Spooner Oldham was born in 1943 as Dewey Lindon Oldham and is an American songwriter and a noted session musician. He is an organist and keyboard player, and is the author of Percy Sledge’s hit “When A Man Loves A Woman.” He also wrote “Mustang Sally” sung by Wilson Pickett, and “I Never Loved A Man” and “Do Right Woman” by Aretha Franklin.
He also wrote “Cry Like A Baby” by the Boxtops and “A Woman Left Lonely” by Janis Joplin. As a session musician he added piano and organ backgrounds to such acts as the Everly Brothers, Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Jackson Browne. His songwriting and keyboard abilities have caused him to be in great demand with many artists over the term of his rich and artistic career.
The list is long of the many artists he played with and backed up, but a partial list includes Joe Cocker, Bob Dylan, The Hacienda Brothers, Linda Ronstadt, The Everly Brothers, Neil Young, Bob Seger, Dickey Betts, Frank Black, Delaney Bramlett, Willy DeVille, Cat Power and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
Oldham grew up in Center Star Alabama and began his piano playing career playing for various bands during high school. After high school, he started to attend classes at the University of North Alabama in Florence. He received his nickname of “Spooner” by accident when he was a small boy, he reached for a pan of water that was on the stove, and a spoon flew into his right eye which injured it, and he still has no sight in it to this day.
Oldham grew up in a musical family, as his father had created an orginal southern gospel style string band. The band had already recorded a record and had auditioned at the Grand Old Opry early in the 1940s, but his father’s ambitions of turning profession did not turn out due to World War II and his disability from the war.
In his youth, Spooner was given a piano as a gift and his mother and both of his sisters sang while Spooner accompanied them.
Instead of finishing his college career at North Alabama, he ended up playing at FAME studios. FAME is located in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and even though it is still small, it has been responsible for the production of several hit records over the years, and is known to have influenced the “Muscle Shoals” sound in R & B music. FAME was started in the 1950s and is still in operation and actively recording.
Spooner was one of the “linchpins” of Southern Soul and the R & B sound as he was there in the early days when FAME was just starting out. FAME went on to record such stars as Aretha Franklin, the Allman Brothers, Wilson Pickett.
Oldham was responsible for putting together the “Muscle Shoals Rhythm section with Jimmy Johnson on guitar, David Hood on bass, Roger Hawkins on drums and himself on piano. Other artists who came through FAME were Jimmy Hughes, Tommy Roe, the Osmonds, with Donny Osmond, Bobbie Gentry, and Mac Davis. Jerry Reed and the Gatlin Brothers also recorded there.
After a stint in Florence with FAME, Oldham played in Memphis in the 1960s playing sessions for B.J. Thomas, Sweet Inspirations, the Box Tops and King Curtis. Spooner’s style was very improvisational, but steeped in the roots of his southern gospel background. You don’t have to be a psychic to understand that thisfit in with many of the black singers, who also got their start singing in church. That Southern Gospel sound translated very well into R & B and Rock and Roll with its frills and heavy, complex background accompaniment.
When Percy Sledge came to FAME to record “When A Man Loves A Woman” Spooner’s reverential side stands out and bolsters the song with his steady, yet innovative organ background. His funky organ in Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man,” kept up an R & B with a touch of the blues that made the song roll. When Wilson Pickett did “Mustang Sally,” Oldham provided a reedy, but steady beat that he devised on the fly to fit Pickett’s singing style.
The epitome of a session musician is to be able to come up with the style that will frame the style of the artist who is performing. The testimony to Oldham’s skill at coming to terms with a certain artistic style is well known to musicians and artists. He play on Franklins first four albums with Atlantic records which were the source of some of Aretha’s best known material. “Chain of Fools,” “Respect,” “Baby I Love You,” and “Think” all came from those albums as single hits for Franklin.
Oldham also played for Etta James’s “Tell Mama,” Clarence Carter and his hit of “Slip Away,” and “Take Time to Know Her” by Percy Sledge.
Oldham has had a very good and successful musical relationship with Neil Young for over a quarter century and played on the “There Comes A Time” and “Harvest Moon.” He also played with Bob Dylan’s album, “Saved.”
1980s until now
Spooner relocated to Nashville in the 1980s and was as active as he wanted to be, as he was in great demand. In the music business, there is just so much talent all over the place, that to be as in such demand as Spooner was and is, is something that occurs because he can simply deliver and can be depended upon. Jerry Reed, Glenn Campbell, and Roy Clark were also session side-men, who came into fame in their own right, but their situation was the same in regard to talent and being in demand.
The list of artists and songs that Spooner was a part of could go forever, but his legacy is already one of respect and admiration among fans and artists alike. The true definition of a professional would be someone who can perform at his profession or craft at the highest levels all the time, and Spooner certainly fits that description. He was a great professional in the music business, and still is.