Back in 1961, Arthur Alexander, a rhythm & blues singer who dug country music, teamed up with Dan Penn & the Pall Bearers, country boys heavily into soul. Together, at Rick Hall's Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, they pioneered the so-called "country soul" sound. The most famous product of this successful collision of American musical strains was the single “You Better Move On,” an Arthur Alexander original which has been covered by everyone from the Rolling Stones to George Jones.
Alexander had already proven his song-writing abilities before writing and recording that first big hit. In 1959 he co-wrote a single “She Wanna Rock” for Candian C&W singer Arnie Derskin. The following year he wrote and recorded for Judd Phillips’ Judd label his own first single, the amazing double-whammy “Sally Sue Brown” b/w “The Girl that Radiates that Charm.”
During these formative years Alexander struck up a partnership with his manager/co-writer Tom Stafford, who, like Alexander, had grown up in small-town Alabama. It was Stafford who took the “Sally Sue Brown” demo to Judd Phillips, and it was Stafford who helped to arrange those first sessions with Rick Hall at Fame, and Stafford, again, who convinced Alexander leave Muscle Shoals to seek his own undoing in Nashville. In that corporate Babylon, Alexander’s song-writing & recording career was stripped of creative control and publishing rights, setting him up for eventual obscurity.
Conflicting stories surround the sale of “You Better Move On”--was it Stafford or Rick Hall who first peddled it around Nashville? Apparently every A&R man in town rejected it at first, everyone but Noel Ball, that is, a local disc jockey and Nashville rep for Dot Records. Dot agreed to release the record and quickly nabbed Alexander’s contract. Sadly, “You Better Move On” would be some of the last original material Alexander would record for a long time. Under the guidance of Ball, Alexander’s records began to suffer from the usual Nashville trappings typical of that era: cover songs, corny background singers, and string sections. Meanwhile, the big hit made a ton of money for everyone but its writer.
And yet those follow-up Dot records, however tarnished, are killer. To hear Arthur Alexander perform “A Shot of Rhythm & Blues,” “Black Night,” “Pretty Girls Are Everywhere,” “Soldiers of Love,” “I Hang My Head and Cry,” even the Johnny Bond number “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight” (set to the same melody as Kitty Wells' “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” which is also the same Hank Thompson’s “Wild Side of Life,” which is, again, the sameRoy Acuff’s “Great Speckled Bird”--follow that melody any further back and you begin to wander into the mystical realms of country music’s origins), you wouldn’t think you were hearing a man who was disappointed by his treatment in Nashville. Still, great as these songs are, they're no “Sally Sue Brown.” Imagine the catalog Arthur Alexander might have left if he'd have maintained creative control.
By the late 60’s Alexander ditched Dot Records. In 1972 he recorded an album Arthur Alexander for Warner Brothers, which includes his great version of “Burnin’ Love,” predating Elvis’ version. Still the money was poor and he was forced to play the gut-bucket circuit of small southern clubs. Finally, in 1975, Alexander threw in the towel after getting stiffed for another record, this time for the Buddha label, then quit the business entirely.
One song on the Warner LP, “Rainbow Road,” a sort of hard-luck ballad involving a knife fight and prison time, written by Dan Penn & Don Fritz, helped to surround Alexander’s retirement with fictional mystique. Whatever happened to Arthur Alexander? Didn’t you hear? He’s doing time for knifing a guy! In actuality, he'd settled in Cleveland where he worked as a bus driver for some 15 years.
In 1993 he returned to recording, making the Ben Vaughn-produced album Lonely Just Like Me for Elektra Records. A few months later, in June of that year, Arthur Alexander died of a heart attack.
Post Script: Check the always amazing archive of Radio Hound airchecks, April 17, 1993, for a great interview with the man himself, done a mere few months before his death.