By Mike Greenblatt
There’s a story in Graham Nash’s autobiography, “Wild Tales,” where John Lennon is complaining that his band, The Beatles, are set to record a cover of “Anna” by Arthur Alexander, but he can’t remember the words.
Arthur Alexander (1940-1993) was a beloved artists whose work was covered by the biggest music legends in history. The Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Dean Martin, Otis Redding, Tina Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis and many others, including Mink DeVille, Ry Cooder, George Jones, Johnny Paycheck, Humble Pie, Marshall Crenshaw, Pearl Jam, Little Esther Phillips and Dusty Springfield all recorded his songs.
So why don’t more people know about him?
Born in Alabama and raised on country music, Alexander wrote songs that infused country, blues, pop and soul into an irresistible whole. His first single, the gutbucket, raunchy blues of “Sally Sue Brown,” was cut in 1960 (and covered 28 years later by Dylan).
In 1961, Alexander cut two songs he wrote that lived forever in other versions: “You Better Move On” and “Anna.” When The Beatles took residency in 1962 at The Star Club in Hamburg, Germany, three more of Alexander’s songs were in their nightly sets: “Soldier Of Love,” “A Shot Of Rhythm ’n’ Blues” and “Where Have You Been.” When Joe Tex turned “Set Me Free” into a hit single, Alexander started garnering some attention. Then Steve Alaimo turned “Every Day I Have To Cry Some” into a 1963 hit, and Arthur Alexander was on his way.
Although the songs he wrote consistently became hits for others, Alexander just couldn’t seem to break out on his own. Despite a strong start, the 1960s were a bit of a blur for him. Dot Records dropped him from the label in ’65. He was picked up by the Sound Stage 7 label but languished there for three uneventful years until “I Need You Baby” proved his singing style was still as soulful, twangy and deeply emotional as ever. Rumors flew about a strange and debilitating illness Alexander suffered, and whether it was tied to his love of LSD. He did one more 1960s session for ABC/Dunhill that was never released.
The 1970s were not kind to Arthur Alexander. In ’71, he joined Nashville, Tenn.,-based Combine Music, where he worked alongside such stellar composers as Kris Kristofferson, Billy Swan, Donnie Fritts and Tony Joe White. Warner Bros. came a’ callin’, and Alexander’s self-titled album, his first in a decade, featured Dennis Linde’s “Burning Love” — before Elvis Presley had the hit on it. Despite being a soulful country-flavored gem, the album stiffed in the marketplace, and Alexander returned to Alabama, disappointed and discouraged. Some minor hits followed, but Alexander still couldn’t break through as an artist.
At one point in the 1970s, he gave up completely and started driving a bus to make a living. His 1976 recording of “Sharing The Night Together,” which was written for Alexander by Muscle Shoals songwriters Ava Aldridge and Eddie Struzick, only reached No. 92 on the R&B chart. Three years later, Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show took the same song to the pop Top 10. Still, Alexander was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1990. Interest in his catalog led to a 1993 comeback, which included the opportunity to record “Lonely Just Like Me,” his first album in 21 years. Alexander signed a new publishing deal, got a solid backing band together, garnered a top booking agent and had a national tour in the works. Three days after successfully debuting his new band in Nashville, Alexander suffered a heart attack and died June 13, 1993, at the age of 53. GM