“I’m doing a book on Johnny Cash’s music,” says Alexander, who for years had worked closely with the Cash camp in compiling special Cash CD box sets and otherwise including Cash songs in his many and varied pop, country and gospel song compilations.
“It’s a song-by-song look at everything he ever recorded,” says Alexander. “Others have and are writing books about his life, but nobody’s ever done anything like this.”
As Alexander notes, though, Johnny Cash’s life “involved his songs.”
“I’m not trying to do a mammoth biography, just talk about all the songs and direct people to go back and listen to them," he says. "Everybody knows the big 10 or 12 songs, but there’s another thousand most people have no idea about.”
Alexander’s first of five Johnny Cash boxes came in 1997 with Timeless Inspiration, a three-disc collection of Cash’s inspirational recordings, which included the album A Believer Sings The Truth that until then had not been released on CD.
“It was a labor of love for him, and he owned all the masters,” continues Alexander, who also included another never-on-CD track from the Man in Black, “Man In White.”
“It was a song he wrote after studying Saint Paul,” says Alexander. “I knew about it, and it’s one of the greatest songs he ever wrote. These recordings really meant so much to him.”
In 1999 Alexander put out The Legendary Johnny Cash.
“It was a box of his hits, with one CD that he himself selected that included some relative obscurities,” notes Alexander. “We called it, Among Johnny’s Personal Favorites, because he didn’t want anyone’s feelings hurt if he didn’t include someone else’s favorites!”
In 2006 came The Complete Early Hits Collection featuring Cash’s Sun Records recordings, with released and unreleased material. Next was The Million Dollar Quartet: A 50th Anniversary Celebration (2011), featuring the historic jam session by then Sun Records artists Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins.
Alexander’s final Cash set, also in 2011, was Johnny Cash: The Great Seventies Recordings, containing six albums unreleased on CD plus another disc of unreleased material.
“It was one of my favorite things I did at Reader’s Digest,” says Alexander. But he also included Cash songs in virtually every genre compilation he assembled.
“The joke was, if it was a country set, there would be a Johnny Cash [track]. If it was a pop set, there would be a Johnny Cash. I’d squeeze him into anything!”
And while Alexander can’t say exactly how many of his sets for Reader’s Digest contained at least one Cash track, he does estimate that during his tenure there he put together some 350 boxes, “everything from genre sets to single-artist catalog starting with Jim Croce” and then including artists ranging from Mel Torme and George Jones to Brenda Lee, Roger Miller, Kenny Rogers, the Statler Brothers, Everly Brothers, Andy Williams and Larry Gatlin.
“The trick was to know which artist appealed to our customers and then do the best box we could possibly do,” he says.
Reader’s Digest Music, he adds, “always had such a wonderful history and pedigree. We never faltered on quality in sound, presentation, liner note writers, and of course, the music. People wouldn’t have kept supporting what we were doing if that hadn’t been the case.”
Key to the division’s success, Alexander feels, was the product concepts.
“Other companies might put out The 150 Great Songs—but without a concept,” he says. “That’s why we were so successful: Time In A Bottle, Soft Rock Hits Of The Seventies, Moonlight Serenade, How High The Moon, Don’t Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes. These are a few of the successful titles we built concepts around.”
Alexander cites the World War II songs-conceived I’ll Be Seeing You and pop/country inspirational Wings Of A Dove as the biggest-selling packages he worked on, each selling over 500,000 copies, he was told. His 1998 American Pie: Great Tales & Sagas set “put me on the map,” he adds.
“I love country music and story songs, and American Pie compiled great tales and sagas in song, and did so well,” he notes.
Looking back from the end of the Reader’s Digest Music era, Alexander recalls that when he joined the company in 1995, CDs were “just starting to take over.” But Reader’s Digest Music was already well-established as “the innovator of the box set.”
“Either we or Longines Symphonette [Society] introduced the multiple-LP box set,” he says. “Our first one came out in 1959, and we had an amazing customer base, and to the best of my knowledge never lost money.”
Alexander points to one of his last projects with special pride.
“Leaving On A Jet Plane, a singer-songwriter collection from last year, did well,” he says. “We were still doing well up until the end.”
[The Examiner wrote the liner notes to Leaving On A Jet Plane and numerous other Reader’s Digest Music box sets.]
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