If the influence of Arthur Alexander on rock-and-roll is ever in doubt, one need only look at the list of artists who have recorded his songs – a list that includes The Beatles and The Rolling Stones just for starters. Though the R&B singer-songwriter (“You Better Move On,” “Anna (Go to Him)”) never became a household name in the vein of Otis or Sam or The Wicked Pickett, he nonetheless left behind a treasure trove of varied recordings. Now, the Alabama native’s 1972 self-titled Warner Bros. album has arrived on CD in a splendid new expanded edition from Omnivore, and its 18 tracks (including two previously unissued cuts) packs quite a punch.
Warner Bros. signed Alexander in 1971. The artist had laid low following his 1966-1969 stint on Monument Records’ Sound Stage 7 imprint, and the Burbank giant hoped that Alexander would add luster to its struggling R&B roster. The label’s inability to promote R&B on the radio level almost ensured the commercial failure of Arthur Alexander, but on artistic terms, it’s hard to count the album as anything other than a success. Recorded in Nashville with a team of Memphis’ finest musicians led by producer and Muscle Shoals veteran session bassist Tommy Cogbill, Arthur Alexander is a prime slab of southern soul with a dash of country – and the artist’s first “true” LP to be conceived as such.
Dennis Linde, a talented singer-songwriter in his own right, contributed four songs to Arthur Alexander including the rollicking opening “I’m Comin’ Home” and the LP’s most famous composition. Shortly after Alexander recorded it for Warner Bros., Linde’s explosive “Burning Love” found its way to Elvis Presley – and the rest is history. Alexander’s fine version will forever take a backseat to The King’s; it lacks the urgency and drive (not to mention just a dollop of over-the-top emotion) of Presley’s interpretation. But if Alexander’s relatively unadorned rendition must play second-best, it’s nonetheless a strong moment on an LP filled with them. A funky, brassy groove enlivens Linde’s pleading “Call Me Honey” (“Don’t send me a letter/That won’t make me better!”). “Call Me in Tahiti” is even more humorous, with an appropriately tropical arrangement by Fritts and company.
Alexander revisited the conversational, confessional “Go On Home, Girl” which he originally recorded in 1962 as “Go Home, Girl.” In the song, the narrator is caught between the camaraderie of a friendship and the love of the friend’s girl; the artist strikes an even more heartbreaking note on “In the Middle of It All.” Alexander and Dale Ward co-wrote the upbeat “Love’s Where Life Begins,” graced with swirling organ likely played by Shane Keister or Bobby Emmons. Alexander and Fritts co-wrote two tunes, as well. “Come Along with Me” is sweet and vulnerable, with the vocal aided by a winding saxophone. “Thank God He Came” touchingly addresses the singer’s own spirituality.
The emotional high point of Arthur Alexander came courtesy of Dan Penn and Fritts’ tailor-made “Rainbow Road,” which originally closed Side One of the vinyl album. The heartfelt and gently reflective ballad, tastefully adorned with strings to support the core rhythm section, showcases Alexander’s clear, direct voice and gift of communication as the song takes a dramatic turn that’s perhaps unexpected in its first verses. Songs from still more talented tunesmiths round out the LP. The subtly orchestrated “Down the Back Roads,” co-written with Stax legend Steve Cropper, has a feel not unlike Neil Diamond’s early, more rootsy efforts. Kim and Steve Smith and Charles Veldman’s “It Hurts to Want It So Bad” strikes a beautifully wistful note.
Omnivore’s reissue adds six bonus tracks, including four single sides which followed the album’s release. “Mr. John,” written by Alexander and Thomas Cain, is far more downbeat than anything on the LP, a haunting and tragic story anchored by a hard-hitting piano riff and the singer’s gritty, gospel intensity. The bluesy “You Got Me Knockin’,” from a quartet of writers including Alexander and Cain, has a similarly dark, piano-led vibe despite the arguably less weighty subject matter of love and loss. The second 45 featured a fun cover of Billy Swan’s “Lover, Please” b/w Alexander and Cain’s original “They’ll Do It Every Time.” Two previously unreleased outtakes complete this package in high style: the soulful assertion of “I Don’t Want Nobody” and the happily bouncy “Simple Song of Love.”
Arthur Alexander moved on from Warner Bros. to Buddah, where he scored a minor chart entry with “Every Day I Have to Cry Some” in 1975, but he soon left the music business for a quiet life in professions including janitor and bus driver. He happily returned to music around the beginning of the 1990s, and he released a well-regarded LP in 1993 on Elektra/Nonesuch. As Barry Hansen, a.k.a. Dr. Demento, points out in his entertaining liner notes, Warner Bros. had to wait another decade to break an R&B artist into superstardom on the label – Prince. (Hansen penned the original notes for Arthur Alexander while working at WB; those notes are reprinted, too.)
The original Arthur Alexander LP saw an incomplete CD release in 1994 as part of Rainbow Road: The Warner Bros. Recordings. Omnivore’s new CD edition, produced by Patrick Milligan and Cheryl Pawelski, bests that release by virtue of completeness, and as remastered by Gavin Lurssen and Reuben Cohen and designed by Greg Allen, adds up to a welcome celebration of the late R&B titan’s seventies comeback.