Arthur Alexander

TrackSingle / Album
You Better Move OnDot 16309
A Shot Of Rhythm And BluesDot 16309
Where Have You Been (All My Life)Dot 16357
Anna (Go To Him)Dot 16387
I Hang My Head And CryDot 16387
Detroit CityDot 16737
All I Need Is YouThe Greatest (Ace UK)
In The Middle Of It AllThe Greatest (Ace UK)
Every Day I Have To Cry SomeBuddah BDA 492
Lonely Just Like MeLonely Just Like Me

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Arthur Alexander photo 2

 

Contributors: Dave Stephens – with Cal Taylor

You asked me to give up the hand of the girl I love

One of the more memorable opening lines. Softly strummed guitar. A kind of whiplash effect suggesting rhythm and urgency. Four cracks and it’s Arthur. Monotone delivery for the first eight words broken by a little flourish which relieves the tension, but only ever so slightly. It doesn’t disappear. Peter Guralnick called that voice “deeply uncertain” (source: his excellent book “Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm And Blues And The Southern Dream Of Freedom”) but on this one Arthur was as certain as he was about anything. This was deliberate. There was none of the mellifluousness we would hear on later singles. Arthur had been building up to this and, once he’d started, you knew he was going to tell his rival that fancy clothes and diamond rings wouldn’t buy his girl. That, he, Arthur, was getting mighty mad at being asked to give up the only love he’d ever had. In short, Arthur wanted his rival gone. “You better move on”. A striking title for an extremely striking song, given a remarkable performance.

Arthur Alexander and Country Soul are often spoken of as being synonymous. Does it actually matter who invented the genre? Ivory Joe Hunter had a say, way back in ’57 with Empty Arms, and King Solomon Burke took a country song and, aided by the magicians at Atlantic, put it just out of reach (of his two empty arms) in late summer ’61. Arthur’s most famous song (or one of his two most famous songs depending on which you prefer), travelled the other way. Billy “Crash” Craddock cut it complete with pedal steel; stuck its title on an album which became a hit in the Country Chart in 1973. Maybe Billy was just bringing it on home.

George Jones and Johnny Paycheck made a mighty nice record out of the song too, though, quite sensibly, they didn’t stray too far from the original arrangement.

The other “most famous song”? Anna (Go To Him) but often shortened to Anna. The Beatles cut a version of it and put it on their first album, Please Please Me, released in March 1963. Not bad for a relatively little known singer/songwriter from Florence, Alabama. Sure, Arthur hadn’t done badly in the US R&B Chart with his single but very few US white record buyers would have heard it. It was released in the UK in December 1962 on London American Records. With Lennon’s known penchant for buying London singles, it’s likely that the song would have gone into the boys’ stage act within a month. And it was that stage act that formed the backbone of Please Please Me. As we’ve since learned, ten tracks from the stage act were recorded in one day and Anna was one of them.

It took the Stones a little longer to get in on the Alexander act. They included You Better Move On in their first EP, which was released in January 1964. The Beatles and the Stones weren’t the only groups to pick up on Arthur, and those weren’t the only songs they recorded.

In 1965, after all those positive vibes from across the pond, Dot eventually got round to reissuing You Better Move On, coupling it this time with Anna (Go To Him) and it got to #45 in the Billboard Chart. And that could well have been the peak of the Alexander success story. There was critical acclaim over the years and the occasional minor hit, but minor was very much the operative word. Thankfully, there was something of an upturn in Arthur’s life in the last couple of years or so before he died.

But I need to start at the beginning. I mentioned Florence, Alabama where Arthur was born on the 10th of May, 1940. Like every soul star you’ve ever heard of, Arthur sang in a gospel group (called the Heartstrings) in his teens. Less conventionally, Florence was also the early stamping ground for a group of white kids including Daniel “Dan Penn” Pennington, Dewey “Spooner” Oldham, Donnie Fritts, Billy Sherrill and Rick Hall, all of whom were keen on black R&B, and all of whom would make a name for themselves in roots based popular music within the coming few years. Arthur’s entrée to this grouping was via another, somewhat older white lad, Tom Stafford, who saw himself as a budding lyric writer and latched on to Arthur as someone who could provide the melodic bits.

Arthur’s first claim to any kind of fame came in 1958 with a song he’d written with another would-be composer, fellow Heartstring, Henry Lee Bennett. The song was She Wanna Rock, and it was recorded in Nashville by Canadian country cum rockabilly artist, Arnie Derksen. The number was published by FAME (see below). His first recording, however, was of a song called Sally Sue Brown, which was written by himself and Tom, plus another gent called Earl “Peanut” Montgomery (who was later to blossom into a prolific writer for George Jones and plenty more in a country vein). It was recorded in Tom’s up-and-coming studio (often referred to as that, but actually the first incarnation of FAME, set up by Tom with partners Rick Hall and Billy Sherrill) above the Stafford family City Drugstore. They managed to persuade record label owner Jud Phillips, brother of Sam Phillips of Sun fame, to press and distribute it on his Judd label. The song itself was blues based (but not sticking to the usual 12 bar format), and Arthur’s delivery gave few pointers to the real quality of that voice. Confusingly, the vocalist was named as June Alexander, a shortening of Arthur’s nickname “Junior”, so called because his father was also named Arthur.

