Arthur Alexander: Remembering

EIGHTEEN MONTHS ago Warner Brothers issued an album that re-introduced a name from the early sixties. Arthur Alexander (BS.2592) had been a long time coming. Ten years after his only other LP. A world of changes between the two: and yet somehow it was like he’d never been gone.

It’s hard to pinpoint the appeal of this man who so quietly built a reputation that spanned the decade. He’s not a prolific or particularly great writer. Only about a dozen of his compositions have found their way onto record in as many years. Neither is he an outstanding singer. That limited, sometimes flat, voice couldn’t be anyone’s idea of virtuosity. But seemingly without effort he can overcome these mere details to open up your heart.

Perhaps it’s his unassuming sincerity. An intangible quality about his singing that gets you believing each and every word. Lines banal enough to be rejected from the grimmest of pop songs attain the poignancy of crumpled love-letters when sung by Arthur. Perhaps also it’s the tasteful blend of different Southern roots that make the music so easy to get hooked on. His records are by no means pure Country, but neither do they present the more usual style of Southern black soul.

If comparisons mean anything then the recent beautiful recordings of Dobie Gray come closest to paralleling the tone and atmosphere of an Alexander performance. As the Warner album blurb so rightly tells it: “No psychedelic wha-wha guitar, no imitation church choirs or superstar ego trips here; just Arthur Alexander from Alabama singing his story-songs with a superb Memphis band.”

Sheffield, Alabama to be precise, where he was born in 1942 and where he was still living, and working as a bell-hop, when discovered by Noel Ball twenty years later. Ball took him to producer Rick Hall (or Fame fame!) and the result took him into the top 30 of the Hot 100. Written by Arthur, ‘You Better Move On’ (Dot 16309) was a calmly voiced warning to another fella to stay away from his girl. Delivered patiently over a simple rhythm backing, the effect was of understated strength — and incidentally, marked originality. Those of you seeking to trace the stepping stones of black music would do well to search out this record.

Strangely, at the time, Britain took more notice of the flip: ‘A Shot Of Rhythm And Blues’ had little to do with its subject and it certainly wasn’t the right vehicle for Arthur, although it provided a hit for English rocker Johnny Kidd.

It sounds very unlikely that the following hits were cut in the same studios. Chart success had its usual backlash and the productions got bigger, more pop orientated. But Arthur kept his head and the overall flavour of personal involvement won through. ‘Where Have Ton Been’ (16357), ‘Anna’ (16387), and ‘Go Home Girl’ (16425) all attracted wide attention, so much so that, together with ‘Move On’, these first four U.S. hits were each in turn adapted for European consumption by: Rolling Stones, Gene Vincent, The Beatles, and Dave Berry.

Dot showed their true colours with the release of the Ton Better Move On LP (DLP.3434) Instead of shopping around for some suitable new material, or coaxing further songs out of Arthur, they couldn’t wait to cash in on their good luck. The twelve tracks are an uncomfortable pot – pourri of top ten songs rounded off with a weak re-make of the title hit.

What happened next is a matter of speculation. An eighteen month stint in the army, coming right at the peak of his popularity, didn’t help; but there was more to his disappearance than Uncle Sam. The moving ‘Rainbow Road’ on the Warner album hints at murder and a prison sentence, which as the sleeve notes coyly admit “…is the story of Arthur’s own career with only a few of the details changed.” Whatever the reasons, the result was an absence from personal appearances and marked drop in record sales. However the records did keep on coming.

There were five more singles for Dot, including Eugene Church’s ‘Pretty Girls Everywhere’ (16509) and the country perennial ‘Detroit City’ (16737). Perhaps the most interesting was Arthur’s own ‘Ole John Amos’ (16616), a ‘Jody Got Your Girl And Gone’ type story of behind-the-back cheating. From ’66 to ’70 half a dozen releases slipped out through the Monument outlet: ‘I Need You Baby’ on the parent label (MON.1060), the rest on Sound Stage Seven. The country influence was even stronger than with Dot, and as before he was at his best on slow, sad stories. ‘Show Me The Road’ (2572), ‘Set Me Free’ (2619), and ‘Glory Road’ (2652) are all musts for those who have acquired the Alexander habit, whereas ‘Cry Like A Baby’ (2652) — the Penn / Oldham Box-Tops hit—is a boring mistake.

Now that Warner Bros, have picked up the tab, here’s hoping that Mr. Alexander can once again put his name in the big league. Without losing any of his casual sincerity the recent album is bang up to date. The band — so much better than on his earlier cuts — has an easy tightness much like Van Morrison’s, and the album as a whole has all the class that the Dot LP lacked. It’s gratifying to find ‘In The Middle Of It All’ among the many fine tracks. Back when he was just starting out Arthur cut some demos of his songs. ‘Everyday I Have To Cry’ was picked up and became a hit for Steve Alaimo, but ‘In The Middle’ got shelved, eventually turning up on Guest Star LP.1906 — a cheap-line nonentity. For ten years that poorly recorded, obscure cut has stood as one of his best performances. The new version has lost nothing to the passing of years.

Arthur Alexander is still a young man. Perhaps this time around he can find rainbow’s end.

© Cliff WhiteBlack Music, August 1974

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