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.
"It didn't cross Arthur's mind that his disappearance from the music scene had impacted anybody's life," says Tiven. "Most of his records, as far as he knew, were out of print, since he never got any royalty statements from anybody. So when I got him to come to New York . . . I took him to some specialty record stores and showed him all the different Arthur Alexander CDs and records that he knew nothing about. That flipped him out."
Tiven began pitching a new Arthur Alexander album to several record labels; all were outbid by Elektra. Having achieved his goal of securing major-label interest, Tiven soon found himself in a major labeling disagreement with the man running the series, Danny Kahn.
Elektra, it seemed, saw Arthur as a little more country than R&B. Actually, it saw him as a lot more country, and no R&B at all. According to Kahn, "If Tiven made the record he'd wanted to with Arthur"--ironically, utilizing many of the musicians and songs that wound up on Adios Amigo--"it would've fallen flat on its face." For his efforts, Tiven was given a terse "preproduction coordinator" credit on the album, but was otherwise shut out of the project.
Kahn installed New Jersey singer-songwriter Ben Vaughn in the producer's chair, moved the sessions to Nashville, summoned the pedal-steel players and in six days, the tastefully slow-cooking recording was ready to serve. Even so, Lonely Just Like Me lay on a shelf for more than a year, major labels being the holding tanks they are. Nobody could have known that Alexander was going to die a month after the recording was finally released to widespread critical acclaim.
At the time of Arthur's death, Kahn and Vaughn were helping the singer to get some of his publishing back, a process which Kahn says is ongoing. However, Alexander's bid for reaching a wider audience for his music didn't pan out as planned.
"Unfortunately, Arthur's death changed the whole scenario," says Kahn with a sigh. "He's not like Roy Orbison. He needs to be around to be discovered." Since Tiven, a former rock critic, was less than pleased with how Arthur's last album was handled, he consulted his original notes and decided to release the album he'd envisioned, making it a tribute album for his departed friend. Careful not to make it a total duplicate of Lonely Just Like Me, Tiven rescued six songs which didn't make Elektra's A list, including the magnificent "Baby Can't You Wait" and "Let's Think About It." Then he went about faxing the list to the artists he hoped would be involved.
"Elvis Costello wanted to do 'Sally Sue Brown' or 'Soldier of Love.' A lot of people wanted to do 'Soldier of Love,' because Arthur's so closely associated with that song. But that was out of the question, since Arthur didn't write it. And the idea behind the album was that the artists were donating 50 percent of their personal royalties to Arthur's estate."
Frank Black was less specific about which song he'd do. "He came to New York prepared to do as many Arthur Alexander songs as we were prepared to throw at him," says Tiven. Unlike other "alternative" stars who try to tailor tribute covers to their usual idiom (witness the recent Carpenters' tribute album, on which distortion is heavily applied to just about every song), Black did a straight and reverent version of "Old John Amos," and "Go Home, Girl" with Gary "U.S." Bonds.
With a project such as this, there surely must have been some arm-wrestling behind the scenes over who would get to sing the most popular song in the artist's catalogue, "Anna."
"Originally, Chrissie Hynde wanted to do it, but she was right in the middle of making her new record," Tiven explains. "There was some possibility of getting Springsteen to do it, but he didn't find time in his schedule. I really thought he would jump at doing the record, if only because 'Hungry Heart' is a total rip-off of 'Everyday I Have to Cry.'"
Then Tiven hit on the idea of using Roger McGuinn. It was an unusual but inspired choice, and the result leads off this collection smartly.
Let's face it, one doesn't normally associate R&B with the Byrds.
McGuinn agrees. "We didn't do a lot of R&B-influenced stuff. There are a couple of things like 'Captain Soul,' but basically, our music was folk-oriented with a rock beat," he says. McGuinn, like many, first heard of Arthur from that first Beatles LP. "I've been influenced by the song 'Anna.' I've always loved that melody, especially the bridge. It's just the greatest bridge in the world. Arthur was a powerful early influence on the Beatles when they were just a bar band. Especially in the way they used the word 'girl.'"
From the earliest originals, like "Thank You Girl," Lennon and McCartney were addressing their lady loves la Arthur Alexander. They even appropriated his chord changes and beats by their second album. Compare "Where Have You Been All My Life" to "All I've Got to Do." Or, better still, sing the bridge of "Anna" and then sing the bridge of "This Boy."
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McGuinn does just that, singing both bridges over the phone from his home in Orlando, Florida. And he comes to the same conclusion. "They stole it!" he says, laughing.
Adios Amigo has a celebratory tone missing in most tribute albums--let alone most albums in general--these days. If Tiven doesn't feel Arthur's swan song was "a high note to go out on," this album certainly provides a happy yet touching coda.
The closing track takes Arthur full circle. "Adios Amigo" is sung by his good friends from the Fame days, Dan Penn and Donnie Fritts; they were in his first group, the Pallbearers, and, ironically, were pallbearers at Arthur's funeral. The song sums up the point of the album: the story of the goodbyes never said, the albums that should've been made and the friendships that endure long after friends pass away.
And, of course, one other thing: to clue people in on the oldest new artist in music, Arthur Alexander.