when rhythm and blues singer-songwriter Arthur Alexander died on June 9, 1993, he was in the midst of a triumphant comeback. He had just appeared at the Los Angeles Summerlights Festival and was about to complete a national tour of summer music festivals to promote his first new album in 20 years, Lonely Just Like Me. He was also set to promote his 1960s and 1970s hits, which were reissued in 1993 by Razor & Tie Records as The Ultimate Arthur Alexander.
Alexander’s return to fame followed a fall into obscurity after a final album for Warner Brothers in 1972 and 1975’s pop hit “Every Day I Have to Cry Some.” Although the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Bob Dylan, and Ry Cooder had all covered his original compositions, and despite his own repeated success on the charts, Alexander remained underpaid for his music. So he dropped out and began driving a bus in Cleveland, Ohio, for a local social service organization. It was not until his friends—who had cut R&B recordings with him in the 1960s in Muscle Shoals, Alabama—tracked him down in 1991 that Alexander began performing again.
After meeting with Elektra’s senior director of product development, Danny Kahn, following an appearance at New York’s Bottom Line in September of 1991, Alexander agreed to go back to the recording studio. At that time the singer remembered and praised the ongoing support of his listeners and found himself inspired again and back on track. “The fans always was great,” he told Chris Morris of Billboard in 1993. “It just made me want to do more just to please ’em, because they were the ones that kept my stuff alive…. It makes me want to come back, and give it another shot.”
Born on May 10, 1940, in Florence, Alabama, and raised in Sheffield, Alabama, during the 1940s and 1950s by a father who was himself a semiprofessional musician, Alexander grew up in a segregated South with exposure to both white and black sounds. Alexander’s father abandoned his own interest in music when he discovered Arthur’s interest. “He gave up something he loved to steer me right,” Alexander was quoted as saying in Pulse! “I was an avid radio man. I kept the radio on. And it only played white singers. Red Foley, Patti Page, stuff like that. The only black singers I heard was in church or up and down the street. Not until I was 10 or so did I hear professional black singers, and even then, it was when they would bring black movies to town.”
For the Record…
Borm May 10, 1940, in Florence, AL; died of respiratory and heart failure, June 9, 1993, in Nashville, TN; father was a guitarist; married twice; three children.
Sang in and led teenage gospel group the Heartstrings in Alabama, beginning in 1953; sang rock and roll on regional television in Alabama, late 1950s; recorded first song, “Sally Sue Brown” (later covered by Bob Dylan), on Judd label, Memphis, TN, 1961; released first album, You Better Move On, Fame Studios, 1962; toured extensively, 1960s; dropped out of music business, 1975; returned with concerts in Alabama; New York City; Austin, Texas; and Los Angeles, 1991-93.
Awards: Inducted into Alabama Music Hall of Fame, 1991.
In his own songs, Alexander combined the influences of country and soul. “There’s a bluesy sadness to much of his work, but the steel guitar and twang make it distinctly country,” Robert Gordon wrote in Pulse! With a singing voice described by Gordon as “full and smooth” and revealing “no rough edges,” Alexander became a central force in developing southern R&B from the early 1960s to the early 1970s.
Although he achieved his first Top 40 hit song in 1962 with “You Better Move On,” Alexander had gained early experience singing gospel and rock and roll locally. As an older teen in the late 1950s, he led the teenage gospel group the Heartstrings and appeared singing rock on a regional television show. He began writing songs then but did not achieve success until his 1962 hit. His song “Sally Sue Brown,” for example, came out earlier on the Memphis, Tennessee, Judd label and earned little notice; the tune, however, was rerecorded to broader recognition on Lonely Just Like Me for Elektra/Nonesuch in 1993.
Mark Coleman of Rolling Stone credited Alexander’s 1962 hit with ushering in the long chart run of Rick Hall’s Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. “When [popular television dance show host] Dick Clark said he was interested in that record,” Alexander recalled to Coleman, “I knew I was bona fide. My first check off the record was about $1,700—more money than I’d ever seen in my life. But then the publishing rights got away from me—went to this guy in Nashville, and from that day on I never saw a dime.” Alexander nonetheless continued singing and writing and working with a number of musicians to bring noteriety to Fame Studios through their songs on the Dot label. He would maintain his ties with those musicians throughout his life.
By 1975, however, Alexander’s difficult financial straits caught up with him. “I had so many disappointments about getting paid,” Alexander told Gordon of Pulse! “The money was always short and if you didn’t have a chart record, you couldn’t even work. But I had big records and I still never got paid for them.” Alexander explained his break from his career to Rolling Stone’s Coleman: “In 76 I was through forever. After I remade ’Everyday I Have to Cry’ for Buddah in 1975—a Top 50 record, didn’t get a dime —I v/ent back to Alabama, rejoined the church and started working with the young people in Sunday school.” Two years later he moved to Cleveland to be with his future second wife and their daughter. Soon after arriving in Cleveland, he stopped playing in local clubs and in 1981 became a bus driver for Cleveland’s Center for Human Services.
