by Michael Buffalo Smith
As a songwriter, Muscle Shoals’ Spooner Oldham wrote or co-wrote (often with Dan Penn) classic songs like “I’m Your Puppet” (James and Bobby Purify); “Cry Like a Baby” (The Box Tops); “A Woman Left Lonley” (Janis Joplin); and “Jesus is Only a Prayer Away” (Shirley Caesar). As a pianist, he has appeared on classic tracks by Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Joe Cocker, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Bramlett and The Drive By Truckers, just to name a few.
On April 4th, Spooner will be inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. We spoke with him about that honor, as well as a few of his past accomplishments.
Are you a born and raised in Alabama kind of guy?
I was born in Center Star, Alabama, which is a smaller unincorporated town where my mama still lives. It is about 10 miles down the road from where I live now in Rogersville. I was born and reared here but I was gone for a lot of years also. I lived in Memphis for a few years in the late 60’s and then in 1979-1981 lived in Nashville, and then in Los Angeles for a lot of years, I was about 20 years back and forth. I have been here for 18 years, which is the longest I have lived anywhere at one time.
Now, is that close to Muscle Shoals, where you are now?
Yeah, about 25 miles away...
When you were first getting started who were your major influences that made you feel like you should be in the music business?
Well, my dad and his brothers, while I was a little toddler, they would practice in my grandparents house in the living room. My dad played the mandolin and his brothers played guitars and they had a band. My little ears would just check all that out. But I listened on the radio to Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Ray Charles, BIll Monroe, and some gospel music, don’t remember who, but I was hearing everything I could scan on the radio. Then rock and roll caught my ear and I thought that Hank Williams, “Jambalaya,” in my mind’s eye was what I first considered rock and roll. But I didn’t hear some of those others, like “Rocket 88” or some of those others that claimed to be the first rock and roll records, they escaped me somehow.
Do you remember what the first record you bought was?
I didn’t buy many records. I have a ton of cd’s and records and I didn’t steal them (laughs) - I ended up with them somehow. I listened to mostly radio, and it was a big deal to go buy a 45 you know, which I did for a dollar, but I can’t remember who that might have been.
Well, it’s been a year or two..
(Laughs) Right, I applied for social security yesterday. (laughing) Get some payback....
How did you first meet Mr. Dan Penn?
Well, we were teenagers and I don’t know the exact date, maybe 1959 or so, so that would have been 50 years ago. At the time I met him there was a building called Star Music which was upstairs over the city drugstore in Florence, and there was a piano there and a Concertone 15-speed recorder and there was a partition like you find in a real recording studio, which I had never seen, and a sofa and lots of wonderful musicians, potential engineers and songwriters in there clustering around for no apparent reason except to share each others thoughts. Nobody had anything going on as far as money or anything, and Dan was there and had heard about the place from Billy Sherill, a guy from Vernon, Alabama in his part of the woods, and they all knew Carmel Taylor, who had a band down there and everyone would eventually play in his band.
They all knew him from down that way and somehow through the grapevine Dan had heard about this place we were hanging and he came up one day and we chatted and he became like the first recording artist I think on Earth Records. Had a little 45 called “She Don’t Treat Me Right,” and “Crazy Over You” and we chatted. At that time he was about 17 and had already written what I would call a hit record by Conway Twitty called “Is a Bluebird Blue,” and my songwriting ventures at that time was a couple of little love songs I had put in a piano bench in Mom’s basement. I had become interested in songwriting. Then I felt like I would talk to him about doing some writing with me.
We got together his next trip up and seems like we wrote 2-3 songs on his piano, but neither one of us could remember what we did and those songs never surfaced but we realized that the chemistry was good at the time and we were bouncing off each other you know as far as ideas and music. We kept this up through the years and had a few records that did well after hanging in there long enough. I think that “Let’s Do It Over” may have been the first one that reenumeration looked possible. That was with Vee Jay Records and I think that company went bankrupt before we got paid. That was my introduction into the music business. (laughs) That was a good introduction. But I never felt bad about it. Such is life in the fast lane...
The studio over the drugstore, Spar Music, is that what became Fame?
They have a plaque down there put up by the state that says it was, but in reality I recall that Rick Hall was there and Billy Sherrill and Peanutt Montgomery, and David Briggs, Norbert Putnam all were already there, but in summary they asked Rick to leave because he was working too hard. They wanted to watch a movie and Tom was the manager of the Princess Theatre down the street and they wanted to have fun while they were working..Rick recently told me this stuff and for whatever reason he was dismissed from that building as a partner and then one day a little later Dan Penn saw him on the street down by the City Drug which was downstairs and Rick had a little paper stuck in his pocket. Dan asked him what was in his pocket and he said that it was Fame Publishing Company, so he had relocated at that point.
So is that the building that is still there now, over behind CVS?
No, he had a tobacco warehouse for a while on Wilson Dam Road, and I can’t even remember where it is, but I went there a couple of times. He built a building that is now the Fame Studio that you can drive to now, but before that the first effort was the tobacco warehouse. Then the way the story goes is that he made enough money from helping produce Arthur Alexander, he was able to build his own building.