The flip side, The Girl That Radiates That Charm is also worth investigating. A clumsy title perhaps but more soul-like in content than the A-side. The song was recut at Dot but didn’t see release until it popped up in one of the early Ace compilations

A brief digression on FAME (Florence Alabama Music Enterprise) is called for. It was originally quite an amateur operation but with Rick Hall as very much the driving force according to his own account. In 1960, partly because they wanted more freedom (and they weren’t into the workaholic approach of Hall), Stafford and Sherrill dissolved the partnership but left Hall with the rights to the studio name. He then set up his makeshift FAME studios in 1961, in a candy and tobacco warehouse on the other side of the Tennessee River in Wilson Dam Road, Muscle Shoals.

One of the first products to come out of the new FAME studio, and certainly the first hit, was the Arthur Alexander pairing of his self-penned You Better Move On and the song that would form its flip, A Shot Of Rhythm And Blues, an up tempo scorcher composed by FAME session man, Terry Thompson. Backing was provided by Norbert Putnam (bass), Jerry Carrigan (drums), David Briggs (piano) plus Earl Montgomery, Forrest Riley and the just mentioned Terry Thompson on guitar. These guys would go on to form a regular part of the FAME support team featuring on many sessions. The waxing was punted around a number of record company executives but got absolutely nowhere until it reached the ears of DJ and Dot Records talent scout and record producer, Noel Ball, who bought the masters and arranged for Arthur to be signed to Dot. On its release it reached the dizzy height of #24 in the US Pop Chart.

Arthur’s connection with the FAME studios ceased but, from the proceeds of You Better Move On, Rick Hall made a lot of money which enabled him to build brand new studios that have become world famous (and still exist today) at 603 Avalon Avenue, Muscle Shoals.

Another digression is called for on Dot Records. It was founded in 1950 by Randy Wood in Gallatin, Tennessee, not a million miles from Nashville. In 1956, the company moved to Hollywood but continued to record in Nashville as well as L.A. In its early years, Dot was very much a ‘white’ record label focusing on country, gospel and pop music (of a relatively old fashioned kind). In the mid to late fifties, however, Dot gained a reputation for being very much a covers label using artists like Pat Boone and Gale Storm. If nothing else, this did give Dot a bit of understanding of the music of the day since the records covered by the likes of Boone invariably came from ‘across the tracks’ i.e. from black artists.

While I can’t read Noel Ball’s mind, and sadly he’s no longer with us, it was undoubtedly his intention in the years that Arthur spent with Dot to create a soul star in the image of Solomon Burke or Ray Charles. The latter was signed by ABC Paramount from Atlantic in early 1961 with the objective of creating a big star whose appeal went beyond a black audience. The album Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music was released in April 1962 and it became a big seller along with the single, I Can’t Stop Loving You, which had massive sales. While that’s getting slightly ahead of myself, you can see where Noel Ball’s thinking process was going.

Unfortunately, Ball failed. In spite of a series of very good to excellent singles plus one album – more on these later – plus support that often came from the Nashville ‘A Team’ – guys like Charlie McCoy, Kenny Buttrey, Hargus “Pig” Robbins, i.e. pickers, pluckers, etc., several of whom went on to appear on Blonde On Blonde – nothing seriously clicked and Arthur was released from his contract in 1965. I said “nothing seriously”, in fact both his second and his third Dot singles, Where Have You Been (All My Life) and Anna (Go To Him) respectively, made the lower half of the Hot 100, but that was all. He also picked up some kudos (and some cash, though he always complained about not receiving his royalties) as a song writer when Steve Alaimo took the Alexander penned Every Day I Have To Cry into the charts in 1963.

Our man then got picked up by Sound Stage 7, a subsidiary of Nashville-based Monument Records, owned by the very hands-on, Fred Foster. While Monument, the label that had had a string of hits with Roy Orbison, was essentially for white artists, Sound Stage 7 was deliberately set up to address the black market, and among its signings were Joe Simon, Ivory Joe Hunter and the Dixie Belles. However, Arthur’s records for the label were not dramatically different in format and quality to the Dot records, just not quite reaching the same peaks of excellence. While the Dot records were all cut in Nashville, the Sound Stage 7 ones were mainly done in the country capital still using those ole Nashville cats, but some used studios in Hollywood. Fred Foster usually handled the production duties himself and Bill Justis, fresh from the Sun/Phillips International studios, handled arrangements on the earlier records.

This time around there wasn’t even a sniff of chart success. Absences from Arthur didn’t help. According to AllMusic, Arthur later admitted to “a long and debilitating illness” and there were rumours that he was an acid casualty. In “The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia”, Michael Gray refers to “years of personal struggle with drugs and health problems (he was hospitalized several times in the mid-1960s, sometimes at his own request, in a mental health facility in Southern Alabama)”. Early 1972 found Arthur at Warner Brothers which resulted in the album Arthur Alexander in April that year. The set included three songs from Dennis Linde plus one co-written with Arthur called Burning Love. Elvis cut the song later that year and had, what Wiki informs me, was his last Top Ten US hit with it. Neither Arthur Alexander nor the singles derived from it did anything of note, so memories of Arthur grew dimmer as the years passed (other than in the UK and some of mainland Europe I must add, where he was still viewed as a cult favourite).

There was a brief upsurge of interest in 1975 when Arthur cut his version of Everyday I Have To Cry Some in Muscle Shoals for Buddah Records. Arthur got a #45 Billboard Chart placing with it, his last hit of any note. A small handful of singles followed but then there was nothing more for well over a decade. During the late seventies and eighties he turned away from music totally. He found employment as a construction worker, in a power plant, and in 1981, as a bus driver for a social services agency in Cleveland, Ohio. He also became a born-again Christian.

