Get A Shot Of Rhythm And Blues: The Arthur Alexander Story
Arthur Alexander may best be remembered as the first artist to have had his songs recorded by the ’60s triumvirate of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. In Get A Shot Of Rhythm And Blues, Richard Younger shows the Alabama native’s songwriting and vocal style made him far more than an answer to a trivia question.
Younger, a singer-songwriter and a journalist, tracked down Alexander’s family, friends and musical associates to create a balanced and comprehensive portrait of a vocalist whose influence on popular music exceeded his record sales. An extremely private person, Alexander would open envelopes containing royalty checks behind closed doors. He even had a kidney removed without anyone in his family knowing.
Born May 10, 1940, Alexander had an unstable family life. His mother died when he was 3; his older sister was institutionalized in 1947 at age 10. Throughout the turmoil, music remained the one constant that gave him pleasure. He began singing in school and started to write songs, despite never learning to play an instrument. He became part of the nascent music scene in Florence, Alabama, that included Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham, Donnie Fritts and Rick Hall, centered around a recording studio operated by Tom Stafford.
“Sally Sue Brown”, Alexander’s first single, was released in July 1960 but was a commercial failure. Dylan resurrected it 28 years later for Down In The Groove. Alexander had better luck with his next single.
Recorded in late 1961, “You Better Move On”, which reached #24 on the singles charts, became Alexander’s signature song and helped set the stage for Muscle Shoals to become a vibrant musical center. “For a brief moment, he made a whole area come alive musically,” Penn tells Younger.
The song, recorded by artists ranging from Doris Day to the Stones, was a classic ballad, Alexander’s mood shifting from hurt to anger with an undercurrent of menace as he dealt with a rival for a girlfriend’s attention.
As a singer, Alexander embraced a variety of styles. “We were trying to bridge the gap,” he explains. “We wanted it all, the country, the R&B, the pop.” His songs were straightforward and from the heart and attracted attention from singers in those fields. Alexander grew up a fan of country music, influenced by such singers as Gene Autry, Eddy Arnold and Hank Williams, as well as contemporaries such as Ray Charles and Clyde McPhatter. Alexander’s baritone, able to project sadness, heartbreak and longing without being overwrought, gave him crossover appeal.
Subsequent efforts never equaled the commercial success of “You Better Move On”. However, “Anna”, “Go Home Girl” and “Every Day I Have To Cry” proved Alexander’s artistic quality remained high and were recorded, respectively, by the Beatles, Ry Cooder and Dusty Springfield.
As the ’60s turned in the ’70s, Alexander battled personal and health problems plus a growing reliance on drugs. He was hospitalized and received electroshock treatments. A self-titled album recorded for Warner Bros. in 1972 failed to re-establish him commercially. A 1975 single of “Every Day I Have To Cry” cracked the Top 50, but after two more singles, Alexander gave up his singing career.
He embraced religion and worked as a custodian, bus driver and counselor in Cleveland in the 1980s. Alexander revived his career in the 1990s, culminating with the release of Lonely Just Like Me, a comeback album mixing old and new songs, on Elektra in March 1993. He performed a few shows in the spring and was planning a summer tour when he died in Nashville on June 9 of heart failure and hypertension. The album, which earned nearly unanimous praise, would serve as his epitaph and a lasting reminder of his talents.