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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Arthur Alexander: The Greatest


ARTHUR ALEXANDER: THE GREATEST (1961-1965; 1989)

1) Anna (Go To Him); 2) You're The Reason; 3) Soldier Of Love; 4) I Hang My Head And Cry; 5) You Don't Care; 6) Dream Girl; 7) Call Me Lonesome; 8) After You; 9) Where Have You Been; 10) A Shot Of Rhythm And Blues; 11) Don't You Know It; 12) You Better Move On; 13) All I Need Is You; 14) Detroit City; 15) Keep Her Guessing; 16) Go Home Girl; 17) In The Middle Of It All; 18) Whole Lot Of Trouble; 19) Without A Song; 20) I Wonder Whe­re You Are Tonight; 21) Black Night.

There is little need to explain why this compilation, bypassing the actual chronological order in which Arthur Alexander recorded all these singles, starts with 'Anna (Go To Him)': nowadays, this is pretty much the only song in existence that may make the average listener aware of the man's former presence on Earth in the first place — due to the Beatles covering it for Please Ple­ase Me. The slightly more informed part of the population will also recognize 'Soldier Of Love' and 'A Shot Of Rhythm And Blues' — the Fab Four used to play them live quite a bit in the early days, with recorded versions surfacing on BBC Sessions — and 'You Better Move On', recorded by the Rolling Stones for one of their early EPs.

In the dark forests of pretentious mystery, closed and barred to regular mortal men, dwell occasi­onal supernatural beings that swear by Arthur Alexander's name and consider him to be a soul great on the level of Ray Charles and Otis Redding, unjustly overlooked by the PR industry. I do not know that I would go that far. But Arthur certainly was a sincere, dedicated, talented artist who lived, worked and died all in the line of duty, and there is no question that he deserves a page all his own in the big book of XXth century music soldiers.

To begin with, he actually wrote both 'Anna' and 'You Better Move On', and the former's rolling piano hook, stuck somewhere in between melancholic and hipster-cool, is one of the finest pop hooks to come out of the American industry in the early 1960s. (Them Liverpudlians had good ta­ste, after all — and their guitar-based recreation of that hook took good care to carry over the same atmosphere). 'You Better Move On', in comparison, does not exactly beg for the question «where did that come from?» — its debt to generic country is obvious — but it still creates a sta­tely-romantic formula of its own, and its hit record prompted Alexander to record a couple other «sequels», none of them anywhere near as successful.

Whether he was a fabulously great singer — that is debatable. Technically efficient, melodically sweet, but not saccharine, a fine, but not outstanding or completely unmistakeable tenor, in which department he could compete with Ben E. King and the like. It is probably the lack of «that parti­cular extra something» that stalled his commercial success: the songs had to be extra catchy to compensate for the non-uniqueness, and few of them were. It takes a little time and effort to un­derstand, though, that his personal life was a rather troubled one, and to discern the subtle smell of real-world paranoia and insecurity that runs through his shakey deliveries. Once you under­stand that, great or not great, Arthur was «the real thing», it gets easier.

For the most part, Alexander seems to have been taking his cues from the «country-soul» style pioneered by Ray Charles (although it must be noted that 'You Better Move On' came out almost a year before Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music — although it must be noted that Charles started experimenting with mixing country and soul way before Modern Sounds — although enough already). Some of the songs on this compilation are straightahead country, play­ed and sung by non-country musicians; some offer a good mix, like 'Detroit City', which starts out all Motown-esque, then quickly takes a country turn. Most importantly, all of them sound really, really fine, adding a certain «earthiness» to the soul elements and removing the redneck whiff from the country ones.

Arthur could also rock out a little bit, but, apparently, was not a big fan of these wild teenager sounds: 'A Shot Of Rhythm And Blues' was not appropriated by Johnny Kidd and the Beatles for nothing, it's a fun, catchy party-rocker in its own right, yet there is nothing else here that would even remotely approach it in terms of energy. There are a few delicious pop-rockers, though: 'Whole Lot Of Trouble', with its ska-derived punch, barroom boogie piano, and wicked strings flourishes at the end of each chorus, is a total classic — and it actually remained in the vaults un­til the release of this compilation in the late Eighties!

The Greatest compiles most of Arthur's singles, released on the Dot Records label in the first half of the Sixties, before he switched to Sound Stage 7; missing is his debut single, 'Sally Sue Brown', for Judd Records, as well as the bulk of his first, and only LP, on Dot, recorded as a has­ty follow-up to the commercial success of 'You Better Move On', predictably given the same title and consisting, so they say, mostly of throwaways. None of these were as successful as 'You Bet­ter Move On', and most of the tracks from 1963-65 didn't chart at all, but still, the whole compila­tion is consistently listenable if the idea of «country soul» appeals to you in the first place. Obvi­ously, a thumbs up from the hidden country depths of the soul.


Check out "The Greatest" (CD) on Amazon

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