But he wasn’t totally forgotten. Richard Younger, an author, journalist, musician and educator living in New York, heard Arthur’s first Ace compilation, A Shot Of Rhythm And Soul, at a barbeque in 1985 and that was the trigger that started Richard on the course that would result in his biography, “Get A Shot Of Rhythm And Blues: The Arthur Alexander Story” in 2000. This is Richard’s brief description of the final years of the Arthur Alexander story (from his sleeve notes to The Greatest):

“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 led 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.”

None of the foregoing tells you anything about the music, and by music I very largely mean that series of singles, from ’61 to ’66, which defined Arthur. That’s not to say that later music from the man should be totally ignored but much of it did tend to hark back to this period while often gaining a more conventional layering of instrumentation. Which immediately implies that those Dot records were unusual in some way. And they were. Even disregarding Arthur’s voice, which I’ll come on to, the arrangements that surrounded it at Dot owed little to the rapid evolution of soul music which was happening apace at places like the Stax studios in Memphis and, indeed, in Muscle Shoals (after the Alexander impetus) and in Detroit and Chicago.

Most accounts of Arthur and his music, gloss over the fact that only You Better Move On (and its flip) were products of the fledgling FAME studio and musicians. Everything after that was from Nashville under supervision by Noel Ball. Dot (and Noel) were dab hands at observing and sometimes replicating what was happening in the pop charts and from the big labels in New York and L.A., but less used to taking note of what was going on “out in the sticks”. Well that’s my theory as to why much of Arthur’s Dot output bore only limited resemblance to music that we call soul emanating from other places in the U.S. in the same time frame. What was lacking in the Dot studios was in-depth understanding and knowledge of black music, which is why so little of Arthur’s output at the time even related to other black music that was around.

That’s an over simplification. On the positive side, session musicians in Nashville were not only good at the process of mimicry, they were also expert at putting together off-the cuff arrangements when presented with new songs. Country music itself wasn’t a static thing; there was innovation driving it forward all the time and the session guys used by Dot were part of that process. Another point which becomes apparent after frequent listening is the prominence given to the pianist on many of these tracks, not something that you readily associate with country or soul music (though there are always exceptions).

An illustration:

One of the first things Dot did once they’d got Arthur signed up was to get him into a studio and lay down enough tracks for an album. Those tracks included a re-recorded You Better Move On and the LP saw release under that title later that year (1962). The bulk of the tracks however were covers of current or recent chart hits including such songs as Hey Baby and Love Letters. This was mimicry, that word I used a paragraph or so back, and one thing you had to admit, was that they did it well (though it does rather put me in mind of the output from the Woolworth’s Embassy label which was running at the same time).

That session was held in March 1962 and, to be fair to Dot, it did produce another excellent track, You’re The Reason, which saw release on the flip side of Arthur’s fourth Dot single, but I’m skipping to May ’62 which produced one of the Alexander classics, Anna (Go To Him), or Anna (Go With Him) as he actually sings the line.

If You Better Move On, the album, had confirmed the Dot reputation for copycatting, “Anna”, the single, from the same producer and largely the same session team, showed us the ability of that overall team (including Arthur) to absorb the lessons of the FAME session, particularly in terms of restraint and focus, and utilise those lessons in the creation of a record that was very different in both mood and melody.

The first thing that hits you isn’t that pretty piano phrase dropping through the first couple of chords of the doo wop progression. No, it’s that whopping great back beat which propels the whole thing. Like “Move On” it’s another ‘three-are-too-many’ effort lyrically, maybe even the same one looked at totally differently. And I should add that Arthur’s best compositions were autobiographical. He just about manages to keep it together until that stunning middle eight: “Every girl I’ve ever had, breaks my heart and leaves me sad. What am I, what am I, supposed to do”. Great drumming. Was this Kenny Buttrey I wonder? No matter, what really impresses on this record is the balance of sweetness and agony.

I referred to “that series of singles, from ’61 to ’66, which defined Arthur” by which, of course, I mean the Dot period. And I’m putting my money where my mouth is, in that I’m making the bulk of my selections from that time frame including one which was composed in the period but didn’t get recorded till later. I’m extremely lucky in that all bar that exception are contained in the Ace compilation, Arthur Alexander: The Greatest. I’m taking a slightly unusual approach (for me), in that I’m giving you a potted description/review of each track. I justify this on the basis that (a) this is the best selection you’re going to find anywhere of Arthur’s work and (b) it’s a mighty fine album in anyone’s book. “Anna” was the first track, so I’m starting with the second.

You’re The Reason: The source for this one, the flip of Go Home Girl in single terms, was a number that featured in the country chart in ’61. The now forgotten Bobby Edwards sang the song and it attracted covers from Hank Locklin, Joe South and more. However, it was Bobby who achieved crossover to the pop chart, almost breaking into the Top Ten. On our man’s take there’s a deceptively sweet opening from the group of ladies who appeared with some frequency on Arthur’s Dot records, leading into a kind of chunky sing-along affair, with almost everything in the mix, strings, those ladies and more. I guess this relatively straightforward statement/confession of his love – “Honey, you’re the reason I don’t sleep at night” – was positively verging on ecstatic compared with our man’s self-penned poems of pain. But it was the sort of conversational thing that suited him. This track very nearly made the selection; it was in there up until the last minute.

