American singer and songwriter Arthur Alexander (1940–1993), a pioneer in R&B and soul music, wrote songs covered by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Tina Turner, and many other stars. A big man who sang with deep emotion, Alexander had an influence that far exceeded his record sales, especially in England. “His music is the stuff of genius,” wrote Jason Ankeny of AllMusic.com , “a poignant and deeply intimate body of work on par with the best of his contemporaries.”
Alexander was born in Florence, Alabama, on May 10, 1940. His father, Arthur Alexander Sr., worked at an aluminum plant and was once a blues guitarist. His mother, Fannie Scott Springer Alexander, died when Arthur was three. Alexander developed an early love for music, singing while in grade school. His father, who had once performed in local juke joints, discouraged his son from pursuing music as a profession. “He said, ‘I played blues, and sang blues, all my life, and I never made a nickel,’” Alexander recalled to Richard Younger in Goldmine. “‘So I don't want you nowhere near that.’ But when I got a little older I started singing in church, and he loved that.
At age 14, inspired by 1950s doo-wop singers such as the Dominoes and Clyde McPhatter, Alexander joined an a capella group, the Heartstrings, that performed on a weekly television show and at dance halls. He also started writing music, inventing doo-wop background vocals to accompany the Heartstrings' songs.
Soon Alexander befriended Tom Stafford, a songwriter and music publisher who owned a recording studio in Florence. Through him, Alexander got to know other musicians from Alabama's Muscle Shoals area, people both white and black who were combining the influences of rhythm and blues, country music, and pop songs. In 1958, Alexander and Stafford teamed up with Henry Lee Bennet, a bandmate in the Heartstrings, to write the song “She Wanna Rock.” It was published by Stafford, recorded by singer Arnie Derksen, and released on the Decca record label the following year.
In 1961, Alexander and fellow musician Rick Hall built a recording studio in an abandoned tobacco warehouse in the town of Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Called Fame Studio, it became one of the most renowned in popular music, associated with a steady, rhythmic gospel-country sound that influenced the soul music of nearby Memphis. Alexander's song “You Better Move On” was the first song recorded there. Written in 1961, this lively ballad was propelled by a strong rhythm section, with Alexander's precise, emotional singing the highlight. Its lyrics tell the story of a love triangle, with the singer telling another man to stop pursuing his girlfriend. In writing “You Better Move On,” Alexander was inspired by current hits such as Ben E. King's “Stand By Me” and the Drifters’ “Save the Last Dance for Me.
Alexander signed with the Dot Records label, which released “You Better Move On” as a single in December of 1961, with Alexander's cover version of the rocker “A Shot of Rhythm & Blues” as the B-side. The song became a hit in the United States, reaching No. 24 on the Billboard charts in March of 1962. Alexander sang it on the national TV show American Bandstand. It also attracted listeners in England, especially the port city of Liverpool.
That same year, Alexander recorded his first full-length album, You Better Move On, at RCA Studios in Nashville. It included a new version of the title song and cover versions of other singers’ hits, such as “The Wanderer” by Dion, as well as a version of “Lover Please” by McPhatter, who remained a major influence on Alexander. Though some songs were good showcases for his precise, heartfelt singing style, he was unhappy with the album, later calling it his worst recording session ever.
Alexander's second single for Dot, the piano-driven “Where Have You Been (All My Life),” paired with the arguably catchier B-side “Soldier of Love,” became a minor hit in 1962. Both songs became popular and influential in England, thanks to their frequent airplay on Radio Luxembourg, the main alternative to the BBC for Englishmusic listeners at the time. The Beatles, then a rock group emerging from Liverpool, often played both songs, as well as “A Shot of Rhythm & Blues,” in their live performances.
For his next single, Alexander wrote the song “Anna (Go to Him),” a sad ballad named after his wife. In “Anna,” a reversal of the love-triangle situation in “You Better Move On,” the singer faces the fact that his wife wants to end their marriage and be with another man. “When things weren't going so well, I wrote ‘Anna,’” he later told Richard Younger for Goldmine. “She never said she wanted to be with another guy, but I could tell from the way the relationship was going.” He and Anna later divorced.
Reaching number 68 on the Billboard pop chart and number 10 on its RB ranking, “Anna” also attracted the attention of the Beatles, who recorded it in February 1963 for their first album, Please Please Me. The Beatles album—and later a U.S. version with most of the same songs—introduced Alexander's songwriting to a huge audience. “If the Beatles ever wanted a sound it was RB … Arthur Alexander,” the Beatles’ Paul McCartney later said (as quoted by Alexander biographer Richard Younger on his website).
Despite increased recognition, Alexander's career began to stall, in part due to creative differences with Dot Records’ Noah Ball. The two often disagreed about which songs to record and release. Ball declined to release “Every Day I Have to Cry Some,” a catchy Alexander original that was recorded at the same time as “Anna.” It ended up as a hit for Steve Alaimo instead, later in 1962. Alexander recorded six more singles for Dot between 1962 and 1965, including standouts such as the upbeat “Pretty Girls Everywhere” and the ballad “Go Home Girl,” another love-triangle story in which the singer breaks off an affair with his best friend's girlfriend. The singles did not sell as well as Alexander's earlier hits, although they are now well-regarded by critics.
