The other evening I chose (not for the first time) a CD of Arthur Alexander’s most notable recordings for my bed-time soothe,and it brought back a series of memories that I feel to be well worth re-telling.
My dear friend Dave Durocher, who was just taking over the driving seat at Bug Music back at the time of which I speak, mentioned one day that he was working on resurrecting the catalog, and possibly the career of the legendary, but rather obscure early sixties soul singer and composer, Arthur Alexander.
Danny Kahn, at Elektra Nonesuch had signed Arthur to record his first album since his “Rainbow Road” disc for Warner Bros.,in the ‘80’s. Ben Vaughn, a longtime Bug client was set to produce, which is how Bug had got into the loop, and Dave was coming from an altruistic place, as well as a business one, as he was a die-hard fan of Arthur’s music.
I immediately got my two cents in, telling Dave what a huge influence Alexander had on the nascent Liverpool music scene in the very early ‘60’s. To guys like me, Arthur Alexander was anything but obscure; he had been, in fact, one of the most notable of our heroes, and any band worth their salt would have had a go at “ You Better Move On” and the sinuous, yet anthemic “ Shot Of Rhythm and Blues” (a record that I first heard at NEMS one Saturday, and bought at once, wearing the groove out by Monday morning). Only Lennon had the confidence to take on the majestic “Anna” which he recorded with telling effect on The Beatles’ first album“Please Please Me” but we all loved ourselves some A.A. back in that day.
I don’t think Dave had sussed that the Arthur Alexander thing was quite as international in its scope, but over the next few months we happily enjoyed our shared devotion for Arthur’s body of work, while Dave patiently went about his task of gaining Arthur’s trust and bringing him back into the public eye, with the help of a list of like-minded supporters, such as Dan Penn, Donnie Fritts,Thomas Caine and Al Cooley.
Bug’s specialty was recouping long-uncollected royalties and restoring as much copyright ownership as possible to the author, so that was the area to which Dave devoted his greatest energy… We’re not just talking about Beatles albums, either. The Stones had dipped into the songbook too, and the recently released “ The Beatles At The Beeb”series of C.D.s had brought“ Soldier Of Love” ( co-incidentally written by two of my Nashville mates, Buzz Cason and Tony Moon) back into the limelight in addition to Arthur’s more widely known efforts, as interpreted by the lads from Liverpool in their early prime.
Arthur’s return to the studio for the “Lonely Just Like Me” project was turning out very well, the new recordings showing him to still be a master of his craft, particularly on the heart-wrenching ballad style that had so informed Lennon’s own approach to the art of the soul ballad. I mean, just listen….Arthur is totally ingrained in Lennon’s way with a ballad.
Like many of his peers, such as James Ray and Joe Tex, Arthur had obviously absorbed his share of the Grand Ole Opry, and there was always a country flavor to his singing and song writing, not to mention the many hard country songs he chose to cover on record, so his vocal style was possibly more user-friendly to the white boys than the tonsil-shredding assaults of a James Brown or Wilson Pickett.
Dave had mentioned that Arthur had been out of music entirely for many years, despite a half hearted attempt at a comeback in the ‘80s, when he was briefly signed to Warner Bros. for the aforementioned “Rainbow Road” album, but he was apparently quite content with his gig as a school-bus driver, and had no yen for the bright lights.
However, he was making the occasional foray into Nashville for publishing business, as that was Dave’s main focus for Arthur, so I got to meet him a time or two at the Bug Music office, a big, diffident man with very little in the way of show-biz pretensions, if any. He seemed vaguely amused and maybe a little uncomfortable, when I regaled him about how influential his music had been in Liverpool, and I thought to myself that I was a lucky guy to be experiencing something that had been denied John Lennon, who never encountered Arthur Alexander in the flesh, to my knowledge.
As Dave Durocher was a notable studio drummer in addition to being a publishing executive, I knew he was itching to have a play with A.A., and a situation presented itself in the form of an outdoor concert series “ Summer Lights” which was held on the closed-off streets of downtown in June…twenty years ago, coming up. Dave somehow persuaded Arthur to headline one of the shows, and assembled a backing band of elegant simplicity for the occasion, Dave providing percussion via a cardboard box and brushes, with Ben Vaughn and Gary Nicholson filling things out with acoustic guitars. For once, I was only too happy to be in the audience to actually see Arthur performing his legendary catalog, and on a beautiful late afternoon, shaded by the skyscraper canyons, Arthur Alexander took the stage- as it turned out, for the final time.
The audience was full of musos as eager to see the legendary singer as I was, and I spent most of the performance with a lump in the throat and a tear in the eye, as he did them all, his voice as stirring as ever, the simple accompaniment serving the songs ideally, especially on “Anna” and “ You Better Move On”.
I shook hands with him and congratulated him backstage afterwards and spent the balance of the weekend savoring a unique experience I could only have imagined all those years before in Liverpool.
Late on the following Monday afternoon I got a call from an obviously shell-shocked Durocher, who told me that Arthur had taken ill in Dave’s office after lunch, and had died across the street at Vanderbilt Medical Center of myocardial infarction-just like that.
It was hard to comprehend, hard to digest, and particularly hard on Dave, as one can imagine, yet there will always be the memory of that sun-dappled afternoon twenty years ago, when Arthur Alexander sang his soul for the last time.