Soldier Of Love came from the first session for the label held in March 1962. The song was an original from singer and songwriter Buzz Cason, plus Tony Moon. It has that early sixties pop cum R&B sound but with greater sophistication than most; the best comparison I could make would be to one of the better Shirelles singles and, believe me, that’s a compliment. But country wasn’t so far away; the first line of the chorus could have come straight from Nashville – “Lay down your arms, and surrender to me”.

I Hang My Head And Cry: A Gene Autrey song. Wonder if Arthur himself was the source (see footnotes on his influences). One of those records that gets the adjective ‘loping’. Prominent piano which indulges in flights of extemporisation as the performance progresses. This is blues in a country envelope and Mr Piano Man knows it.

You Don’t Care: An original and from Arthur’s last Dot session (in April 1965). Noel Ball had just been diagnosed with cancer and he handed the production duties to Bill Haney. Both this song and the other from the session, Detroit City – the A-side of the resulting single – were recorded with guitar and vocal only. Haney sent this one to Norman Petty – he of Buddy Holly fame – for overdubbing. It came back with a strong guitar flavour courtesy of the Fireballs’ lead guitar man, George Tomsco. I’ve seen more than one report compare the overall sound and arrangement on this to the kind of noises emanating from our side of the pond i.e. Beatles et al, and I’d come to a similar conclusion independently. Bear in mind the date. What the Yanks called Mersey beat was running rampant and US record producers couldn’t have been unaware.

Dream Girl: Another original and from the brothers Jan and Jerry Crutchfield who were regular providers to Nashville artists. Which might suggest country but this is more poppy than most of Arthur’s records with a delicate vibes intro. I’d classify this as somewhere between teen pop and ‘old fashioned quality writing’ as some people used to call such stuff (and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way).

Call Me Lonesome: Solitary folk/country guitar intro and then it’s Arthur in ‘I’m going to tell you a story’ mode. “There was a guy dancing with my darling and he danced her across the floor”, only this time the darling was Mary not Anna. Still sounds as if Arthur’s relying on his memory banks to evoke actual rather than imagined pain. The pitch is somewhere between “Move On” intensity and chugalong, which sounds like it shouldn’t work but does.

After You (unissued): This one smacks of Mr Ball eying up the sort of arrangement that Atlantic had concocted around Ben E. King with an oldie. Supremely elegant first fifty seconds or so with subtle hints of country and a delightful piano phrase, and would have made my list if the whole thing hadn’t been marginally marred by unnecessary string flourishes and doo woppy gents which were just unnecessary distractions. Pity. Could have been a great record.

Where Have You Been (All My Life): Dot single number two, from the pens of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and it’s one of their better efforts. While the slow ominous rhythm is a clear attempt to follow “Move On” with something similarly moody, it works. Great stompy middle eight. Soul? Pop? One of those uncategorisable records; I even see a slight resemblance to Orbison epics but lacking the extremes of melodrama.

A Shot Of Rhythm And Blues: The first R&B workout for the Muscle Shoals team and the closest Arthur ever got to an up tempo Ray Charles styled rocker. The song is minimal, one of the many, many ditties which did little more than celebrate rock and roll. But remember that old euphemism and just revel in what the guys do with the number. There’s even some authentic sounding call & response present.

Don’t You Know It (unissued): Bass driven and medium tempo, owing a little, perhaps, to Stand By Me. Yet another great middle eight; Arthur and Noel specialised in them.

You Better Move On: I think I said it all earlier but the paragraph in Wiki which includes a quote from the great man is well worth a read:

“The lyrics were inspired by Alexander’s real life situation, in which his girlfriend and future wife already had a boyfriend. Alexander said of the situation “When I met her out of high school he was still hanging in there. His family was pretty well off. I didn’t have no money but I knew she liked me. It was a small town and people would be talking. That’s where I got the idea for the song. I didn’t talk to him personally. I said it in song.””

All I Need Is You (unissued): Teen ballad but great teen ballad. This is up there with Pledging My Love and Donna; indeed, in terms of melodic sophistication this beats that pair.

Detroit City: From Arthur’s last Dot session in April ’65 with Bill Haney behind the production console. Bobby Bare had achieved crossover with this country tears-in-my-beer effort in ’63 (and don’t get me wrong I love the Bare version). But it needed some magic and it got it. The Brazilian baion rhythm as pioneered by Leiber & Stoller in the Atlantic studios was the differentiator. A deliciously different view of the man who made the cars by day but the bars at night.

Keep Her Guessing: The flip side of a single which didn’t see release in the UK. One of the very few songs on the album which sounds something like typical black pop of the period but a very good example of the same. Snorting sax from Boots Randolph. A minor track in comparison to much that surrounds it here but pleasingly evocative of the period.

Go Home Girl: If this one had immediately followed “Move On” we’d have accused Dot of the usual record label trick of an attempted replication of the one that got the recognition. In fact this was Dot disc #4 and whether it was intended to do just that – had Arthur written the song to order? – we’ll never know. The sound is distinctly like the Muscle Shoals “Move On” but with the addition of that ubiquitous piano. Lyrically, it’s another view of, or episode in, the life of that love entangled threesome, which had provided Arthur with so much rich material.

