A Simple Song Might Make It Better For A Little While (Arthur Alexander)

Currently on heavy rotation round here is a welcome addition to the record collection. “Rainbow Road: The Warner Bros Recordings” is essentially a 1994 reissue of “Arthur Alexander”, a 1972 LP by that very man, with 3 bonus tracks not included on the original. It’s a great record, under promoted & mostly ignored at the time of release. The title track goes like this…

Image result for arthur alexander advertI’ve written about Arthur Alexander back when I was new to this blog lark. I got diverted by cover versions of his songs & only featured one of his own. I know, you don’t have to tell me, I’m disappointed in myself. He was certainly a fine & influential songwriter but he is also one of my favourite singers with a warm, restrained, soulful delivery. Any success he had as a Country Soul pioneer was in the early 1960’s, before the explosion of interest in Soul music just a couple of years later. His second single “You Better Move On (1961) was the first hit recorded at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, the windfall financed a move to a new facility on Avalon Avenue where musical history would be created. It was successful enough to get a UK release & there were young British musicians who were listening.

Image result for arthur alexanderThe Rolling Stones recorded their version of “You Better…”in 1963 for a 4 track Extended Play 7”. It stood out as another texture for the group, softer than the Blues & R&B covers that made up the rest of their live set. In 1964 the only track on the Stones debut LP credited to Jagger-Richards, the plaintive Pop ballad “Tell Me (You’re Coming Back)”, had a similar tone to Arthur’s song. Meanwhile, over in Hamburg, the Beatles needed plenty of material to add variety to the up-to six sets a night they had to play & Arthur Alexander’s early singles were plundered by the pre-Fabs. “Anna (Go to Him)” made it on to the “Please Please Me” LP (1963) while there were live versions of “Soldier of Love”, “Where Have You Been” & “Shot of Rhythm & Blues”, songs not written by Alexander but all originally recorded by him. There’s no doubt that John Lennon’s early songwriting, songs like “This Boy” & “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl”, were influenced by Arthur’s mid-tempo style.

Arthur was signed to Dot Records, a label based in Nashville. The signature piano trill on “Anna” is played by the master session man Floyd Cramer. Dot was mainly a Country label & some of the material he recorded there could be a little conservative, standards that lacked the simple flow that made his own songs so attractive. When his contract ended he signed with Monument Records & his releases were sporadic for the rest of the decade. There are stories of a fondness for drink & amphetamines, breakdowns &, in 1971, a third & final commitment to a state mental hospital. Despite this “The Monument Years”, recordings between 1965-72, is a pretty good collection.

Related imageOn his release things picked up for Arthur & he signed to Warner Bros. The LP “Arthur Alexander”, his first extended set for 10 years, is produced by Tommy Cogbill, bass player with the Memphis Boys, house band at American Studios. He & his fellow band members, transplanted to Nashville for the sessions are all over the record. Songwriting talents from the 3 centres of Southern music, Nashville, Memphis & Alabama, make contributions to the playlist. On “Rainbow Road”, a wonderful story song co-written by Dan Penn & Donnie Fritts, Alexander’s assured vocal is enhanced by the inimitable guitar of Reggie Young. There are 4 tracks by Country writer Dennis Linde, one of which “Burning Love” was a single just before Elvis took his version into the charts. Steve Cropper off of Booker T & the MG’s has his name on the gentle “Down the Back Roads. My selection is one of Arthur’s own songs, co-written with his now regular partner Thomas Cain. “Mr John” is the kind of down home Americana that Elton John & Bernie Taupin were aiming for on “Tumbleweed Connection”. That LP was awarded a Gold record, this one was a well-kept secret until after the death of the singer. Them’s the breaks in an industry with plenty of similar stories.

Image result for arthur alexanderArthur didn’t make any money from those cover versions by his illustrious fans. He made more records but, disillusioned with the business, by 1977 he was happy to be at peace with his demons & his God, driving a bus in Cleveland , Ohio with little inclination to perform. He finally responded to continuing respect for & interest in with a well-received comeback in New York which led to the old gang getting back together for the LP “Lonely Just Like Me” (1992). A fine job was made of some old songs, it was the 4th time he had recorded “In the Middle of it All”, obviously a favourite of his.  Moves were being made to get Arthur a better deal on his catalogue of songs when, in 1993, he collapsed in one of the meetings & died the next morning. “If It’s Really Got To Be This Way”, from that final album, is proof that class is permanent. It’s a poignant piece of homespun wisdom taken at a lovely easy canter, pure Arthur Alexander. This tribute stops here because I seem to have something in my eye.

