By Lauren Wise
By New Times
By Amanda Savage
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Troy Farah
By New Times
By Derek Askey
For my name, just call me lonely
For my past, just say it's bad
For the story I'm about to tell you
Might sound a little sad
Well, I never had nothing
All I've ever owned was me
I was about to lose myself
And then I met Mary
--"Lonely Just Like Me," Arthur Alexander
If you thought trying to tell a stranger about rock 'n' roll was a difficult chore, try telling anyone who's less than a pop historian who Arthur Alexander was.
Only one of Alexander's recordings ever landed in Billboard's Top 40 pop listing: "You Better Move On" in 1962. But what a significant release it was. The first piece of music to emerge from Florence, Alabama's legendary Fame Studio, "You Better Move On" put Muscle Shoals on its way to becoming the soul mecca of the world. And it made Arthur Alexander its first star.
Even to try gauging Alexander's influence on pop music would be an exercise in futility. His songs have been covered by the Rolling Stones ("You Better Move On"), Bob Dylan ("Sally Sue Brown"), Otis Redding ("Johnny Heartbreak") and, especially, the Beatles, who performed several Alexander hits in their embryonic Liverpool days, and recorded "Anna" for their first album. In an interview for the Mark Lewisohn book The Beatles Sessions, Paul McCartney plainly stated, "If the Beatles ever wanted a sound, it was R&B. That was what we used to listen to, what we used to like and what we wanted to be like. Arthur Alexander."
Yet the world is disproportionately divided between those who love and worship Arthur Alexander and those who say, "Who?" Why that's so has a lot to do with the Art of the Bad Deal.
For most of the Sixties, Arthur was signed to Nashville-based Dot Records, home of Lawrence Welk, Pat Boone and, worst of all, the Anita Kerr Singers, who managed to mar many of Arthur's recordings with the doofiest background vocals south of Bobby Rydell. That Alexander's music still managed to sound incredibly soulful amid the Singers' horrid whooping is testimony to this man's unmatched ability to put across a song with a story.
Unlike his contemporaries James Brown, Roy Orbison and Gene Pitney, each of whom sounded as if he'd rather gouge out his eyes than see his girl with a best friend (no small part of each man's charm), world-wise Arthur could put himself in the best friend's place, and he had a heart, even when it was broken in half, that was big enough to forgive. The man had a gift for making his listeners feel like intimate friends with a few well-chosen lines that steered clear of melodrama and cheap, easy sentiment.
After the hits dried up, Alexander quietly walked away from the music business. Tired of watching others get rich off his songs, he stayed away for the next 18 years, content to make an honest day's wages driving a van for a senior citizens home in Cleveland. It didn't hurt that he'd found peace with God just as he was losing faith in his singing career.
During that long absence, you could search your local music store and you'd be hard-pressed to find an Arthur Alexander recording in the bins.
But all that is about to change.
Now there are no less than four readily available Alexander CDs, which, taken together, make some sense out of the puzzle that is Arthur Alexander. With the exception of Rainbow Road: The Warner Bros. Recordings, all the CDs have a common thread: New York-based songwriter and producer John Tiven. In 1991, Tiven mounted a virtual one-man campaign to get Arthur's music back into circulation, managing to coax Alexander out of retirement and onto a major label in time to make what became his last album, Lonely Just Like Me. In the week following the singer's untimely death, the Razor & Tie label issued The Ultimate Arthur Alexander, a collection of his best early Dot sides, with track selection and liner notes by Tiven. And this month, Razor & Tie has put forth Adios Amigo: A Tribute to Arthur Alexander. Featuring an impressive, all-star cast--Elvis Costello, Robert Plant, Frank Black, Mark Knopfler, Gary "U.S." Bonds and Roger McGuinn--it was produced by, you guessed it, John Tiven.
Tiven, like many Alexanderphiles, always felt that Arthur was cheated out of a career, partly because of Alexander's unfortunate gift for picking unscrupulous publishers and partly because he was misrepresented by the lion's share of his catalogue.
"Arthur abhorred a lot of the production on all his recordings," Tiven says by phone from New York. "The ones on Dot with the Anita Kerr Singers he especially loathed, but he didn't have a lot of say on most of his records. I've always felt Arthur was an R&B artist, and never properly produced as such. He was not so much a cross between country and R&B--R&B digested a lot of country and made it part of its vocabulary. To me, Arthur was the exact precursor of Otis Redding."
One listen to Alexander's wrenching "You Don't Care" confirms just how much Mr. Pitiful himself freely lifted from his idol. Hoping to produce Alexander under the proper conditions, Tiven set out to convince the singer (who had already made one failed comeback attempt) that people out there still cared about his work.