In The Middle Of It All (unissued but recorded three times more in later years with two of them seeing release): Sad, sad ballad with Hargus “Pig” Robbins or Floyd Cramer on piano – it sounds like Floyd – providing counterpoint to Arthur who’s emoting so hard you expect the studio to flood with tears. In terms of compositions this is up there with “Move On” and “Anna” and in terms of performance I’ll take this one over the three later efforts (though that could be due to familiarity). Quite why no one saw fit to release this at the time, we’ll never know. In purely mercenary terms this could have introduced Arthur to a whole new Engelbert/Release Me market (and yes I know that was later but I’m convinced the market was there).

My house
Is a lonely house,
But it once
Was a happy house,
And the two of us
Were happy
As I recall.
But now the rain
Falls around it,
And loneliness
Surrounds it,
And I’m in the middle of it all

Short phrases. Big gaps. And the voice of a broken man.

Whole Lot Of Trouble (unissued): A little known Arthur composition and one that demonstrated that he could rock along very nicely when he wanted to (even if the title did suggest something darker). It gets close but doesn’t quite morph into that special form of rock‘n’roll patented by the residents of New Orleans. The strings are redundant; the pianist could have carried the number on his own.

Without A Song (unissued): Fairly blatant attempt to mimic what Atlantic were doing with Ben E. King and the occasional oldie. That said, it works very well and I wouldn’t be without the track. Arthur handles such material with aplomb. There’s even some call and response and near Raelettes touches on this. Ironic? Surely not in 1963.

I Wonder Where You Are Tonight: As close to by-the-book country as Arthur and the team ever got. A title that tells you what’s coming, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. “And now you’ve gone to find another, someone who’ll know the love I’ve shared.” There’s no doubt that Arthur identified with this form of music. The song dates back to 1941. It was written by a gent called Johnny Bond (who’s now gone to that Grand Ole Opry in the sky) but the first version was from Jimmy Wakely And His Rough Riders. Subsequent versions have come from Bond himself, the Louvin Brothers, Ernest Tubb, Bill Monroe, Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton and many more.

Black Night: Unlike many singers who’ve had the label ‘soul’ attached to them, Arthur didn’t really do blues. Maybe it was something to do with his blues-singing father who’d warned him never to take it up because he wouldn’t make any money out of it. This was an exception. The song came from L.A.’s Mr Cool, Charles Brown, and somewhat unexpectedly, Arthur managed to sound a lot more cheery than Charles. Also unexpectedly, in the light of his usual ubiquity, the pianist didn’t turn up for this session, which was strange because Brown’s original definitely featured a pianist – himself. Instead, the Alexander track gave us a mouth harp guy plus Scotty Moore on acoustic. A pleasing record though. Just didn’t make the cut because I prefer that original plus the later version from Bobby Bland.

I reviewed the album on Amazon. I gave it five stars – of course – and finished with the following words, “Arthur is gone but the performances on this album still haunt us.”

The Ace compilation, Arthur Alexander: The Monument Years, captured the second main period of Arthur’s career and Ace have been very good to us, not only by putting the issued tracks in sequence but also by giving us a goodly number of outtakes. And if I implied earlier that these tracks were inferior I should qualify that statement. There are tracks on here that are as good as the Dot ones but nothing quite matching the ‘classics’ even though we do get version #2 of In The Middle Of It All. The first four tracks, from a Nashville session in October 1965, are particularly fine and the pairing selected for Arthur’s first Sound Stage 7 single, (Baby) For You and The Other Woman were deserving of sales, though the reader will know by now that these didn’t come. Arranger Bill Justis had introduced horns for what seemed like the first time – they were present in the Dot days occasionally but well down in the mix. I think of those saxes on (Baby) For You as sad horns and entirely suited to an Alexander record. The Other Woman is another country loper, like I Hang My Head And Cry, and is a superb example of country soul. Perhaps shuffler might have been a better word in this case since the original came from Ray Price, inventor of the Texas Country Shuffle. Both of these tracks very nearly made my list. Indeed, as I write this after a fresh listen, I’m almost tempted to go back and see if there’s anything I could drop to fit one or other of this pair in.

Elsewhere, I Need You Baby is another that demands attention. Released in 1968 and built around two jazzy chords, this is one that you can safely put in the category, deep soul. Its flip, on the other hand, a rerun of Ben E. King’s Spanish Harlem, was a mistake. It was too close to that splendid original to stand out in any way.

The penultimate Sound Stage 7/Monument single – and I’m only bracketing them like that because one of this run of singles was released on Monument – paired Bye Bye Love (and yes, it was that Bye Bye Love) and Another Place, Another Time. The jury may still be out on the A-side; on some days I love it, on others it leaves me cold. Certainly, this was an entire rethink of the song, though on my ‘off days’ I look back to the directness of the (still) stunning original. Maybe we should label this one as a brave try. Fans of a certain self-styled “Killer” will know that Another Place, Another Time was the song that reincarnated Mr Jerry Lee Lewis as a country singer when memories of the raging rocker had largely faded, and it was in 1968 it happened so the record could still have been featuring in the Country Chart when Arthur’s version saw the light of day. Again we get a degree of reinterpretation via the incorporation of a latin rhythm plus a building approach leading to a let’s all singalong ending. Perhaps this was a more deliberate attempt to go for the Engelbert/Release Me audience than my earlier reference to the same. I’m sticking with Jerry on this song though.

