DURING THE early ’60s, Arthur Alexander wrote a famous clutch of compact, well-crafted country-soul songs. Stories of inconstant love and private gloom, they were covered by The Beatles (‘Anna’), The Rolling Stones (‘You Better Move On’) and more recently, Ry Cooder (‘Go Home Girl’). Alexander, wrote Michael Gray, introduced the word “girl” as in “I wanna tell you girl…” to common lyric parlance, greatly to the convenience of John Lennon and others thereafter.
Other artists who have covered Arthur’s songs include The Bee-Gees, Dusty Springfield, Tina Turner and a host of black vocal groups including The Tams, The Fiestas, and The Drifters. In addition, a generation of British R & B bands were raised on Alexander’s original versions of ‘Where Have You Been’ and ‘A Shot Of Rhythm And Blues’: The Beatles also recorded ‘Where Have You Been’ and ‘Soldier Of Love’. Arthur sang his precise, geometric songs with a dark and wholly individual intensity; his languorous understatement, that sense of emotion only barely concealed, has always defied accurate attempts at imitation. In short, his sadly underrated singing is as memorable as his uncommonly interesting songs.
Arthur Alexander Jnr. was born on 10 May 1940 in Florence, Alabama some five miles from the Tennessee River that separates Florence from Sheffield and Muscle Shoals. The rural community echoed to the sound of downhome music. His mother and sister sang in church while his guitarist father played gospel songs using the neck of a whisky bottle for a slide. On Saturday nights, Alexander Snr. played the blues in the hot, dusty juke joints around Sheffield.
In the sixth grade, Alexander Jnr. joined a gospel group, The Heartstrings: the other members were older and so, apart from the local dates, they usually appeared without him. On leaving high school, he worked as a bellhop in Sheffield’s Holiday Inn. Everyone tells a different version of Arthur’s first excursions into the studio. He spoke of being introduced to Tom Stafford, a Sheffield lyricist, by a friend: Rick Hall thought Alexander’s mother worked for Stafford’s family as a maid. Arthur supplied melodies to Stafford’s lyrics and the pair worked from a room above a Florence drugstore owned by Stafford’s father. Donnie strings and picked out Arthur – played guitar and piano on the demos. Rick Hall used the same premises as an office he and Billy Sherrill, members of a rock ‘n’ roll combo, The Fairlanes, dispensed advice and wisdom.
In 1958, Alexander and Henry Lee Bennett wrote ‘She Wanna Rock’, which Stafford and Hall published under the now renowned banner of Fame, an acronym for Florence Alabama Music Enterprises. Stafford took the song to Decca in Nashville where it was recorded by the Manitoba-based C & W singer, Arnie Derksen in April 1959 (it was released here on MCA’s Rare Rockabilly series in 1977). The following year, Stafford and Alexander wrote ‘Sally Sue Brown’, which he recorded on a two-track machine in Stafford’s studio. On this occasion Stafford took the tape to Memphis, where Judd Phillips released it under the name of June Alexander: Arthur was known to all as June, short for Junior.
The Judd record, a lowdown blues as gutbucket as Arthur would get, fired everyone’s enthusiasm. Rick Hall bought a tobacco warehouse in Muscle Shoals, lined the walls with egg-crates and installed a four-track recorder. It was here, in the summer of 1961, that Alexander recorded ‘You Better Move On’. The repercussions were enormous. Apart from being the finest record to come out of an admittedly less than enthralling year, it featured the first of the piney woods black singer/country band combinations which dominated the hey-day of late ’60s soul. The band, known as Dan Penn and The Pallbearers (they traveled in a hearse), contained David Briggs (piano), Jerry Carrigan (drums) and 18-year-old Norbert Putnam (bass). According to Putnam, ‘You Better Move On’ was their first session for Rick Hall. Others, Donnie Fritts and Dan Penn, also point to the presence of Forrest Riley and Terry Thompson who wrote the flipside, ‘A Shot Of Rhythm And Blues’.
“Our entire orientation was R & B” was Putnam later, “we were strictly young kids who loved soul music” These pickers, Alabama boys barely out of high school, became the nucleus of the most prestigious and sought after session men in Nashville. Moreover, their legacy, that distinctive Southern rhythm section of clipped guitar, sparse bass and drums all recorded open-miked with the amplifiers low, would help to make Muscle Shoals the soul capital of the World.
Rick Hall dubbed backing vocals onto ‘You Better Move On’ and took the tape to Nashville where it was rejected by almost every A & R man including Chet Atkins at RCA Victor. Finally, he ran into Noel Ball, local disc-jockey and Nashville representative for Dot Records. Ball, once a member of The crescendos, signed a tape lease deal and subsequently produced Arthur himself. “I got two percent recalled Hall in 1973. “Because of my lack of knowledge about contracts I never got to produce another side with Arthur. That act was stolen from me”. Nonetheless, ‘You Better Move On’ was a hit (Number 24 in 1962) and Hall’s 2% amounted to $10,000 which helped him launch a new studio where he eventually recorded some two dozen million-sellers including Aretha Franklin’s first major hit.
In Ball’s hands, Alexander’s recordings took a more commercial turn which paid off when the follow-up, ‘Where Have You Been’, a Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil song, reached the Top Sixty. ‘Anna’, Arthur’s own composition, provided a third Hot Hundred entry and his only Top Ten R & B hit. ‘Go Home Girl’ his most compassionate song, merely peaked at Number 102 in January 1963, the year in which most of his royalties came from Steve Alaimo’s hit version of another Alexander composition, ‘Every Day I Have To Cry’. Few people heard such equally rewarding songs as ‘Ole John Amos’ or his fine interpretation of C & W favourites like ‘Detroit City’.
In April 1966, Alexander came to Britain where his tour took in appearances at the Ram Jam Club and the Falingo. A tall, awkward figure with slightly Oriental features, he stood onstage for 30 minutes he sang the inevitable ‘If I Had A Hammer’, looked at his watch and marched off in mid-song. A Marquee appearance was, if anything, less charismatic. He sang ‘(Baby) For You’, his first record under a new contract with Sound Stage 7; the audience, however, had come to see the Action and reserved their applause for the lead singer’s pink trousers.
Although Monument/Sound Stage 7 persevered for four years. Arthur was not equipped to handle success. Why we don’t know since neither he nor his associates have ever talked directly about his problems. According to one rock critic, he dropped a lot of acid, far earlier than most hipsters. Arthur has referred to a lengthy illness which seriously affected the quality of his work. Apart from an unissued session for ABC-Dunhill, he disappeared until 1972 when he went to Memphis to record an album for Warner Brothers. Compositions by Dennis Linde (including ‘Burning Love’) reaffirmed his respect for a good song while ‘Rainbow Road’, written for him by Dan Penn and Donnie Fritts, was a fictionalised account of his trials notably a manslaughter rap for which the singer had been sent to prison.
A return to Muscle Shoals brought forth a pop hit on Buddah with ‘Every Day I Have To Cry Some’ (Number 45 in 1975), but the renaissance was shortlived. He appeared on Music Mill with a tribute to Elvis in 1977 and shared a Koala album with Carl Perkins in 1979.
This long overdue collection, culled from his nine Dot singles proves that his best work is at least as imperishable as the many better known copies it inspired.
© Bill Millar, Ace Records, 1984