In the early 1960s, southern soul singer/songwriter Arthur Alexander recorded a handful of discs that inspired a generation of artists. Sir Paul McCartney once said, "If the Beatles ever wanted a sound it was R&B...Arthur Alexander." Arthur's 1962 Top 40 hit, "You Better Move On," helped kick-start the famed Muscle Shoals music scene. The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and numerous other artists covered his unique country-tinged story-songs, and many took his unfettered brooding vocal style as a blueprint for their own. But Arthur's life was a troubled one. In 1993, after years of obscurity, Arthur was on the cusp of a comeback when he died of heart failure. The magic of Arthur's voice and his compelling story led me to write his biography, "Get A Shot of Rhythm and Blues: The Arthur Alexander Story" (University of Alabama Press). Following are my liner notes for Ace Record's 2006 CD reissue, "Arthur Alexander: The Greatest."
I came late to Arthur's music, hearing one of his albums in the mid-‘80s. By the second track I was entranced. I had to know who this singer was, where he came from – and where he went. The heartbreak in Arthur's voice and the mystery of his obscurity encouraged me to eventually write his biography. It was harder than I ever imagined, but Arthur's music cried out for it to be done.
The album I heard that day was A Shot of Rhythm and Soul, Ace's first vinyl compilation of Arthur's long-lost hits and rarities. At the time of its release in 1983, it had been twenty years since Arthur enjoyed the success of 'You Better Move On' (backed by the ever-popular 'A Shot of Rhythm and Blues'). That record and others that followed made him a hero to fans around the world and helped pioneer the Muscle Shoals music scene that flourished in the late sixties.
Late in his life, Arthur may have felt like a forgotten man, but his original fans never forget him. John Lennon, while living at the Dakota in New York City, kept several Arthur Alexander discs in his jukebox; as did George Harrison at his Crackerbox Palace. Arthur's voice was not easy to forget: commanding yet vulnerable, engaging with its southern twang; his laconic delivery and tremulous quaver conveyed the resignation, joy and heartbreak inherent in the search for love. Arthur, as Bill Millar wrote in his original liner notes to The Greatest, 'sang his precise, geometric songs with a dark and wholly individual intensity…'
Arthur Alexander Jr. (known to his friends as 'June,' for Junior) was born 10 May 1940, in Florence, Alabama. His father, Arthur Sr., moved to the area from Tennessee, working on the Wilson Dam project and playing blues guitar in the juke-joints around town. In no way, though, did Arthur Sr. want his only son to follow in his musical footsteps. If the boy touched his father's guitar he was strongly reprimanded. 'I never made a nickel playing the blues,' he said, 'and I don't want that kind of life for you.' Following the death of Arthur's mother before his fourth birthday, his father remarried and moved to nearby Sheffield, where he granted his musical blessings only on the church singing Arthur did with his step-mother and sister.
By the time he left school in his teenage years, Arthur was dumbstruck in love with music—C&W, R&B, pop, whatever. 'Later, people would start putting labels on stuff,' Arthur told me in 1993. 'But, hey, that never did affect me as a kid growing up. All I knew was music. Most country to me was like pop, because they played all of them on the radio.' Local band leader George Brooks hosted an hour of R&B every evening on WOWL, enchanting Arthur with the smooth styling of Percy Mayfield, Clyde McPhatter and Brook Benton. On Saturday morning, he would sit up in the 'colored' balcony of the movie theater and ride with his singing cowboy idols Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. He took their matter-of-fact delivery and story songs to heart as a blueprint for his later work. From the jukebox at Hamp's Drive Inn or The Famous Cafeteria, Arthur fell under the spell of vocal groups like The Dominoes, The Ravens and the Clovers. All made a strong impact on the reserved lad who was starting to sing at talent shows and write songs in his head.