I wanted to ask about a few musicians you have worked with. What can you tell me about Duane Allman?
I first met him at the Aretha Franklin sessions in New York, one of the first times and he played a couple of three days and we did some songs. I liked him a lot. He was a very intelligent guy and a great player and this was before the Allmans got together and he was just finding his way into things. I wasn’t around him a lot, but one day at Fame he asked me to go into Studio B that was built later - it was smaller than the A building. He had a slide guitar and I was at the acoustic piano and we put something on tape, maybe something he had written. I have not gone back to see if it ever released. That was interesting. I remember going over to Jerry Wexler’s house during the Aretha sessions and having dinner and we were getting into the car and Jerry had an older model Cadillac limo car and a driver. I remember Duane stuck his neck out of the window and asked Jerry if he had a 20 dollar bill, but that is just an indication of how things were at that time. The money was not flowing freely. He was a good old boy and I wouldn’t have minded taking him home and introducing him to my parents. (Laughs)
Did you ever work with Delaney and Bonnie?
Probably one or two songs while living in Los Angeles and recently we did an album with Bonnie at Johnny Sandlin’s recently. I remember liking what I heard.
Yeah, I named it the best of last year....
Oh yeah, well that’s good. I haven’t gotten a copy of it yet...
But I do remember when I moved to Los Angeles I lived about 10 miles from Delaney and I would get with him about once a week. Now, this is after they had divorced and Bekka was just a little girl at that time, and he had a garage outside building where we accumulated about 30-35 songs. I don’t know if he ever tried to do anything with them. But he was a tenacious worker, even though there were no flags flying or no news out there about him, he was quite a craftsman. I really miss him a lot. I didn’t get out on the road with them or anything. I have friends that did, J.J. Cale did, of course. Most of t hose guys remember them fighting a lot. So I don’t know, but they made some great music and had great bands. Then when they went to Europe they had some good musicians, Clapton, George Harrison and all those guys and I think Delaney ended up with guitars from all of them.
Yeah, I think I had one of the last interviews with him, and he was a nice person and a very amazing work ethic and great songwriter, even while he was ill for many years... Another guy that I enjoyed talking to was Tom Dowd. I had a ball talking to him about the past and I know you have worked with him. What can you say about him?
I remember Tom a lot and he would come down to Fame with Aretha and Wilson Pickett, I don’t really know the roles that he and Rick played but I do remember it was at Fame in Muscle Shoals. I know you have been around recording sessions a lot I am sure and you’ll watch the faces of the players and engineers and producers and usually there is a take where someone acknowledges that that was a good take and we were doing “Mustang Sally” on the Wilson Pickett session and this time the best listening station was in the control room and we all bee-lined up to the control room. We had known it was a good take, WIlson was all excited up there and then I remember the flange that was on the tape machine that kept it on the spinner, well it flew off and was spewing tape all over the room and it was practically 30 to 40 pieces of tape. All of us were just bent over picking them up and Tom said to give him a few minutes and take a coffee break and when we got back he had it all put back together so we could hear it.
I guess Wilson was having a conniption fit, “You ruined my g-d master,” and Tom just put it all back together.
Yeah, I heard that Pickett could really get angry.
Well, it’s funny. For some reason he would confide in me during sessions, and it didn’t happen but a couple of times, and I would let him vent with me. With objectivity, it wasn’t about me or anything in particular, but he would be upset. At that time at Fame the echo chamber would extrude into the room and was built into the room. I would take him in there and just listen to him. Then I realized that all anyone had to do was listen because the microphone was there. I am sure other people listened too.
I didn’t know you were a therapist too?
Yeah, it was part of my job, somebody has to do it. (Laughs)
Didn’t Janis Joplin record one of your songs?
She did a song Dan and I wrote and the story I remember is that I had recorded a few songs with the Everly Brothers, and that was probably the last album I did with them, I think. Anyway Paul Rothschild was producing and we finished the session, this was in Los Angeles, and Paul asked if Dan and I were still writing songs. I told him that I was living here in L.A. and Dan in Nashville and we don’t see each other very often, but we have been known to write songs. He told me that he was getting ready to produce Janis Joplin’s next album and I think that she might like your songs. I told him that we had started and I sat and sang a verse on the piano and he was interested.
Then Dan and I got together in Memphis, that’s where he was at the time and I flew there and we finished it. I got a call from what I thought was a company girl, who understood that I would have a song for a session. We were meeting at Sunset Sound at 7:30 and she was asking me what I liked to drink, and I told her anything really, I wasn’t really about drinking. (Laughs) I felt it was a secretary, but it was Janis. I never knew it because when I got there she was in another mode, a Ms. Minnie Pearl kind of mode in the control room and very flamboyant. Then I met her band and they seemed to know about me and were very nice and friendly. She was recording “Me and Bobby McGee” when I walked in and was playing an acoustic guitar and singing with a mike and then they got me up there with Paul Rothschild and an engineer sitting behind the board, and he wanted to get a session player to do the guitar part. I asked him not to because it sounded really good to me. I don’t know if he kept it or not. She came up there afterwards and there was a moment when we were standing close and and I just spoke to her and told her that she had a great career going and that things were looking really good for her. She looked at me with this real cold look,like I had stabbed her, and told me that she felt like it was going to end any day. So I went home with that on my mind. I think she died that morning. That’s how I met her and I was haunted by that statement ever since.