We Got To Have It, Soul Power

I discovered this weekend’s top tune while listening to a selection by Arthur Alexander, a favourite of mine from those pre-Motown days. Times when Sam Cooke & Jackie Wilson carried the R&B swing. I posted some of Arthur’s great songs here but “If It’s Really Got To Be This Way” was written & recorded in 1992, 30 years after his effective & affecting ballads had influenced young Lennon, McCartney, Jagger & Richard to record their own cover versions. His biggest song “You Better Move On” was the first hit to be recorded at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals & it was his friends from back in that day, Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham & Donnie Fritts (who co-wrote “If It’s…”) who helped him make his first LP for 21 years. I hope that our man saw some of the money which is surely generated when the Beatles & the Stones use your songs but Arthur had been driving a bus for a living. It was only a matter of months after the release of the LP “Lonely Just Like Me” (1993) & his return to performing that he suffered a fatal heart attack. The world would be a better place with more beautiful country-soul songs like this one from an innovative & influential man.

There is a generation of performers who never made it in front of the movie or TV cameras so are not around the Y-tube for our (OK, my) enjoyment.  No tape around of Arthur Alexander performing live or even lip-synching any of his songs. Another Muscle Shoals master, Clarence Carter, was only filmed when he had a worldwide hit with “Patches” in 1970 even though there was a run of R&B hits spanning 1968-71. Some of these crossed over, 2 of them sold a million & “Slip Away” was one of that golden pair.

Clarence, who was blind from birth, is remembered for that big hit but “Patches” has always seemed a little extravagant, too heavy on the schmaltz for my taste. A Greatest Hits collection captures the liquified, flexuous pulse that places the Muscle Shoals sound firmly on the soul side of country-soul & is a very good thing. His rich baritone incorporates a salacious chuckle which adds a pleasant humour to his testifying. The hits stopped coming when African-American music started on the path that ended up in Disco but he continued to perform & you know you will have a good night, with some good songs, at a Clarence Carter show.

This wonderful clip is from a hometown gig at the Shoals Theatre in Florence Alabama in 2011. Clarence is 75 years old here…really. “Too Weak To Fight”, the follow up to “Slip Away,” was another big seller & another great song. It’s not just the song & the ribald showmanship which makes this performance a delight. Mr Carter’s exhibition of how a Southern Soul rhythm guitar part is played is just immaculate & splendid. I love this music.

OK…are you ready for Star Time ?…I  said…We move to Memphis in the meantime to check for my Uncle Overton. O.V.Wright was a nonpareil of brooding, impassioned soul singing. He may have said that the difference between his gospel & his secular music was no more than the substitution of the word “Jesus” by the word “baby” but O.V. never really came to terms with his choice of the profane over the sacred. In Tennessee in the mid-60s a musician had to be wholly holy, Rock & Roll was still the Devil’s music. O.V. Wright’s blues are right there on his records.

“Eight Men & Four Women” was one of the first songs O.V.  recorded with producer Willie Mitchell. An earlier contract meant that the records were released through a Texan label, Backbeat but the music is pure Memphis, home of the Blues. Mitchell’s set-up at Hi Records flourished with the brilliant success of Al Green & his partnership with Wright lasted for 10 years. There was no great commercial success as public taste moved to a sweeter, slicker sound which did not always complement the singer’s more traditional style. He remained though, a star in the Southern states & those earlier Backbeat records are something to hear. Unfortunately O.V. Wright’s taste for the high life got him into something that he couldn’t shake loose.

This amazing film is from May 1979 when O.V. visited Japan where he was still a big deal. Heroin addiction had wrecked his health & his finances, had put him in hospital & in jail. This frail man is just 40 years old. There’s a short excerpt from a 1975 show of his on the Y-tube where he is a stocky, smart-dressed man singing & dancing up a storm. He can’t do that anymore, those last 4 years must have seemed like 20.  O.V.Wright’s medley of “God Blessed Our Love” & “When A Man Loves A Woman”, performed with Teenie Hodges , Teenie’s 2 brothers & the rest of the Hi Rhythm section is stunning & chilling. His control, his delivery…ah, man, just watch & then watch again Within 18 months O.V. was dead from a heart attack. We are lucky that this great artist, this great piece of American art is here for us to watch & admire.