Country’s Soul: The Music Of The Late Arthur Alexander Still Provides A Living Link Between Hillbilly Twang And R&B

ON MARCH 18, 1993, Arthur Alexander was the guest star at Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s birthday party at the Broken Spoke dance hall in Austin, Texas. It was Alexander’s fourth public performance in 15 years, and the Flatlanders’ Gilmore introduced him as the only songwriter in history to have had compositions recorded by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan. The 52-year-old Alexander had spent most of the previous 20 years working as a community-center bus driver in Cleveland, but now he had a new album, Lonely Just Like Me, and a second chance at a singing career. 

He was a huge man in his green suit and drooping moustache; his Jheri curls brushed the low-hanging acoustic tiles of the Texas honky-tonk joint, and his broad shoulders obscured the alt-country band behind him. His voice was in magnificent shape; when he sang ‘If It’s Really Got to Be This Way’, the number that kicked off the new album, he once again captured that no man’s land between black gospel singing and hillbilly storytelling that made his early ’60s singles classics.

For anyone who had loved the Rolling Stones’ version of ‘You Better Move On’, the Beatles’ version of ‘Anna’, Bob Dylan’s version of ‘Sally Sue Brown’, Otis Redding’s version of ‘Johnny Heartbreak’ or Ike and Tina Turner’s version of ‘Every Day I Have to Cry Some’, it was a stirring moment. Here was the man who had written and recorded all those songs, stepping out of the historical shadows that had swallowed him and proving himself capable of far more than nostalgia. In the ensuing weeks, the media was full of rapturous reviews of the new album and stories about his unlikely comeback. Plans were laid for a summer tour of festivals, an anthology of his early hits, and a tribute album featuring the likes of Elvis Costello, Robert Plant, and Frank Black.

But all that momentum stopped as suddenly as it started. On June 9, three days after the first of those festival shows, Alexander died from a heart attack in Nashville. Regrets were expressed, Adios Amigo: A Tribute to Arthur Alexander and The Ultimate Arthur Alexander were released, but, once again, the singer slipped from public consciousness.

Ben Vaughn, who produced Alexander’s comeback disc, refused to let go of it, however. He convinced HackTone Records to release this year’s Lonely Just Like Me: The Final Chapter, which includes the 12 tracks from the original Elektra/Nonesuch disc plus four songs and interviews from Alexander’s 1993 appearance on NPR’s Fresh Air, four hotel-room demos, and a 1991 live performance. It’s the sort of rare late-career comeback-such as the Everly Brothers’ Born Yesterday, John Fogerty’s Centerfield, and Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose – that’s more than a victory lap – it’s a significant catalogue contribution. Moreover, it’s a welcome reminder not only of a singular talent but also of an era when the boundaries between soul music and country music were more porous than they are today.

The Country Music Foundation’s book Heartaches by the Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles includes records not only by Alexander but also by such soul singers as William Bell, Solomon Burke, James Carr, Slim Harpo, Fats Domino, and, of course, Ray Charles. Except for Philadelphia’s Burke, these singers grew up in the Deep South at a time when cowboy movies starring Gene Autry and Roy Rogers played in the local theatres and hillbilly radio spilled out of stores and cars. The simple chord changes, strong melodies, and blue-collar storytelling of those country songs weren’t so different from the blues and gospel played by these singers’ parents; the styles were easily mixed and paid unexpected dividends when they were.

Alexander grew up in Sheffield, Ala., a small town where the black singer would inevitably cross paths with a pair of blues-loving white kids named Tom Stafford and Donnie Fritts. Alexander was a 20-year-old bellhop at a local Holiday Inn when Stafford and Fritts brought him into a drugstore in neighbouring Florence where they were cutting records on primitive recording equipment. Their first effort, in 1960, was ‘Sally Sue Brown’, the kind of swampy blues Alexander’s father sang before he got religion.

The breakthrough came in 1961, though, when Stafford’s ex-business partner Rick Hall built the area’s first real studio-FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala.-and invited Alexander to record its first song, ‘You Better Move On’.

Imitating the Latin-tinged records that Ben E. King was making with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Alexander sang that his romantic rival had better leave the singer’s girlfriend alone and just move along. On the bridge, however, the tone altered from ominous threat to surprising sympathy, just as the music moved from New York R&B to the nasal plaint of Hank Williams. “I can’t blame you for loving her,” Alexander crooned in a lilting hillbilly drawl, “but can’t you understand, man, she’s my girl?” This shift from the first genre to the second, from one mood to the other, and from one strong melody to another, proved dizzying.

Hall sold the record to Dot Records in Nashville, and it became Alexander’s only Top 40 pop hit. Shortly after, his track ‘Anna’ became a Top 10 R&B hit in 1962, and the two songs became staples on Radio Luxembourg, the quasi-legal radio station that beamed into England the American rock ‘n’ roll hits that the BBC wouldn’t play. Among the station’s avid listeners were two obscure bar bands, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, who added such Alexander sides as ‘You Better Move On’, ‘Anna’, ‘Soldier of Love (Lay Down Your Arms)’, and ‘Where Have You Been (All My Life)’ to their set lists and eventually their early recording sessions. Removed from the wreckage of U.S. race relations, these young Brits could recognize Alexander for the unprecedented talent he was.

The singer himself, however, enjoyed no such distance from his nation’s troubles. He struggled with the psychological-and occasionally physical-pressures of touring as a black performer in the South during the ’60s and from the financial troubles that working-class performers of any colour suffered at the hands of the music industry. On Lonely Just Like Me, Fresh Air host Terry Gross asks Alexander why he quit singing and became a bus driver. “I didn’t leave because I didn’t like performing,” he replies. “I left because of other reasons . . . record people, publishers. When you make a hit record, you kind of like to get paid, you know?”

Back at the Broken Spoke in 1993-a time when it looked like Alexander was finally going to get that paycheck-Jimmie Dale Gilmore joined his guest on ‘You Better Move On’. If Alexander’s blend of soul and country hadn’t been obvious before, it was crystal clear in the way his North Alabama gospel tenor fit with Gilmore’s twangy West Texas guitar. The song had never sounded better, and as he stepped off the stage Alexander was immediately besieged by journalists and fans telling him so. He looked startled by the attention, but you could see him relax as it all sank in, and his face broke open into a big, beaming grin. 

© Geoffrey HimesBaltimore City Paper, 31 October 2007

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