Meanwhile Alexander’s influence continued to be felt internationally. Providing important early album cuts for the Beatles, who covered “Anna,” and the Rolling Stones, who remade “You Better Move On,” Alexander was a central figure in defining British rock in the 1960s. In a 1987 Billboard article, Paul McCartney said, “If the Beatles ever wanted a sound, it was R&B. We wanted to be like Arthur Alexander.” In the same article, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards related, “When the Beatles and the Stones got their first chances to record, one did ’Anna,’ and the other did ’You Better Move On.’ That should tell you enough!”
Later, the Who covered Alexander’s song “Soldier of Love,” Bob Dylan remade “Sally Sue Brown,” and Ry Cooder put out “Go Home, Girl.” While he wished he could have enjoyed more direct recognition for his songs, Alexander appreciated the exposure. “Every artist wants to think they can sell a million records,” he expressed in Rolling Stone. “But some artists are geared to be suppliers. Though I wasn’t getting paid, the Beatles and the Stones kept my songs in front of a big audience.”
Alexander’s own career was far from over, however. In Cleveland in 1991 he received a call from Fame’s Rick Hall. Hall convinced Alexander to play at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, into which Alexander was eventually inducted. At a later appearance at the Helen Keller Festival, held at the blind educator’s hometown of Tuscumbia, Alabama, Alexander’s fellow ex-Muscle Shoals singer and songwriter friend Donnie Fritts asked him to perform six songs at the songwriters night In Their Own Words in September of 1991 at New York’s Bottom Line. There Alexander met Elektra’s senior director of product development, Danny Kahn, who introduced the idea of recording for Elektra’s American Explorer series.
The American Explorer series was meant to present classics of American music. Kahn noted in Billboard, “A lot of people have tried to capture this same feel, but these are the same people who created the music… This is a real thought-out document of what their music means to them.” Alexander’s 1993 album, Lonely Just Like Me, features 12 songs, including “striking new originals” and “a handful of remakes,” according to Rob O’Connor of Musician.
Keeping with his trademark style on Lonely Just Like Me, Alexander spins yarns of doomed relationships and troubled lives. “I like story lines,” he told Robert Gordon of Pulse! “Roy Rogers, Rex Allen, Louis Jordan—they all told stories.” Alexander’s stories arose from some connection to his own life. “Most of these songs were fashioned from an era when I was lonely, but now I’m not lonely,” he continued. “I’ve got four grandkids, a passel of children, and I’m surrounded by kids every day.”
Alexander considered his new recording opportunity with Elektra a second chance—and one he took altogether seriously. “When I cut records earlier,” he divulged in Rolling Stone, “I’d have to rest for about a week before I cut the final vocals. This time I was in strong voice all the way through. Yeah, I stopped drinking and carousing, got myself cleaned out and got back to my basic roots. I guess God said, ’I got to give him another blessing and see what he does with it.’”
Alexander embraced that opportunity with an enthusiasm tempered by caution. Despite the new recording, for example, by April of 1993 he had not yet quit his day job. Still, before he died he had planned to perform in showcases in New York City and Los Angeles with fellow American Explorer musician Sid Selvidge during the summer. In addition, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, who hosted an appearance by Alexander in Austin, Texas, in March of 1993, expressed an interest in bringing Alexander with him on the road.
Just after the Austin concert with Gilmore, Alexander once again expressed his heartfelt appreciation for his audience. After he died on June 9, 1993, Arthur Alexander: The Ultimate Arthur Alexander was released. Billboard described the LP, a collection of reissues of his classic 1960s hits, as a “monument to a singular talent.”
“Sally Sue Brown,” Judd, 1961.
“Every Day I Have to Cry,” Buddah, 1975.
“Sharon and I Together,” Buddah.
You Better Move On, Fame Studios, 1962.
Arthur Alexander (includes “Rainbow Road”), Warner Bros., 1972.
Lonely Just Like Me (includes “All the Time,” “I Believe in Miracles,” “Go Home Girl,” and “Sally Sue Brown”), Elektra/Nonesuch, 1993.
Arthur Alexander: The Ultimate Arthur Alexander (includes “Anna [Go To Him],” “You Better Move On,” “Go Home Girl,” and “Every Day I Have to Cry Some”), Razor & Tie, 1993.
Billboard, April 10, 1993; June 19, 1993; August 14, 1993.
Musician, June 1993.
New York Times, June 11, 1993.
Pulse!, July 1993.
Rolling Stone, August 5, 1993.
Spin, August 1993.
Village Voice, July 6, 1993.
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