Arthur Alexander, Lonely Just Like Me

One of my favorite South by Southwest moments over the 28 years I have attended was the early-1990s performance of Arthur Alexander who was literally sobbing before his set was done.

A sweet soul singer from Alabama, Alexander was not an inspired shouter like Otis Redding nor a super-charged urban strutter like Wilson Pickett. His voice had a lighter, gentler quality. He was a careful enunciator of every word even though his music was deeply southern fried soul. Most distinctive of all, Alexander had a way with a heartbroken ballad—as in his heart was broken—that was above and beyond. Inevitably, those are the songs he is best remembered for. In 1993, after many years out of the music game, Alexander, with the help of a lot of talented friends, made Lonely Just Like Me for Elektra Records, a swansong he never thought possible. Convinced he'd been forgotten, his triumphant performance in Austin just after the record was released, in front of a wildly enthusiastic crowd, moved him to tears. A few weeks later he was gone.

Alexander's career began in 1961 with the R&B hit "You Better Move On," an original he recorded in Muscle Shoals and released on Dot Records, which was later covered by the Stones on December's Children (and Everybody's). Like most of Alexander's singles, it was a bigger hit in the UK than at home. Alexander cut a number of other singles of songs he'd written for the Dot label, including, "Anna (Go To Him)" and "Soldier of Love," both of which were covered on record by the Beatles (on Please Please Me and Live at the BBC, respectively) before drifting to Nashville in the late 1960s. There he recorded a series of singles for the Sound Stage 7 imprint of Monument Records, none of which saw significant chart or sales action. Signed in 1971 by Warner Brothers, a label not known for its soul and R&B signings until Prince in the 1980s, he made the first of just two proper albums that were released in his lifetime. A first album on Dot, was just a rush-released collection of hastily recorded covers that surrounded "You Better Move On." His second album, recorded as such, was 1993's Lonely Just Like Me.

Unfortunately, Alexander's Warners record, Arthur Alexander, original LP copies of which have grown in value, also failed to make him a star. But in listening to Omnivore Recordings new reissue of it, which includes five bonus tracks, two of which have never been released before, this may well be a case of a record on a label that really didn't know how to sell it. The thought did occur to me that if this had been on Atlantic let's say, their promo machine could've made it a hit or at least sold a few.

The pluses here are many. First, there's the band of Memphis studio pros like guitarists Eddie Hinton and Reggie Young, Bobby Emmons on keys, and Gene Chrisman on drums. The album's producer was another Memphis stalwart, bassist Tommy Cogbill, the man behind the famous basslines in Dusty Springfield's "Son of a Preacher Man," and Wilson Pickett's "Funky Broadway." The album has very effective horn arrangements on nearly every track, several string arrangements, and lots of background vocalists. While the sound is generally fine with lots of light and shade, it's annoying that the original engineer does not get a mention on this reissue.

Rather than the usual blame it-on-the-label excuse, perhaps the reason this self-titled album failed to find an audience at the time of its release is that it tried to strike an impossible balance between hard and soft soul music. Not punchy like a Stax record, yet too lively to rightly be considered slow and sweet, Arthur Alexander cut its own trail. Tunes like the near hit "Go on Home Girl" is the kind of upbeat ballad groove that was Alexander's specialty, and yet I've always thought that, with a faster rhythm and a snappier arrangement, it could have been a hit. If nothing else, Alexander was his own man. He had his own distinct style and approach.

Alexander's version of "Burning Love" on this record, a tune Elvis recorded and turned into a hit, possibly after hearing Arthur's version, also takes its time and refuses to become a storming rave-up. Two of the greatest Memphis/Muscle Shoals songwriters/musicians, Dan Penn and Donnie Fritts, wrote the ballad "Rainbow Road," for Alexander, who effectively shapes it with his pleading, song-storytelling style. One odd mastering habit from that time, which runs through this entire record, is that all the tracks—which I guess were all in consideration for becoming singles—are cut too short. Many are just finding their groove when they fade out.

The closest that Arthur Alexander comes to a harder soul edge is "Call Me Honey." Listening to it, it's hard not to be struck by the fact that its chorus ends with different lines—"Wake me from my slumber/Girl you got my number" and "Don't send me a letter/That won't make me better"—a bit of song craftsmanship that is virtually unknown today; an age when once essential songwriting turns like including a bridge are virtually extinct.

While the bonus tracks are nothing special, and it's hard to discern why this reissue was not put on a resurging LP rather than a fading CD, it's always great to hear the voice of this soul star that should have been. For proof, check out Alexander's fabulous final record, Lonely Just Like Me. With the help of Penn, Fritts, Spooner Oldham, and other southern soul veterans, Alexander cut the best record of his career. Unfortunately, just after I saw him in Austin, and before he could go on the road and promote the record, he was dead of a heart attack at the age of 53. Check out a track below, co-written with Donnie Fritts, by the late, great Arthur Alexander from Lonely Just Like Me.

COMMENTS
dalethorn's picture

I don't remember if I had ever heard You Better Move On by Arthur Alexander, but I definitely gave the Rolling Stones LPs quite a few spins in the 1960s. In most cases when I find the 'original', if that's the case here, I don't like it that much. This time I like it a lot. The Stones massacred a few of those covers, did a few fairly well like You Better Move On, and less often made a brilliant cover. Good to discover yet another original.

jimtavegia's picture

The recording is very nice as well and the booklet notes are very interesting. It is sad how many artists get taken by other in the industry don't get their fair share of the profits from their work. From www.goodreads.com Hunter S. Thompson > Quotes > Quotable Quote
Hunter S. Thompson
“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side.”