Sounds like she had a premonition.
Give me a couple of thoughts about Neil Young, a guy you have worked with for a million years. How many years have you played or toured with him?
I met him when he was doing the Comes A Time album. I am trying to remember who called me and I don’t think it was him. Nevertheless we went and recorded that album and that was somewhere around the mid-70’s. Seems like every 3-4 years he will go tour, with a guitar band, like Crazy Horse, usually a non-keyboard band, and he will call me to go. It’s been 3-4 years and I was hoping he would call me again, because he is not only highly generous, and a great creative talent, and he challenges you by never knowing what is coming next and that is good.
Were you on the Harvest Moon album?
I was. And when we toured he always threw that song into the mix and it seemed to be a crowd favorite. He always recorded on the full moon.
I noticed on my own that when we did an album it would be a full moon and then I had read something about him always recording on the full moon. I have heard that during a full moon that there is more activity during those times.
Let me ask about Bob Dylan, everyone wants to know about him.
I had a call in Nashville and it was Bob and they had just finished the Slow Train Coming album and I was not involved in that album, Barry Beckett did keyboards. But they wanted me to tour with them for x amount of weeks and I told them I needed to figure it out. I agreed to do it and we went down to Santa Monica Blvd. where he had a warehouse that we rehearsed for three weeks. Then we went out and I asked Tim Drummond the bass player friend who knew Bob long before I did, what Bob was really like. I hadn’t really got to know him, just played music with him. Well, he said that he was on the telephone all the time which surprised me because he appears to be a loner. He is another one of those that could do his work with or without you, just a great artist. Neil and Peggy Young and Jim Cotton and I went to see him at one of his shows in San Francisco, and we went backstage and hugged him and said hello and he said that he was glad I was with Neil. I felt his sincerity at that time, and I have not seen him in a while and may not ever see him again. He wrote those songs on the Saved album that I did play on at Muscle Shoals sound studio and he incorporated those two albums into this gospel show on the road, you know.
Yeah, I remember that he got a lot of flack in the press for all the gospel stuff, but there was some good material on those albums.
I remember the first three nights, actually, the first two weeks at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco when it was a newly renovated Bill Graham place and it was sold out. It was the first gig we had with him, but the first three nights - we have pictures of this- there were people around the car or the van we were being transported in, but these people had signs protesting his religion change, but after that it simmered down. I remember that half of the audience would applaud and then there was a lot of booing going on, and I had never experienced that in my life.
How about playing with The Drive By Truckers.
Well, the guys and girls that make that band up are wonderful musicians and that makes for a great band. The shows are fascinating to me and those big bars where people stand up shoulder to shoulder. Things were interesting and extreme but I enjoyed it a lot and had lots of fun in the studio and liked the songs that they did.
Well, the big news is that you are being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and how to you feel about it? What are your thoughts on that?
Well Buffalo, to be honest, I haven’t experienced it yet and so I don’t know. I have a ticket and I know it’s going to happen and as far as what it means I don’t know. I sort of feel like that I have developed an analogy in the my head, and I was in Jamaica with my wife and daughter when Joel called to say that I had been inducted into the Hall of Fame and I felt that I was in a little Easter egg basket of red, yellow, and green eggs and a bird flew down and plucked me up and flew into the sky. Sort of a breathtaking moment...
What an analogy, that’s pretty good (Laughs) Who were the other eggs? Dan is probably one of them. I would like to see Tom Dowd in there.
He’ll make it...I don’t know what makes what. I am not in the Alabama Music Hall of Fame yet, but they put a lot of us Shoals musicians in the Musicians Hall of Fame recently, which was nice.
You are getting kudos for all the great work you have done and I am so happy to see you get that.
I am sure that my wife and daughter are tired of hearing me speak of it for five years, but I am doing another album of my own because the last one was 40 years ago.(Laughs) I did three songs at Fame in Muscle Shoals and I am going to Nashville and do 2-3 songs with some friends and then onto L.A. and New York with some friends. I am trying to keep my mind from being bored and refresh myself mostly, and I had discounted doing it at first because I don’t have a backer or deal and it is self-financed. I brought it up to my daughter Roxanne - she is 30 and has been in the publishing business for a while in Los Angeles - and she gets around a good bit and she has encouraged me to move forward which helped me make my mind up.
There is lots of talent down in Alabama and we are looking forward to your new record. It seems like a lot of people in Europe responded real well to the music you and Dan have done...
Yeah, I had a fan come up and have me autograph a 45 record when we were over there. They are very educated into what they are interested in.
Congratulations again on the Hall of Fame honor. Thanks Spooner.
Thank you Buffalo.