Dan Penn once said he was always striving to write the best cheating song ever. There is stiff competition – Your Cheatin’ Heart and I Heard It Through The Grapevine for starters – but Penn may well have achieved his aim with The Dark End Of The Street.
The troubled American soul singer James Carr cut the original in 1967 for Goldwax, a Memphis label which tended to be overshadowed by Stax and Hi. It remains the definitive reading. Penn, who co-wrote the song and supplied the sublime, gospel-inflected backing vocals, tells how he and session guitarist Chips Moman penned it during a break in a poker game during which the subject of cheating came up. Staggeringly, given its enduring quality, it took them half an hour to produce what Penn modestly terms a ‘straightforward country cheatin’ ballad’.
Mississippi-born Carr’s version has all the trappings of classic southern soul, from the heart-rending ‘deep soul’ vocal to the understated horns. Aretha Franklin and Percy Sledge also put their stamp on The Dark End of the Street, but its adaptability to other genres, such as folk, blues and country, is demonstrated by the fact that Gram Parsons (brilliantly, with the Flying Burrito Brothers), Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner, Richard and Linda Thompson, Ry Cooder and Greg Allman all recorded it.
In common with many of the best cheating songs, the lyric doesn’t even mention the word. According to Billy Paul, he and Mrs Jones simply had ‘a thing going on’ which they knew was wrong, albeit ‘much too strong to let it go now’. The early 60s country/pop crossover success Walk On By (not the song made famous by Dionne Warwick) featured Leroy Van Dyke warning his secret love to keep walking if they should pass on the street, adding: ‘I love you but we’re strangers when we meet.’ Penn and Moman would have been familiar with this number, which has a similar theme if a vastly inferior overall quality.
However, the Eagles’ 70s hit Lyin’ Eyes told us that the duplicitous younger woman was temporarily leaving the ‘rich old man… with hands as cold as ice’ who financed her luxurious lifestyle. She was ‘headed for the cheatin’ side of town’.
And that is where Penn and Moman set their 30-minute masterpiece (although it should be said they also co-wrote Aretha’s Do Right Woman, Do Right Man and made countless other contributions to American music, individually, as a duo and with other comrades).
Carr’s delivery of the first verse instantly established that this was both an intimate and an anguished song; emotional if never over-wrought. ‘At the dark end of the street,’ he sang, ‘That’s where we always meet. Hiding in shadows where we don’t belong, Living in darkness to hide our wrong.’
The lyric depicts a relationship that must remain concealed but is riven with guilt and shame. ‘We have to pay for the love we stole,’ Carr continues, before reflecting pessimistically in the bridge: ‘They’re gonna find us, oh, some day.’ Yet it’s a price he is prepared to pay, because their illicit love ‘keeps comin’ on strong’. Then, when ‘the daylight hours roll around’ and they may happen to see each other downtown, Carr echoes Leroy Van Dyke, pleading: ‘If we should meet, Just walk on by. Oh darling, please don’t cry.’
For all the angst, and the danger of discovery, the last line of the song leaves the listener in no doubt that the deception, the cheatin', will go on: ‘Cos tonight we’ll meet, at the dark end of the street.’
Penn, now 75, still writes and performs with another arch exponent of blue-eyed soul, Spooner Oldham. Moman, who produced the revered album From Elvis In Memphis, died last year, aged 79. Carr, for all his minor hits (You've Got My Mind Messed Up and A Man Needs A Woman both went to No63 in the American singles chart without the backing of a major label), never really built on his 2min 35sec of perfection. The father of seven sons, he suffered from bipolar disorder, stress and anti-depressants often forcing him to cancel shows. So his artistry came, appropriately, from a dark place. He died from lung cancer in 2001, aged 58.
His version of The Dark End Of The Street peaked at No77 in the US, a criminally low placing for a record touched by genius. ‘Nobody did it as good as James Carr,’ Dan Penn says. ‘Not even me.’
Phil Shaw first wrote about music in Time Out from 1978 to '81 before concentrating on sports journalism with the Guardian and the Independent for 35 years. His collection of 7" singles stands at more than 2,000 and among his proudest possessions is a silver disc for penning the sleeve notes to the official 1998 World Cup album.