Arthur Alexander and the Art of Listening 

Hearing the Fusion


in Set List • Illustrated by Felicia Wolfer


Have you ever learned about a set of recordings and thought, “I would like to love those?” There’s an embedded knowledge you pick up on — a kind of reader’s contact high — that the recordings would match well with who you are, who you wish to be, how you’d like to think of yourself. They seem like a form of art you should go for, if what you believe about yourself is true. You think about how you could spend years listening to those recordings, that they’ll bring much to your life that wasn’t there before you found them. There’s also what used to be called a vibe — a feeling, a sensation — that a necessary meeting has been arranged by the universe, and now all you need to do is formally locate the music, hit play, and off you go on the tandem bike.  

We’ll encounter phrases like, “I really wanted to love such and such, but I just couldn’t get there.” Perhaps one reads about the nine sides that legendary bluesman Son House cut in 1930 and the rough fidelity is too much to overcome. Still, the dogged listener keeps trying, which is an act of faith, because sometimes you can tell — call it a feeling in the musical bones — there is something you’re meant to hear, and hear well.  

For me, Arthur Alexander is one of those musical artists with whom I just knew. He is a titan who’s never really been recognized as such, arguably the most influential rock and roll artist — though we’ll have to be careful with labels when it comes to Alexander — that few people have ever heard of. He was unique, his career was unique, and to say his sound was as well is to not provide enough credit, via understatement.  

That sound hits hard, like a Joe Louis left hook, and, having been hit by Alexander’s sound, one is apt to do the Oliver Twist voice and request another. His discography — truncated though it is — signifies a purity and a commitment to aesthetic authenticity that we rarely get even in musical art, where that kind of thing seems well-represented. We’re talking the commitment to an ethos of a Beethoven, or Nick Drake in the final months of his life putting together Pink Moon, John Coltrane with A Love Supreme and Ascension, or Joy Division’s corpus of two albums. This is sublime reach — out into the world, yes, but also inwards.  

Authenticity is a quality that every artist claims to want — and every person, for that matter — but which few possess and extol. There is no one who says they’re inauthentic, but when we zip through the mental roll call of everyone in our lives, how many truly authentic people do we believe that we know? And how many more are going along to get along, answering to the expectations of what they think the world around them wishes to see, rather than the urgency of what beats in their own breast? In other words: That which makes them them, or would, if they let that beat do what it could do.  

Arthur Alexander would have been the most authentic musician you had ever heard, if you were a young white kid growing up in England, possessed a guitar-bass-and-drums-based brain fever for making music yourself, and had rounded up your mates to formally turn your gang into a band. Asked who the Beatles most wanted to resemble musically, Paul McCartney didn’t answer with Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, or Buddy Holly. He said that Arthur Alexander was their man, and I think the reason is that matter of authenticity. People who wish to be the best don’t desire to strike a pose. They wish to be the best — when they’re being true to themselves — because they’re cognizant of rare qualities within the core portions of their beings, and maxing out on those qualities results in legitimacy. Encoded in the wish is the possibility of full-blown realization. The next steps are the planning of steps: how to get there?  

It helped that the Beatles were from Liverpool, a no-nonsense port city, where both toughness and vulnerability had value. They grew up listening to a smorgasbord of offerings on BBC radio, and around self-deprecating humor, though a man was still expected to exude a degree of manliness. Hence we have a band that would be open to anyone and anything, loved girl groups, and also admired musical brawn. No one would mistake Alexander for a member of the Shirelles, but he sang songs with a similar degree of depth and openness — a raw emotional candor. He performed them sans flinching, as if he was an artist who’d arrived at the final stage of a mission to tell you what he had to tell you. Nothing would stop him, and nothing had.  

This sounds a lot to me like the John Lennon of “Help!” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” He was the biggest Alexander fan in the Beatles, because his voice went most heavily in an Arthur Alexander direction. Alexander was born in Sheffield, Alabama, on May 10, 1940, making him almost exactly five months older than Lennon, which I’ve always found hard to believe. Alexander is one of those people you listen to who sounds older than the dust to which we all return, less a voice of the recording studio than the universe. In terms of rhythm and blues, he’s musical Yoda. The sage, the keeper of the book.  