A couple of outtakes that appeared in The Monument Years, Love’s Where Life Begins and Call Me Honey (penned by Dennis Linde), would see release on Warner Brothers’ Arthur Alexander in 1972. I bought this one when it came out on vinyl but recall some disappointment at the time and that opinion hasn’t seriously changed over the years. Critical opinions range between unalloyed near worship and “I wonder why this isn’t better”. The current Uncut mag has a review of the latest re-release of the set and it’s firmly in the former category, 8 out of 10 and “some superlative country soul interpretations”. I’ve had a long re-listen and would classify this as Arthur’s least interesting phase – I’ve recorded more detailed observations in the footnotes.

Jump forward three years or so and we get Arthur’s very belated cut of his own song, Every Day I Have To Cry (Some) which saw release in ’75, well over twelve years after Steve Alaimo had his hit with the number. It was a strange song and performance: semi-focused depressive lyrics coupled with a fragment of melody which drilled itself into the brain all set to a bouncy rhythm. The Alaimo version was even more manic and, arguably, better realised. The disconnect between words and music was stronger but seemed to matter less. I confess that I was in two minds as to whether to include Arthur’s version in my selections but the world would have been worse off without the record so it’s in.

There were to be only a few more singles and they’d petered out by the end of the seventies. Sharing The Night Together, a kind of uptown soul thing recorded originally by a gent called Lenny LeBlanc about whom I know nothing, wasn’t without merit and demonstrated Arthur’s versatility. There was a subsequent hit version from Dr Hook but it didn’t match Arthur.

The reader will be pleased to know that there was something of a happy ending musically to the Alexander story. While I’ve been grudging with my praise for much of Arthur’s seventies work, I have no intention of taking that line with his final album. Lonely Just Like Me was as good as the reviewers said it was. For the first time on an Alexander album, all the songs actually bore the writing credit “Alexander” with only five of the twelve being co-writes. They weren’t all new; four were revisits and one further track had appeared as a single circa Arthur Alexander (and got itself appended as a bonus track to a re-release of that set), but again this was a revisit. More importantly, there was little on here that you could label makeweight. Even the lesser songs sparkled in the musical settings deployed. And some of the songs were anything but makeweight. Of the new songs, both the title track and If It’s Really Got To Be That Way were excellent, and Johnny Heartbreak, and All The Time weren’t too far behind. Of Arthur’s own ‘oldies’, rather curiously, Go Home Girl (without the “On” this time) and In The Middle Of It All got yet another workover, with the last-named getting its fourth cut. Did producer Ben Vaughn feel that some recompense was needed for the versions on Arthur Alexander or was this a case of Arthur, like many a bluesman, feeling a need to regularly revisit some of his songs? The cuts here of both these numbers are worthy of standing alongside the originals with arrangements that sit well with those lyrics. A surprise inclusion in the set is Arthur’s first recorded number Sally Sue Brown which is a delight. The overall sound of the album is mid sixties soul of the kind that came out of Muscle Shoals at that time but with freshness and not a hint of pastiche.

Lonely Just Like Me exemplifies the approach well. On this song the melody line and mood date back to Arthur’s Dot period more than any other in the set and, fittingly, the producer has made an acoustic almost Spanish sounding guitar the most prominent instrument in the mix, just like Bert Berns used to do with Solomon – dig out Mr Burke’s brilliant You Can’t Love ‘Em All for comparison. This being Arthur of course, there’s the feeling that in the hands of, say, George Jones, this would be an outright country song, with inevitable echoes of Marty Robbins’ El Paso in the guitar counterpoint. Arthur doesn’t disappoint on the lyrics either. There’s a flesh and bone story here unlike some of the generalisms and platitudes of much of the seventies output.

If It’s Really Got To Be This Way, a wide screen sweeping song with superb guitar work again, is just as good and it’s only numbers that prevented its inclusion in the ten. The country influence is more subdued this time but, yes, that’s a pedal steel that you hear in the middle eight.

I’ve said nothing about Arthur’s voice. Indeed, I ducked saying anything about it when I was talking about those Dot singles, and the differences between them and any other music that we call ‘soul’, with a ‘sixties’ preceding it or not. The first thing to state is that he was utterly distinctive; you wouldn’t mistake him for any other vocalist. In comparison to those who have the adjective ‘soul’ sitting in front of that word, he rarely strained his voice to indicate emotion. He made only sparing use of melisma (unlike, say, a Clyde McPhatter of the generation just before him), and he also made little usage of the soul man’s exhortations – the grunts, the ‘nahs’ and so on – other than a few which made their appearance in the late sixties and early seventies, possibly at a producer’s urging. There was usually agony there but he kept it all in for much of the time. The impression given was that tears weren’t far away but he had too much pride to weep all over the place. At the same time there was warmth and care and generosity of spirit. Arthur may have been wronged but he had his dignity and he was going to go on doing things his way.

I don’t think that voice even showed signs of wear and age on Lonely Just Like Me though critics might disagree. It didn’t get used for great flourishes of passion that swept all before them. Arthur’s mode was intimate and, at times, conversational. He told stories and those stories made people love him as they now love his memory.

Every day I have to cry some
Every day I have to cry some
Dry the water from my eyes some
Every day I have to cry

 

FOOTNOTES

1. “In Latin, mel means “honey” and fluere means “to flow.” Those two linguistic components flow smoothly together in mellifluus (from Late Latin) and mellyfluous (from Middle English), the ancestors of mellifluous.” (Merriam-Webster definition)

2. Arthur’s father, Arthur Sr., had various day jobs and played blues guitar in local juke joints at night. In his sleeve notes to The Greatest, Richard Younger reported:

“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.””

