plenty of time to talk about this by now and it felt a bit awkward to be doing this because it was evident that Dan had already got Bobby scoped out for the album…so who were we to judge?  

Linda had told us that we’d enjoy Bucky and Lisa’s company.  We arrived there and soon found out that she wasn’t wrong.  What a trip they turned out to be and we are now friends for life.  

Shortly after we’d congregated at their house on Perdido Bay, Bobby was brought in by the guy who had been taking care of him and immediately appeared to be very nervous about the whole thing and was clearly still coming to terms with his total blindness.  He’d lost several teeth and was apologising about it all before he did anything.  Then he gets out this old white Stratocaster and plugs it into a tiny amp.  

Click…on it goes and then…whoooaaaah…off he goes.  

Man - it was electrifying.  The tiny room suddenly became Bobby’s universe.  It was one of THOSE moments.  I told him right there on the spot that we would be signing him to the label immediately and getting this record underway.  And what a guitar player!  “I had no idea you played such great guitar” I said, and he casually replied that he had been guitarist with Otis Redding in the early days before starting out as a singer himself.  So that was that.  Seeing the joy on Bobby’s face that day when we offered him the deal is a memory that will stay with me forever.  

Now, bear in mind we’re in the south.  While we’d been mesmerized by Bobby, Linda and Lisa had gone out to buy some food.  They’d come back with a giant-sized coconut cake and two dozen donuts.  Bucky had earlier been to Joe Patti’s seafood market in Pensacola (check it out) to pick up a couple of pounds of gulf shrimp.  We were duly invited to have a snack.  Paul and I had already eaten a massive breakfast on the road, but this was not to be missed.  And so with our typically English manners, we struggled through the heaped plates on the table.  We all sat around talking about the project, very excited that it was coming together.  Half an hour later Dan stands up and says “OK, who’s ready for dinner?” beckoning us to our parked cars for a celebration at the local Mexican restaurant.  

Dan and I pretty much worked out the deal right there with Lisa.  So, he headed back home to his Nashville studio armed with his fine clutch of demos, where he recruited friends and associates to provide the backing for Bobby as soon as was possible.  Over the course of a couple of weeks, the aforementioned “magnificent seven” southern-soul sessioneers with Bryan Owings on drums cut enough tracks with Bobby for an album based on these ten gems.  

Paul and I had returned to Nashville for the first few days of recording.  Lisa was there with Bucky totally engrossed in helping Bobby learn the material because he couldn’t read anything.  And here’s something to look forward to.  We made video recordings of interviews with Bobby and all the players including Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham, David Hood, Jimmie Johnson, Reggie Young, Wayne Jackson, and Carson Whitsett while they were gathered for the tracking sessions.  There’s about twenty hours of it and I’m hoping that one day it can be used in a documentary about the southern soul men behind so many fantastic records.

When Dan visited his old friend Jerry Wexler with his final mixes, they drove around in Dan’s car listening the finished product.  Jerry dug what he heard so much that he wrote these sleeve notes for Bobby’s record when it was released in 2005.  

“Whether he is known as Bobby Purify or as Ben Moore (his real name), the man can flat sing – and I sure don’t mean to suggest he sings flat!  On this album, he never deviates from the purest, on-the-money intonation – a performance all too rare.  Purification.  But let’s take that as a given and address the main quality of Mr. Purify, his glorious, God-given voice: rich, big melodious, intense, and so convincing, there is sincerity and motivation in every note and meticulous concern for the lyrics, the meaning of the words, and the emotion of the songwriters intended to convey (and they ought to be very happy with his realization of their intentions).  Another thing…Mr. Purify, along with his gospel blues qualities, has that touch of the South and that pinch of country that puts him in the great lineage of the down-home singers from below the Mason-Dixon line; the Arthur Alexanders, the Joe Simons, the Percy Sledges, the Clarence Carters – and yes, dare I say it, the Otis Reddings.”

At the time of the album’s original release, hurricanes were causing havoc in the southern states and a planned radio station tour with that great studio band and some other shows had to be cancelled.  It was soon clear that any real prospect of him being able to perform the album live and pursuing a solo career as Bobby Purify was not practicable.  Fortunately however, his gospel singing never deserted him and he was invited to join the Blind Boys Of Alabama for their Down In New Orleans album (Proper Records PRPCD033), where under his given name of Ben Moore he remained a key figure with the band, recording and touring the world until his death in 2022.  

Twenty years on, I’m still enormously proud to have been the executive producer of this project.  Hearing it again in preparation for this release has been a real delight especially alongside Dan’s outstanding demos.