You also can’t sound more Black than Alexander. I’m being reductive, but recognizing what makes a sound a quintessentially Black sound is one of those things we know reductively, as clearly as we know whether it’s day or night, because first we feel it — it’s a matter of the body — and that impels our cognition. Black music initially lodges in bodily portions of us. Shakes the physical core. Has root there. But then it progresses — from gut to heart, through limbs, and to the mind, where we might apply a label. Soul. Rhythm and blues. Jazz. Black music.  

We always know it when we hear it, and that doesn’t mean — paradoxically — that the maker of that music has to be African American. Elvis sang Black music, with many more ingredients amalgamated into his particular Southern brew, and he was no usurper, contrary to the social media drum-banging of those who always see a cause first and reality a distant second, if at all. His musical movement was the same — from the body, to the mind, but always first hitting us in the mid-section as real, lived-in. Still, Alexander is the standard-bearer for this form of the game of “when you know, you know.” Sometimes when I encounter someone describing a song or artist as R&B, I laugh — to myself, so as not to be rude — that they think that’s close to the real deal, when Alexander’s music exists.  

I discovered him on the basis of the Beatles’ first LP, Please Please Me, which featured a cover of Alexander’s “Anna (Go to Him),” sung by Lennon, who handled all of the Alexander material — despite McCartney’s expressed devotion — for the band. Alexander has, in one sense, a slim discography. He’s one of those powerhouses of popular music about whom we can say this, alongside similarly slimmed-out brethren such as bluesmen Tommy Johnson, Son House (discounting the spate of 1960s post-rediscovery college recordings), and Blind Willie Johnson. Curiously, they also register in our psyches as voices beyond the ken or possibilities of everyday humans. The talking, singing cosmos.  

Alexander had two big years: the first in 1962, the second in 1972. That’s going to be it. He didn’t compose most of the songs he sang, but like Billie Holiday, you wouldn’t have known. To sing at their level is to infuse, to be the song. Or have it be the voice. With an artist such as Alexander, there’s no compartmentalization. I think that’s what most appealed to Lennon, as both a goal and a possibility. Lennon spoke about how he knew he was different as a young person from other people, even when seemingly everyone in his life was dismissing him as a loudmouth or problem child. He had faith in a totality, that same Alexander-esque lack of compartments; a perfect melding of talent and intent, and integrity of voice and message.  

We get better at hearing this fusion the more we listen to Alexander. Listening itself is a skill and an art, which is another reason why Alexander was so central to those young Beatles, and why he can help listeners now — as he’s helped the listeners who know his work over the last six decades — hone their abilities. When we encounter wisdom in whatever form it takes, we’re almost always instantly aware of it. But we also know that those words, those sounds, or maybe a certain form of look, are going to require time in our thoughts. We have to keep company with what we’ve just experienced. Put in dedicated mental time. Do the business of reflection. To hear Alexander is to reflect with him, via his music, in real time.  

Anna” was a song that must have blown John Lennon’s mind because of the maturity of its narrator’s emotional vantage point. This is a number that Alexander did write, from the first of big years. 1962 is often denigrated by musical historians. They take the easy, lazy approach in saying that Buddy Holly was dead, Elvis had gone to the army and wasn’t the same, Jerry Lee Lewis was with his teenage cousin, Chuck Berry was up to all sorts of shady doings and had departed the scene, and there was a lot of dross. Teenage idol types like Fabian, for example. The Animals — a group I also thought would be perfect for some Arthur Alexander covers, but never took on his material — had a song called “Story of Bo Diddley,” a talking blues that doubled as a piece of musical history, shortly after the fact, that dismissed and dissed this period, complete with Eric Burdon’s mocking imitation of Bobby Vee singing “Take Good Care of My Baby,” which the Beatles had covered at their disastrous audition for Decca Records on January 1, 1962, with George Harrison on lead vocals.  

But you have the legendary girl groups and their rich vocal polyphony, which did for the Beatles, the Who, the Beach Boys, and the Grateful Dead, what the masses of Josquin did for centuries of choristers. Little Eva was tearing it up as a locomotive badass. Roy Orbison and Ray Charles were innovating strong, Sam Cooke’s artistry was continuing to build, the Beach Boys were experiencing growth, Bob Dylan was gigging hard, Booker T. and the M.G.’s had discovered the mother vamp with “Green Onions.” There was a lot happening and some truly high-grade music, but 1962 was Arthur Alexander’s year.  