In his mid-teens, Arthur started The Heartstrings vocal group with some friends. They stayed together for a few years, singing on local radio shows and wherever possible, but none of the members was as motivated as Arthur. Sometime around 1958, the group auditioned for Tom Stafford, a charismatic character who managed one of the movie theatres in Florence. The thirty-year-old Stafford was 'a guy with big ideas,' Arthur once said, a writer and bohemian with far-reaching interests and ambitions who attracted a fervent group of R&B-loving teenagers like Donnie Fritts, Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham, and Terry Thompson. With a $300 loan from local songwriter James Joiner, Stafford had recently entered the music publishing world with his company, Spar Music. In 1957 Joiner's C&W tune 'A Fallen Star' was recorded by local teenager Bobby Denton and covered by two Nashville artists. This fired up every musician around Muscle Shoals and opened the doors on Music Row for Joiner and his pals. Among these were Billy Sherrill and Rick Hall, fledging songwriters and members of The Fairlanes rock ‘n' roll group who wanted a piece of the action. They teamed up with Stafford, who had more ambition than musical talent, and formed Florence Alabama Music Enterprise [Fame]. Their office and two-track studio were located above the Stafford family's City Drugstore.
Though race was still a lingering issue in northern Alabama in the late 1950s, (though nothing compared to the southern part of the state) the crop of young white music makers hanging with Stafford was infatuated with R&B. The day Arthur popped his fingers and sang his 'doo wah' harmonies with The Heartstrings for Stafford and his disciples, he made a powerful impression. 'There was something about him that was special,' recalled his life-long friend Donnie Fritts. Arthur was taken into the fold at Spar, singing on demos and working with keyboardists Spooner Oldham and David Briggs on his songs. 'She Wanna Rock,' one of his early efforts with fellow Heartstring Henry Bennett, was published by Fame and cut in Nashville in 1959 by Canadian rockabilly artist Arnie Derksen. Just around this time the Fame partnership imploded. Sherrill headed to Music City and future renown as a producer; Hall stayed in Muscle Shoals, retaining the company name and setting up a studio in a candy and tobacco warehouse.
Arthur looked upon Stafford as his mentor and manager. After he came up with a melody for Stafford's lyric 'Sally Sue Brown,' Arthur cut the track above the City Drugstore with guitarist Peanutt Montgomery, drummer Jerry Carrigan, bassist Ray Barger and Nashville pianist Pig Robbins stirring up a swampy mix behind him. Credited to June Alexander, 'Sally Sue Brown' was backed by the chill-bump raising 'Girl That Radiates That Charm' and released on the Judd label, owned by Jud Phillips (brother of Sun Records' Sam). Few took notice.
Arthur was now married and the father of a newborn son. He got a job as a bell hop at the Hotel Muscle Shoals, where he also sold bootleg liquor on the side (the area was 'dry') and where he'd been working on a new song. In the summer of 1961, Stafford heard Arthur's latest effort ,'You Better Move On,' and instantly recognized its hit potential. With its dramatic story line that draws the listener in, a catchy melody and strong middle-eight, 'You Better Move On' was familiar yet original-- and commercial.
Stafford persuaded Rick Hall to produce the session at Fame. There, all the ingredients that had been simmering in their collective heads coalesced. Jerry Carrigan's hi-hat cymbal backbeat, Norbert Putnam's loping Drifters-like bass line, Forrest Riley's softly brushed acoustic and Terry Thompson's chink-a-chink electric guitar showcased Arthur's plaintive and foreboding vocal. The b-side was Thompson's irresistible rocker 'A Shot of Rhythm and Blues,' with Arthur, as he recalled, 'singing my balls off.' Everyone who heard the tracks was impressed, but the label honchos in Nashville were on a different frequency, judging Arthur's vocals 'too black…wobbly and all over the place.' But Rick Hall knew he had a hit, and when he played the tape for influential DJ Noel Ball, a scout for the Dot label, Ball concurred. He sent a copy of the master to Dot's president Randy Wood, who gave his go-ahead, and by early 1962 'You Better Move On' started up the charts. In March, the record peaked at #24 following Arthur's appearance on the American Bandstand TV show.
'You Better Move On' was the first national hit recorded in Alabama and its success was a boon to nearly all involved. Hall received a 2 per cent lease deal on the master, enough to begin construction of his newer Fame studio in Muscle Shoals where he later recorded dozens of soul and pop hits, attracting hordes of local competitors. All the players did session work with Hall before building esteemed careers in Nashville save for Forrest Riley (he lost confidence) and Terry Thompson (he lost his battle with the bottle). Stafford, however, was edged out by Noel Ball, purportedly signing over the hit's publishing in a murky deal that is still a sore point among the surviving 'drug store' crowd. Ball came back for a few sessions at Fame, but preferred to produce Arthur where he had more proximity and control – Nashville.
