IT WAS often said of Arthur Alexander, the R & B singer, that he was one of the unsung heroes of soul music from the American south. Wrong. Everyone sang Arthur Alexander. From the Beatles, who covered 'Anna', to the Rolling Stones ('You Better Move On'), from Tina Turner to Ry Cooder and every bar band cranking out enthusiastic if untidy versions of 'A shot of Rhythm & Blues', 'Go Home Girl' and 'Where Have You Been', Arthur was very 'sung'.
I met him in the mid-1960s on his one and only British tour. I was his drummer. We rehearsed in the bowels of a youth centre in Stevenage, a long, dank, cheerless room which doubled as an indoor archery gallery and shooting range. Even in August, you could see your breath in the air and I don't think Alexander, born and raised in the warmth of Alabama, ever quite recovered from the shock. The homesickness probably got a lot worse for him when he heard us play his wonderful songs.
He was a tall, shy man and on stage did not have the physical dynamism of many of the soul singers of the period. But he had a lovely, plaintive voice, full of yearning and vulnerability, and when he was in confident mood his singing of the ballad 'Anna' stilled the noisiest club audience.
Attacking up-tempo songs, he'd break off to leap up and down on the spot like a man in search of a pogo-stick occasionally thumping his head on the low club ceilings. One night, at the Flamingo Club, in Wardour Street, he suddenly called for 'If I Had A Hammer', which we'd never rehearsed. Our poor guitarist never recovered from the surprise.
Alexander's music - soul, blues, gospel and country melded into one - was arguably the first in the Southern soul style. In 1961, 'You Better Move On' was the first hit recorded in Rick Hall's Fame Studio in Muscle Shoals, the Mecca of Southern soul, where Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett later sang in their pomp and prime. His influence as a writer and singer far outstretched his sales figures, despite consistent critical acclaim which greeted his rare recordings, like a 1972 album for Warners and a minor hit, 'Every Day I Have To Cry Some', in 1975.
Embittered at his lack of financial reward and the customary racial persecution encountered on the road - in the Sixties he had been beaten by Florida police, thrown in jail and briefly committed to a mental hospital - Arthur Alexander retreated from the music business and moved north to Cleveland, drove a community centre bus, had some ill-health.
Earlier ths year, he released his first new album for decades - critically praised as usual - on which he was accompanied by many of the white musicians who'd worked with him in the early Sixties. He had a new publishing deal and concerts booked for the summer. The album Lonely Just Like Me is due out in Britain next month.
He might even have played here: I would have promised not to be in his band.Reuse content