“If the Beatles ever wanted a sound, it was R&B… [W]e wanted to be like Arthur Alexander” — Paul McCartney
Last summer, my wife and I were heading home from vacation, and we were listening to The Beatles Channel on SiriusXM. One program featured songs written by Americans and covered by the Beatles, and on the playlist were the Beatles’ versions of “Anna” and “Soldier of Love” by a singer and songwriter named Arthur Alexander. An hour or so after that, the station featured a program about acts who influenced the Beatles, and on the playlist was Alexander’s “You Better Move On,” a song that the Beatles later covered as well.
If you’re keeping score, that made three songs connecting the Beatles and Arthur Alexander in two hours. When I pointed this out, my wife’s response was, “Who is Arthur Alexander?”
That may well be what you’re wondering, and perhaps the best way to start is not to tell you as much about who he was as what he did. Take a look at the first five singles he recorded — and who later covered them:
- “Sally Sue Brown” (1960) He co-wrote the song, and it was later covered by Bob Dylan.
- “You Better Move On” (1961) He wrote the song. It was later covered by the Rolling Stones.
- “Soldier of Love” (1962) It was later covered by the Beatles.
- “Anna” (1962) He wrote the song. It was later covered by the Beatles.
- “Go Home Girl” (1963) He wrote the song. It was later covered by the Rolling Stones.
Let me point out again – those were just Alexander’s first five recordings, and he wrote or co-wrote all but one. Subsequently, these and other Alexander compositions and recordings were covered by the Hollies, Pearl Jam, the Moody Blues, Johnny Rivers, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Van Morrison, the Bee Gees, Dusty Springfield, the McCoys, Ike and Tina Turner, and many others.
Ultimately, Alexander is the only performer to have his songs covered by Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley (Alexander’s original recording of the Dennis Linde-penned “Burning Love” was covered by Elvis in 1972), the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones — as well as many others.
If that doesn’t convince you that you need to know more about the man, consider this: Paul McCartney said in a 1987 interview, that if the early “Beatles ever wanted a sound, it was R&B… [W]e wanted to be like Arthur Alexander.”
And Keith Richards of the Stones summed it up when he said, “When the Beatles and the Stones got their first chances to record, one did ‘Anna,’ and the other did ‘You Better Move On.’ That should tell you enough.”
It isn’t a stretch to say Alexander was perhaps one of the great, under-appreciated geniuses of the rock-‘n’-roll era. But the question still remains: Who was Arthur Alexander, and why is this quite possibly the first time you’ve ever heard of him?
It’s a very complicated answer, and may be one of the most bizarre — and tragic — stories in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll.
Arthur Alexander Jr. (called “June” by his friends in reference to Jr.) was born in Florence, Alabama. As a teenager, his first success in the music business came when his group, the Heartstrings, sang on a few radio shows. He came to attention of Florence resident Tom Stafford, who, along with Billy Sherrill and Rick Hall, opened the Florence Alabama Music Enterprise in Muscle Shoals, now better known as the legendary FAME Studios.
Alexander spent time in the studio and co-wrote a song called “She Wanna Rock,” which was recorded by Amie Derkson in 1959. A year later, as June Alexander, he recorded another song he co-wrote, “Sally Sue Brown,” on the tiny Judd label. Though the record was not a commercial success, it would later be recorded by Bob Dylan.
By then, Alexander was married, a father, and working part time as a bellhop and selling bootleg liquor to make ends meet. It was at this point he wrote another song that would become his second recording, “You Better Move On.” It was recorded at FAME Studios, and when it was released under his given name in 1962 on Nashville’s Dot label, the record finally brought him some notice.
The song was based on Alexander’s relationship with his girlfriend (and later wife) Ann, and how her wealthy former boyfriend tried to win her back, and Alexander advised him to “move on.”
“You Better Move On” was one of many songs he would write and record about troubled relationships, and though not widely popular, his songs seemed to resonate with enough listeners that he did make national playlists. In fact, “You Better Move On” was successful enough that it went to #24 on the pop charts and got Alexander a booking on American Bandstand.
It was the first national hit recorded in the state of Alabama, and FAME Studios’ first hit of the many to follow. Like many of Alexander’s recordings, the song would later be covered by multiple artists, including the Rolling Stones, the Hollies, and Chuck Jackson, among others.