As was customary with new artists at the time, Arthur hastily cut an album of cover songs, including a remake of his hit. Some choices were ill-suited, but the warmth and character in his voice made even the slickest arrangements palatable. Best were 'Hey Baby, 'A Hundred Pounds of Clay,' and a spirited reading of Bobby Edward's 'You're the Reason.' For a follow-up single, Ball found two songs that were ideal for Arthur: 'Where Have You Been,' penned by Brill Building royalty Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and 'Soldier of Love,' by Music City tunesmiths James 'Buzz' Cason and Tony Moon. What should have been a double-sided hit didn't chart as well as 'You Better Move On,' but the disc was soon available in the UK on the London-American label. Boosted by airplay on Radio Luxembourg, Arthur's music was worshipped by R&B fans and musicians alike.
Like 'You Better Move,' 'Anna (Go To Him)' was written about Arthur's wife, Ann, and their troubled marriage. Referring to the song's climactic middle-eight he once explained, 'I was trying to get a fix on how I really felt about love in general.' Released in the summer of 1962, this perfect union of soul and pop was backed with a bluesy rendition of Gene Autry's country standard 'I Hang My Head and Cry.' 'Anna (Go To Him)' soon became part of The Beatles' stage repertoire – as did both Arthur's previous singles – and included on their 1963 debut album. As Sir Paul McCartney told Mark Lewisohn in 1987: 'If the Beatles ever wanted a sound it was R&B. That's what we used to listen to and what we wanted to be like. Black, that was basically it. Arthur Alexander.' It has also been widely suggested that Arthur's prevalent use of the term 'girl' as the subject in his songs, influenced John Lennon and others to pick up on it to great advantage.
With Ball as his manager, producer and publisher (talk about conflict of interest), Arthur made frequent forays into the studio in 1963. Accompanying him were the coolest of Nashville Cats, guys who seriously dug Arthur's music. These included multi-instrumentalist and session leader Charlie McCoy, the incomparable Kenny Buttrey on drums, guitarists Mac Gayden and Wayne Moss, Pig Robbins on piano, and bassist Henry Strezelecki. Ball often set Arthur in big 'uptown' productions, reminiscent of his idol Ben E. King, and was amazed by his artist's versatility. Unreleased at the time were MOR numbers like 'All I Need Is You' and 'Without A Song,' the stomping 'A Whole Lot of Trouble,' and Arthur's own country-tinged gems 'In The Middle Of It All' and 'Call Me Lonesome.' Chosen for the next single was 'Go Home Girl,' another composition of Arthur's that echoed the selfless sentiment of 'Anna (Go To Him).' In late 1963, around the time The Rolling Stones were recording 'You Better Move On' for their debut EP, 'Go Home Girl' was paired with 'You're the Reason' but failed to break the Hot 100. Higher chart success for Arthur came with Steve Alaimo's Top 50 cover of 'Every Day I Have To Cry.' Arthur's most covered song, it has since been recorded by Dusty Springfield, Ike and Tina Turner, and Jerry Lee Lewis, among others.
Arthur maintained a busy touring schedule through Phil and Allen Walden's Universal Attractions, befriending Walden's rising star Otis Redding. He certainly was not a dynamic performer like Redding -- 'stiff' by most accounts -- but the handsome, towering six-foot-four singer with the high conk hairstyle had only to fill those big lungs, open his mouth and let his soul pour out. No jumping, no shouting. What you heard, when he sang, was the true Arthur Alexander.
Hoping to exploit Arthur's ease with C&W, Noel Ball aimed his next release straight at that market with a moving rendition of Johnny Bonds' hit 'I Wonder Where You Are Tonight.' An immortal reading of 'Dream Girl' graced the b-side, but the record stiffed. 'Where Did Sally Go' rightfully went nowhere, though its strong flip-side, 'Keep Her Guessing,' with saxman Boots Randolph, deserved airplay and attention. To produce Arthur's next single in late 1964, Ball enlisted Bill Haney, a songwriter and record man from Georgia. Arthur's funky acoustic version of Charles Brown's blues hit 'Black Night' (backed with his own 'Old John Amos') featured fills by Elvis's former guitar player Scotty Moore. It too failed to revive sales.