Dropped by Dot, Alexander moved in 1965 to Monument, a label best known for the dramatic, orchestral singles of Roy Orbison. Alexander toured England in the spring of 1966, performing his hits and appearing on the British music TV show Ready, Steady, Go. Here he sang “You Better Move On,” which the Rolling Stones had covered on their album December's Children. Alexander recorded six singles with Monument's RB division, Sound Stage, between 1966 and 1971, among them the soulful “I Need You Baby,” although none became hits.
Other musicians continued to record Alexander's music. “Every Day I Have to Cry Some” was covered in the 1960s by several musicians, most notably Ike and Tina Turner and Johnny Rivers. Meanwhile, Alexander was struggling financially and receiving few royalty checks for his songs. He was hospitalized several times and received electroshock treatments. He later acknowledged that he suffered a long illness and used drugs (probably LSD) around this time, both of which likely contributed to his decreased musical output. A 1960s recording session for the ABC/Dunhill label was not released.
In 1971, Alexander joined Combine Music, a talentfilled songwriting company in Tennessee. Combine helped him sign with Warner Brothers for his self-titled, full-length 1972 album. Recorded in Memphis, it featured many of his old friends from the Alabama music scene. A mix of cover songs and originals, the album was critically acclaimed and spawned four singles, including another version of McPhatter's “Lover Please” and “Burning Love,” a song that became one of Elvis Presley's last hits. Fashions in music had changed, however, and Alexander's country and soul ballads did not sell well.
In 1975, 15 years after he wrote it, Alexander rerecorded “Every Day I Have to Cry Some” as a single for Buddah Records, and it became a minor hit. He toured as an opening act for the Supremes to promote the single, but negotiations with Buddah to record an entire album ended with Alexander rejecting the terms. Elvis Presley's death in August of 1977 inspired him to record the single “Hound Dog Man's Gone Home,” a tribute to the late singer that was released on the Music Mill label.
Bitter at how the music business had treated him, including deals that kept him from receiving more royalties on his songs, Alexander retired. “I feel I was hurt brutally, not by my fans, but by the industry in which I worked,” he told Younger. For a time, he worked with youth as a junior deacon at his church in Sheffield, Alabama. Then he moved to Cleveland, Ohio, to be with his girlfriend and their baby daughter. He sang a few times at a Cleveland nightspot but no longer felt a passion for music. In 1981, he took a job as a bus driver for a social services organization in Cleveland, determined not to record again.
In 1990, Alexander was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, and the next year, he accepted an invitation from old friend Rick Hall to sing at the hall's ceremonies. He also performed at the Helen Keller Festival in Tuscumbia, Alabama. There, another musician friend, Donnie Fritts, convinced him to appear at a songwriters night at the Bottom Line club in New York City in September of 1991. His performance there attracted the attention of an executive with Elektra/Nonesuch, who invited Alexander to record an album for the label's American Explorer series of American roots music.
In early 1992, Alexander began recording a new album, Lonely Just like Me, with several old friends from Muscle Shoals, including Fritts, Spooner Oldham, and Dan Penn. Released in March 1993 on the Elektra/Nonesuch label, Lonely Just like Me became a major comeback album, attracting critical acclaim and new attention from the music press. Alexander's voice “still carries the uncommon sense of melancholy that characterized his early records,” wrote Randy Lewis in his Los Angeles Times review. The album included a new version of “Sally Sue Brown,” another remake of “Every Day I Have to Cry Some,” and some new material. In a sign that he intended to hold onto his day job, Alexander posed for the album's cover photo in front of the bus he drove.
Alexander's performance in March of 1993 at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, announced his comeback. “Alexander, a big man whose curls brushed the low ceiling, [sang with] relaxed sincerity,” wrote Geoffrey Himes for the Washington Post, “as if 30 years of drugs, disappointment and unpaid royalties had never left a scar.” A new compilation of his early songs for Dot, The Ultimate Arthur Alexander, was released by Razor & Tie the same year.
Alexander debuted a new band in Nashville in June of 1993 and planned a summer comeback tour. Tragically, he died of a heart attack on June 9, 1993, at age 53. Since then, his music has continued to attract new fans, and his life has been chronicled in Richard Younger's biography Get a Shot of Rhythm and Blues: The Arthur Alexander Story.
Billboard, April 10, 1993.
Goldmine, May 14, 1993; December 2003.
Los Angeles Times, April 15, 1993.
New York Times, June 11, 1993.
Washington Post, June 6, 1993.
No Depression website, http://nodepression.com/ (September 12, 2016), Tom Wilk, “Get a Shot of Rhythm and Blues: The Arthur Alexander Story.”
Richard Younger website, http://www.richardyounger.com/ (September 12, 2016), Richard Younger, “Arthur Alexander.”
Alexander, Arthur, The Ultimate Arthur Alexander (recording), Razor & Tie, 1993.❑