3. As illustrated by the last para, I have drawn extensively from the sleeve notes to the Ace compilation, The Greatest, written by Richard Younger, the author of the only book on Arthur. Although I’ve not read Richard’s book, I can assure the reader that it has excellent reviews, and I am firmly convinced that the relatively brief essay that appears in the sleeve notes is the most accurate representation of the main events in Arthur’s life that I have seen.

4. I have referred to two Ace compilations of Arthur’s work. In fact there have been three drawing on the Dot period, plus one covering his Monument/Sound Stage 7 work. The three ‘Dot albums’: Ace (UK) CH-66 A Shot Of Rhythm And Soul 1982; Ace (UK) CH-207 Soldier Of Love 1987 (which had tracks not present on CH 66 plus a couple from the Dot/London LP You Better Move On); Ace (UK) CDHD-992 The Greatest 1989 (which effectively superseded CH-66 though didn’t have identical tracks).

5. In his notes to The Greatest, Richard Younger mentions several influences on the young Arthur: Percy Mayfield, Clyde McPhatter and Brook Benton from local R&B radio; singing cowboys Gene Autrey and Roy Rogers from Saturday morning movies; and early vocal groups The Dominoes, The Ravens and The Clovers from jukeboxes.

6. Something I managed not to mention in the main text was the manner in which Arthur kept his church upbringing including his spell with the Heartstrings (which his father had given agreement to because it was God’s music), largely separate from his singing career. Ray Charles was probably the first to incorporate gospel music with his call and response routines and the sheer manner of his singing including the occasional declamatory outburst, and this ‘churchifying’ was picked up by most of the soul singers that followed. Arthur was an exception.

7. On the single, She Wanna Rock, from Arnie Derksen I stated that the writers were Arthur plus Henry Lee Bennett. However, if you look it up, you’ll find the co-writer listed as Charles Fenn. This was an alias used by Henry Lee Bennett. I’ve not been able to ascertain why Bennett used an alias. Maybe he didn’t want himself, as a gospel Heartstring, associated with a secular record (and one of dubious morality if you go down the double entendre route).

8. Bob Dylan recorded Sally Sue Brown for the album Down In The Groove, released in 1988. Features on Arthur very often mention the fact that the holy triumvirate of rock – Bob, the Beatles and the Stones – had covered Arthur’s records. If you throw in the link to Elvis via Burning Love then you do have a rather impressive claim to fame.

9. Dan Penn and his band, the Pallbearers, reportedly travelled to gigs in a hearse (source: Way Back Attack on Arthur). Not all of this soul music stuff had to be deadly serious (pun not intended but apt).

10. Arthur toured the UK in April 1966. He did fifteen gigs in seventeen days, all bar two of those being in the south east corner of England. In his one and only tour here he was backed by the Jimmy Brown Sound (Ken Hensley on guitar). It appears that most of the time Arthur just stood and sang, appearing to be a bit too laid back and not displaying much stage presence, which maybe reflected his character – he never seemed to be the most outgoing or confident of people . He would have been appreciated by his fans and followers but to the casual clubgoer it was questionable whether or not he won them over. There was a report that, at one of his gigs, having done his half hour stint, he looked at his watch and left the stage mid song, leaving the band and audience a bit miffed.

Geoff Brown, who wrote Arthur’s obituary for The Independent, was the drummer on that tour. He commented:

“He was a tall, shy man and on stage did not have the physical dynamism of many of the soul singers of the period. But he had a lovely, plaintive voice, full of yearning and vulnerability, and when he was in confident mood his singing of the ballad Anna stilled the noisiest club audience.

“Attacking up-tempo songs, he’d break off to leap up and down on the spot like a man in search of a pogo-stick occasionally thumping his head on the low club ceilings. One night, at the Flamingo Club, in Wardour Street, he suddenly called for ‘If I Had A Hammer’, which we’d never rehearsed. Our poor guitarist never recovered from the surprise.”

11. Buzz Cason played a number of roles in the music industry and beyond: singer (including backing singer), song writer, producer and author. His most well known song is Everlasting Love, a hit in the UK for Love Affair. According to Wiki, “Cason is still writing and producing songs”.

12. I’ve made mention of one connection between Arthur and Jerry Lee Lewis in the document – the former’s covering of the latter’s country hit, Another Place, Another Time – but there were others. Jerry was another artist who put out a version of I Wonder Where You Are Tonight, though this wouldn’t have been a cover of Arthur’s version. Jerry, did, however, cover Every Day I Have To Cry on his 1979 Elektra album Jerry Lee Lewis (with James Burton on guitar) and, in my opinion, it’s one of the better versions of the song.

13. Herewith my thoughts on the 1972 Warner Brothers Arthur Alexander album:

* Easily the best songs in the set are the two best known of the four repeats (counting unissued tracks), Go (On) Home Girl and In The Middle Of It All.

* Both of those songs were better performed and arranged in their first versions (bearing in mind that this was the third attempt at In The Middle Of It All). There are some who will argue that the ’72 cuts are more nuanced, to use that horrible word that appears everywhere these days (and yes, I’ve been guilty at times). The early takes are more direct and Arthur’s vocal has the degree of force that his lyrics call for. Intense is probably the word I’m looking for. The tension has largely drained away from the ’72 cuts and, dare I say it, Arthur’s more world weary vocal sounds less credible.

