The history of popular music is filled with what are sometimes unkindly referred to as "footnotes" - artists that, because of bad business decisions, bad timing, or just bad luck, never got the recognition or fame that their talent deserved. One of the first artists to fall into this unfortunate category is Arthur Alexander, an Alabama-born R&B singer whose original compositions fused the genres of country and soul seamlessly. Although he never earned the success that his music warranted, he was held in extremely high regard by some of the most popular recording artists of all time. Perhaps Keith Richards summed up the extent of Alexander's influence best when he said "When the Beatles and the Stones got their first chances to record, one did 'Anna,' the other did 'You Better Move On.' That should tell you enough."
Alexander was born May 10, 1940 to a musical family. His father was a bottleneck slide guitarist who played in juke-joints in his hometown of Florence, AL, while his mother and sister sang gospel in the church. Arthur began his musical career in the sixth grade as the lead singer of The Heartstrings, a gospel group. He also performed solo on a local television show in a more rock & roll style, but his real ambition lay in songwriting. After meeting an enthusiastic white lyricist named Tom Stafford, they began collaborating on songs and eventually sold one of their songs to Decca records. Arthur's recording debut came in 1960 on Judd Records with another Alexander/Stafford collaboration called "Sally Sue Brown," but the label credited the record to June Alexander (short for Junior, as Alexander was only 19 when the record was recorded).
Nonetheless, the string of successes led Alexander's publisher, Rick Hall, to buy an abandoned tobacco warehouse in Muscle Shoals, AL, which Hall and Alexander turned into a makeshift recording studio. The first single to be recorded here was Alexander's "You Better Move On," a country-influenced composition which, combined with Alexander's soulful yet restrained baritone vocals and sparse R&B instrumentation, created a unique and wonderful sound. The song was indicative of Alexander’s distinctive style. His songs are typically told from the bittersweet point of view of a narrator unlucky in love but always dignified in tone; they never ask for pity or wallow in sadness. Convinced he had a genuine hit on his hands, Hall shopped the record around to various A&R men and eventually succeeded at Dot Records. The good news was that Hall used the money from this deal to build another studio in Muscle Shoals, which established the town as one of the hit-making capitals of America, but the bad news was that Dot's contract obligated that Hall could no longer produce Alexander. Still, the record was a hit, reaching number 24 on the pop charts. Alexander later recalled, "My first check off the record was about $1,700 - more money than I'd ever seen in my life."
But Alexander's success with Dot was short-lived. After "Anna (Go to Him)" hit the top 10 R&B charts and Steve Alaimo had a hit with Alexander's song "Every Day I Have To Cry Some," success eluded Alexander's subsequent singles. Worse, a bad business deal meant that Alexander got little financial compensation for his songwriting. "The publishing rights got away from me," Alexander regretfully noted, "[they] went to this guy in Nashville, and from that day on I never saw a dime. That really hurts, man." In early 1965, Dot dropped him from the label, and Alexander turned to a label called Sound Stage 7 and released singles sporadically for the rest of the sixties. However, his erratic behavior prevented him from making a bona fide comeback. A British tour in 1966 was marked by inattentive audiences and a performance during which Alexander reportedly glanced at his watch and walked offstage in the middle of a song. Rumors began circulating about his well-being; while Alexander himself alluded to a debilitating illness, a report in 1973 stated that he took "a lot of acid around 1963" and "eventually disappeared on a manslaughter rap."
In the 1970s, he went to Nashville to become a staff songwriter at a publishing company called Combine Music, but his songs never attracted as much attention as those by fellow Combine writers Billy Swan and Kris Kristofferson. He also recorded a self-titled album for Warner Brothers in 1972 that was critically acclaimed but which sold very little. His re-recording of his song "Every Day I Have To Cry Some" for Buddha Records in 1975 was a top 50 record, but Alexander noted with frustration that he "didn't get a dime" from it. After this disappointing string of events, he returned back to Alabama, where he became an active member of his church, settled down with a wife and two children, and got a job as a community bus driver. Alexander was effectively retired from the music industry.
After a few successful CD reissues of Alexander’s classic singles, Rick Hall, who became one of the most successful producers and entrepreneurs of soul music after the success of "You Better Move On," decided to track down Alexander. Finding that he had quit the music industry, Hall began persuading Alexander to restart his career. Alexander agreed and returned to the stage with some successful performances at high-profile events like the Alabama Music Hall of Fame and the South by Southwest Conference. In May 1993, he signed a recording and publishing contract with Elektra Records and released a comeback album called "Lonely Just Like Me." The album showed that Alexander’s vocal gifts had not diminished with his time away from the music industry. The following month, he began a tour to support the album in Nashville, TN. In a stunning example of tragic irony, he was hospitalized immediately after this performance, and 3 days later, on June 9th, died of heart failure.
Alexander’s influence, however, assures his place in the history of popular music. In the 1960’s, massively popular artists such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan covered his material, but he also inspired them in less direct ways. Paul McCartney was quoted as saying "If the Beatles ever wanted a sound, it was R&B. We wanted to be like Arthur Alexander," while rock critic Michael Gray theorized that Alexander “introduced the word 'girl' (as in 'I wanna tell you, girl…') to common lyric parlance.” In the 1970’s and 1980’s, artists such as Marshall Crenshaw and Ry Cooder also recorded versions of classic Alexander tunes. After his death, a tribute album featuring Robert Plant, Elvis Costello and Roger McGuinn performing Alexander songs was released. Although the aforementioned publishing deal meant that Alexander did not get paid for these popular renditions of his songs, he philosophically mused, "Every artist wants to think they can sell a million records, 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." This audience, thanks to the continuing popularity of Alexander’s music, grows every day and gives him the reverence and recognition that so tragically eluded him throughout his career.