After releasing the excellent (but somewhat underappreciated) “Soldier of Love,” which would be covered by the Beatles and eventually Marshall Crenshaw and even Pearl Jam, his next recording was 1962’s “Anna” — another song written about his wife and their doomed relationship.
Alexander later told biographer Richard Younger, author of Get a Shot of Rhythm and Blues: The Arthur Alexander Story, that while, in reality, his wife had not been unfaithful, he believed she was starting to regret not going with that other guy who had “moved on.”
“Anna” went to #68 on the pop charts and was reportedly one of John Lennon’s favorite songs. Consequently, the Beatles recorded it and in 1963 released their own version on the album Please Please Me.
The Beatles would also eventually cover two more Alexander recordings, “A Shot of Rhythm and Blues” and “Where Have You Been.” Based solely on the covers of his recordings, by the mid-1960s, Alexander seemed to have become one of the most influential artists in music.
Although professionally he was inspiring some of the most important groups and singers in the recording industry, his personal life, unfortunately, was a disaster. Alexander and Ann got divorced and, subsequently, his behavior became increasingly erratic.
He had a number of personal demons to contend with including drugs, alcohol, and depression. He often had to be tracked down in bars to perform, and on one occasion, he walked off stage in the middle of a performance — mid song — for no apparent reason. His drug and alcohol intake led to him being hospitalized several times, and his career suffered for it.
Although no one could have predicted it at the time, after 1962’s “Anna” he wouldn’t have another record make the pop or R&B charts for 13 years.
After a period during the late ’60s and early ’70s when he wasn’t recording at all, Alexander started to turn things around, somewhat, on a personal level, and for a few years, he became productive once again. Even though his first efforts didn’t chart, as always, they were listened to and interesting to other artists. Elvis Presley’s cover version of “Burning Love,” inspired by Alexander’s original, became his last Top 10 hit in 1972.
During this period, Alexander finally recorded a song he had written but never recorded, “Every Day I Have to Cry Some,” which had first been recorded by Steve Alaimo in 1962 and then Dusty Springfield, the McCoys, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, the Bee Gees, Johnny Rivers, and others. Alexander saw his own version go to #45 in 1975, his first chart success in more than a decade.
His next recording, “Sharing the Night Together,” did little for for Alexander (#96 on the R&B charts) but when covered by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show in 1978, it peaked at #6 and was one of the group’s biggest hits.
But, perhaps, by this time, it was too little, too late. Despite the respect his music was afforded by some of the most prominent names in the business, after a decade and a half recording his success on the charts could be summed up as, at best, underwhelming.
Only “You Better Move On” had made the pop Top 40, and just four other recordings had made the pop or R&B Top 100. Couple the lack of chart success with the fact that Alexander had felt for some time that everyone had profited off of his music but him, by the late 1970s, it seems he had had enough; he walked away from the music business and simply dropped out of sight.
I interviewed Alexander’s friend singer Clifford Curry a few years ago (Alexander co-wrote Curry’s hit “We’re Gonna Hate Ourselves in the Morning”), and he said, “I don’t think Arthur ever really embraced his fame, and I think that’s why he dropped out of the business and just disappeared… he just couldn’t handle it.”
And Alexander did, indeed, just walk away from the music business. He moved to Cleveland and spent most of the rest of his life working as a bus driver and janitor, never telling anyone he had been the singer and songwriter who inspired the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
Even Alexander’s co-workers had no idea who he was until the 1990s, when he was tracked down and talked into recording a comeback album, Lonely Like Me. His comeback was aborted, however, when he suffered a fatal heart attack and died just one month after his album was released. He was just 53.
There’s no doubt that Alexander had a monumental influence on some of the biggest acts in rock ‘n’ roll history. His brand of music is fairly unique, and if you’ve listened to some of the clips I’ve inserted in this article, you know his compositions (which, at times, have been described as having elements of pop, rock, soul, and country) are unlike almost anything else you will hear anywhere else.
While Alexander and his music remain largely unknown to all but the most knowledgeable music fans, his recognition as one of the top-ranking singer/songwriters of the early rock-‘n’-roll era is clearly long overdue.