* I’m not overly whelmed with either of the tracks that critics seem to find favour with, Burning Love and Rainbow Road. Burning Love as a song is sort of okay but let’s just say that the Presley cut wouldn’t have been one of the first to come to mind if you were looking back at his records (and that’s intended as a comment on the song not the performance). The other three Linde songs chug along quite merrily but aren’t terribly distinctive. Apologies to the late Dennis.

* Rainbow Road (penned by Donnie Fritts and Dan Penn) is a good song but is inferior to so many of those great numbers which had Dan Penn’s name on, usually in association with Spooner Oldham. The theme of an early rise to fame, then violence of a severe nature, followed by incarceration wasn’t that unusual in real life in the blues and R&B world. Little Willie John is an example. However, I feel that the way it is treated here is a touch on the sentimental side. At the same time I recognise that the song (and performance) do have strong advocates.

* Having said all that I’d use the words that I used about the Dennis Linde songs for the whole album, “it chugs along quite merrily” with lots of pleasing instrumental work and Arthur presumably doing what he was told to do. My own favourite song, a cover of Mel & Tim’s It Hurts To Want It So Bad hasn’t unfortunately found its way onto YouTube.

14. The Nonesuch/Elektra album Lonely Just Like Me has been reissued but by Hacktone Records with the new title Lonely Just Like Me: The Final Chapter. It contains bonus tracks including some from a live concert and some made by Arthur himself in his room in the Washington D.C. Hilton Hotel (which to some, including self, evokes memories of one Buddy Holly).

15. On the Muscle Shoals documentary film, Jerry Carrigan, one of the FAME session men who was on the drums for You Better Move On, stated in reference to that number, “I know Rick (Hall) was determined to cut that hit and he did it, but if he hadn’t I’m of the opinion that none of this Muscle Shoals movement would’ve ever happened.”

16. Glen Campbell died on August 8, 2017. I was working on this post at the time and, within an hour of receiving the news, I stumbled over the fact that Glen was present in the support team for the second Sound Stage 7 /Monument session which was held on August 16, 1966, at the United Recording Corporation Studios, 6050 Sunset Blvd, Hollywood, CA.

17. For another view on the great Arthur Alexander I recommend Thom Hickey’s Immortal Jukebox on the man.

 

Arthur Alexander (1940–1993)

 

Arthur Alexander at 45cat

Arthur Alexander: The Greatest (Ace Records)

Get A Shot Of Rhythm And Blues: The Arthur Alexander Story by Richard Younger

Arthur Alexander biography (iTunes)

Dave Stephens has written over thirty posts for this site. He is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

Cal Taylor has avidly collected records since the early 1960s, gravitating to deep soul and blues. As time went on he got more and more into studying pre-war blues and accumulated a vast record collection. Cal saw many such artists live in the sixties. He has written several posts for this site including Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Redding and Betty Harris.

Their joint posts to date are on T-Bone Walker, Junior Parker, Little Willie John, Johnny Otis, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Johnny Ace.

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Johnny Ace, Beatles, Bobby Bland, Solomon Burke, Bob Dylan, Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings, Little Willie John, George Jones, Jerry Lee Lewis, Percy Mayfield, Bill Monroe, Dolly Parton, Elvis Presley, Rolling Stones

TopperPost #654

5 Comments

  1. Peter Viney
    Sep 5, 2017

    Incredibly informative, Dave & Cal. I only have the Ace “The Greatest”. The influence on Mersey Sound is enormous … The Beatles (BBC), Gerry & The Pacemakers and Cilla Black all did A Shot of Rhythm and Blues. I hadn’t heard the original in years. Great backing, but interestingly languid. My favourite version is Johnny Kidd and The Pirates which has the urgent energy and phrasing, and Zoot Money used to do it live. It almost had Johnny B. Goode / In The Midnight Hour status as a song everyone did live then. Sheridan Smith acting the role of Cilla Black in the TV play “Cilla” does it. That really has the Mersey feel on an Arthur Alexander song. The girl group sound is significant on his singles. The Beatles, partial to a girl group sound, also had a go at Soldier of Love, as well as Anna and A Shot of Rhythm & Blues.

    • Dave Stephens
      Sep 5, 2017

      Thanks Peter. I have to confess that this one ran away with me in terms of size (and it wasn’t Cal’s fault) so I forebore any thoughts of subsections containing Quotes or Covers. But there was always the thought that you might have a word to say on Covers. Which you did. Thanks again.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Sep 5, 2017

    Dave, thanks for this great piece. Discovered Arthur through Thom Hickey’s piece about him on his great blog, The Immortal Jukebox. This piece, though, is so stacked with information and fills in so many gaps in my knowledge about him that I am going to need to read it several times more to try to absorb it all. Thanks again…

  3. Glenn Smith
    Sep 6, 2017

    Like most I knew an Arthur Alexander as the writer of Anna on Please Please Me but had never followed up on who he was etc. Then Lisa Miller put out her brilliant Car Tape album in 2000 which included as the opening track The Boy that Radiates that Charm, and sure enough there was that Arthur Alexander again. The album I found was the compilation you’ve listed called A Shot of Rhythm and Soul put out by Ace in 1982. A top shelf collection, I can’t believe The Girl That Radiates that Charm was a b side as it would make my list as would Pretty Girls Everywhere. Great Topper fellas well done, Lennon would be pleased Arthur has received such acknowledgement.

  4. Dave Stephens
    Sep 6, 2017

    Andrew and Glenn, thanks for your kind comments. I’ve had a whale of a time replaying Arthur’s music, and I hope John, up there, has great big smile on his face as well.

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