Arthur was now divorced from Ann and sharing an apartment in Nashville with singer Joe Henderson ('Snap Your Fingers,' 1962). More concerned with his social life, he missed gigs and more than once had to be tracked down at a local club for a session. Bassist Billy Cox recalled that Arthur even took stage at the New Era club with him and Cox's army buddy, a young guitarist named Jimi Hendrix. The good times came to a halt, however, when Arthur arrived home to discover his room-mate dead of a heart attack. 'Joe and Arthur had been playing around with too many pills,' noted fellow soul singer Roscoe Shelton. The warning signs went unheeded by Arthur.
Noel Ball was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1964, appointing Bill Haney to produce Arthur's final Dot single. Their version of Bobby Bare's hit 'Detroit City,' which highlighted the loneliness and yearning in Arthur's voice, and its b-side 'You Don't Care,' were cut with just Arthur and a rhythm guitar. Haney then sent the tapes to Norman Petty in Clovis, New Mexico, where The Fireballs, with twanging guitarist George Thomsco, overdubbed onto the tracks. Thus ended Arthur's association with Dot.
Arthur signed with Sound Stage 7, a subsidiary of Fred Foster's esteemed Monument label, in the fall of 1965 and flew to England for a three-week tour the following April. An indication of Arthur's unpredictable stage manner was recalled by Bill Millar who attended a gig at London's Ram Jam club: 'A tall, awkward figure with slightly Oriental features, he stood onstage for 30 minutes, sang ‘If I Had A Hammer,' looked at his watch and marched off in mid-song.' Over the next three years Foster produced half a dozen singles on Arthur, mostly R&B with a smattering of C&W. Some were excellent; all flopped. Looking back, Foster himself doesn't know why things didn't work out. 'It all stopped dead in its tracks,' he remarked in 1995. By the time Arthur signed with Warner Bros., releasing his fine eponymous 1971 LP, he had been hospitalized numerous times in Alabama and Tennessee due to excessive drugs and drink.
The next few years were especially lean, but Arthur persevered. In 1975 he hooked up with Music Mill Studio in Muscle Shoals and cut 'Every Day I Have To Cry Some' in a radio-friendly, pre-disco groove. Released on Buddah, the disc reached #45 on the charts, but the steamy follow-up, 'Sharing The Night Together,' didn't catch fire.
By late 1977, his emotional state and finances in tatters, Arthur north moved to Cleveland, Ohio to live with his girlfriend and their baby girl. He would play his old tapes at family barbeques and occasionally sing at a local night spot, but 'it began to feel like work,' he said. Believing he had been vastly underpaid, Arthur hired a lawyer and made unsuccessful attempts to investigate his tangled publishing affairs. He carried a Bible with him everywhere, finding comfort and sobriety as a born again Christian. After lying low for a few years, Arthur was hired in 1981 by the Center for Human Services as a janitor and part-time bus driver. His co-workers revered the dedicated, smiling, giant of a man, but knew nothing of his earlier career.
A year following his induction into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1990, Arthur was contacted by songwriter/producer Jon Tiven, who convinced him to perform in New York City. While record shopping the day before the gig, Arthur saw three of his Ace re-issues. 'There I was, big as life, on albums I'd never seen before,' he told me in 1993. 'I said, ‘Something's going on.' Arthur's triumphant performance lead to Elektra/Nonesuch releasing the critically acclaimed CD Lonely Just Like Me in 1993. Three months after its release, Arthur's many physical problems caught up with him. He suffered a heart attack during a meeting with his music publisher and died in Nashville on 9 June 1993, age fifty-three.
To some, Arthur's story may seem like the oft-told music business tale: rural singer scores influential hit, gets ripped off by the usual suspects, bottoms out, embraces religion, reaches once more for the golden ring and dies after a brief taste of glory. But there was nothing unoriginal about Arthur. Perhaps, his unique blend of country and soul was difficult to pigeon-hole and market. Perhaps, he was his own worst enemy, unreliable at times, and wayward. Yet, the true-to-life songs he wrote in his head, tossed around till they came out with his individual stamp of authenticity, have lost none of their power; and his singing, a true reflection of his inner self, can move even a first-time listener. All these years later, Arthur Alexander's music resonates with honesty, emotion and originality, insuring his legacy as one of 'The Greatest.'
Arthur Alexander: The Monument Years (Ace)
Adios Amigos (Razor and Tie')
2008 interview for allbutforgottenoldies