Although his songs were covered by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Elvis Presley, country-soul pioneer Arthur Alexander remains largely unknown to the general listening audience -- nevertheless, his music is the stuff of genius, a poignant and deeply intimate body of work on par with the best of his contemporaries. Born May 10, 1940, in Florence, AL, Alexander was the son of a bottleneck blues guitarist who performed each Saturday night in the blues joints scattered throughout the region. Rooted as much in white country music as black R&B, Alexander was still in the sixth grade when he joined a gospel group dubbed the Heartstrings. After high school, he worked as a hotel bellhop, befriending Tom Stafford, an R&B-obsessed white kid who fancied himself a lyricist -- Alexander began adding melodies to his words, and through Stafford was introduced to a likeminded crowd of fledgling musicians including future legends Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham, Billy Sherrill, and Rick Hall. In 1958 Alexander partnered with Henry Lee Bennett to write "She Wanna Rock," which Stafford then sold to Decca Records; country singer Arnie Derksen recorded the song a year later, and in 1960 Alexander made his solo debut for Judd Records with the gritty blues number "Sally Sue Brown," written and produced with Stafford and credited to June (short for "Junior") Alexander.
During the summer of 1961, Alexander and Hall crossed the Tennessee River to build a recording studio in the town of Muscle Shoals, transforming an abandoned tobacco warehouse into one of the most fabled facilities in popular music history. The first record incubated within Muscle Shoals was Alexander's 1962 classic "You Better Move On." The product of the singer's roots in both country and R&B, its earthy, backwoods flavor anticipated the deep soul popularized by Memphis labels like Stax and Hi, reaching number 24 on the national pop charts following its release on Dot Records. Later covered by the Rolling Stones, "You Better Move On" earned Hall enough money to begin work on a new Muscle Shoals Studio, but the deal with Dot effectively halted his collaboration with Alexander, who arguably never reached the same heights again. Dot producer Noel Ball next assigned the singer the Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil composition "Where Have You Been All My Life," which barely scraped the Top 60. Worse, the label buried the Alexander original "Soldier of Love" on the flip side. But his third Dot effort, the self-penned "Anna (Go to Him)," was a Top Ten R&B smash and was later covered by avowed fans the Beatles, who also recorded "Soldier of Love."
Although singer Steve Alaimo enjoyed considerable success in 1963 with the Alexander-penned "Every Day I Have to Cry," Alexander himself struggled to deliver a follow-up -- "Go Home Girl" couldn't even crack the Hot 100, and after a series of little-heard singles such as "You're the Reason," "Ole John Amos," and "Detroit City," Dot terminated his contract in early 1965. Alexander soon resurfaced on the Sound Stage 7 label with "(Baby) For You," but after "Show Me the Road" a year later, he did not release a new record until 1968's "I Need You Baby." Accounts vary as to the circumstances dictating Alexander's fade from recording and touring at this time -- he later admitted to suffering a long and debilitating illness, and there were rumors he became something of an acid casualty well before psychedelia blossomed in full. Sound Stage 7 issued a single a year for the remainder of the decade -- "Love's Where Life Begins" in 1968, "Another Place, Another Time" in 1969, and "Cry Like a Baby" in 1970 -- but otherwise he was almost completely absent from music for the latter half of the 1960s, albeit reportedly cutting a session for ABC/Dunhill that remains unreleased.
In 1971 Alexander resurfaced as a staff songwriter at Nashville-based Combine Music, working alongside the likes of Kris Kristofferson, Billy Swan, Tony Joe White, and Donnie Fritts. Combine executives soon orchestrated a recording deal with Warner Bros., and he entered Chips Moman's renowned American Studio in Memphis to record his first LP in a decade, a self-titled affair highlighted by readings of Dennis Linde's "Burning Love" (later a smash for Elvis Presley) and the Penn/Fritts collaboration "Rainbow Road," as plaintive and beautiful a record as Alexander ever made. Neither the album nor its accompanying singles made any noticeable commercial impact, however, and he soon exited Warner Bros., finally giving up on Nashville three years later and returning home to Florence. There he signed to Buddah, going back to Muscle Shoals to cut his own rendition of "Every Day I Have to Cry," a minor hit that would prove his final commercial success of note. "Sharing the Night with You" appeared the year following, and after one last effort for Music Mill, the aptly titled "So Long Baby," Alexander quit the music business altogether, driving a social services bus for a living. Elektra/Nonesuch coaxed him out of retirement to make a comeback album, 1993's Lonely Just Like Me, but while on tour in support of the record he fell ill, passing away in Nashville on June 13, 1993. ~ Jason Ankeny