“Anna” is a story-song that works like a sung letter. The protagonist is pulling a sort of rhythm and blues version of what Dickens had Sydney Carton do at the end of A Tale of Two Cities, which we should perhaps term a rhythm and blues novel. The singer’s objective is Anna’s happiness, even if that means a decrease in his own. Alexander was a master at what I think of as sending people on their way. At times in life, that is the best we can do for them, if not for ourselves. Emotional sacrifice is never gestural, because it is going to hurt. One takes a hit, in order to assist someone else.  

The song is radical in that the singer directs his beloved to another — if that is what she wishes. It’s a love song less about a union, and more about the love it takes to let someone go. This makes it a Valentine to unconditional love, to doing the right thing, and to heartbreak as a potentially necessary feature of a romance.  

We know — because Alexander tells us — that the singer has been looking for a girl like Anna for all of his life. Listen to Alexander’s voice here. He does not sound like a man in his early twenties. His is the voice of the wind, the dirt, the stars; those components of existence we expect will always exist, and always have existed. And so it goes with desire and love. They often pair, but rare is the person who loves so well as to say, “If this is better for you, then it is better for me for that reason, so please, go.”  

The Beatles recorded the Please Please Me version on February 11, 1963, in a 585-minute session. Lennon had a cold. You hear how much he wants to hit the notes — emotional notes, not strictly musical notes — that Alexander did when Lennon’s voice cracks from a combo of congestion and over-reach. He’s not quite there yet. He’s still learning to hear Alexander. Still absorbing these musical teachings. He’s evolving as a listener. The protagonist of “Anna” is a fierce and devoted listener. He listens with head, heart, ears. Most of us are lucky when we utilize one out of the three. Cut to another listener, the best the Beatles ever fashioned: this would be the singer of “She Loves You,” which may also be the finest song the band — or anyone — ever wrote.  

What is it? It’s a song sung by an observer, a listener, that takes the form of a letter brought to conversational life. The singer has a best buddy, and this buddy is neglecting his girl. He’s not cognizant of, and receptive to, her feelings and needs. The singer pulls this friend aside, and breaks the news — not just as a friend, but this is a friend who himself has feelings for the girl. It’s a variation on that Alexander idea of sending someone, only here the sacrifice is greater yet, because two people are being sent, and it’s a double-hit emotionally for the singer. Both Lennon and McCartney had a say in “She Loves You,” but it’s more Johnny Moondog than Macca. It’s a hell of a lot of Arthur Alexander, and it’s pure Beatles at their apex, because they had learned how to listen this rhythm and blues singer — the medium itself made incarnate — of the American South.  

On “Anna,” Alexander sings in what we may consider a sprung-rhythm style. Not always, but at strategic points when it’s most important to connect with the subject of the song, and also the listener. His voice has a flavor of the parts of a poem that are the most intensely direct, such that plain speak — the human demotic — is vital. The Beatles found their own way to get there. Their use of pronouns, for example, in the 1962-63 period, when they bordered on an R&B combo themselves. Alexander also patented a form of power-singing through the middle-eight bars of a song. He revs up his voice, gaining momentum for a cathartic release before the return of the verse. The Beatles do this on “This Boy,” and Janis Joplin does a rawer, less measured — but overwhelmingly effective — version on Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain” at Monterey in 1967. She even gives us a heads-up by saying, “Coming around for the last time,” before as she begins her final Arthur Alexander wind-up.  

You Better Move On” was another sending song from 1962, which would be covered in 1964 by the Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger was both a conversational lyricist and singer. There’s a lot of talking in Rolling Stones songs. Asides. Quips. Directives. Drink orders. For all of the riffage, their songs sound highly personal, intimate, overheard. They are sonic emails we hear. Talking text chains. Broadcasted whispers.  

These are Arthur Alexander conceits. He continued to fashion them with “Where Have You Been (All My Life),” which fueled a Beatles cover for the ages that hardly anyone knows about, nestled as it is on the neglected Star Club tapes made at Christmastime 1962, and “Soldier of Love (Lay Down Your Arms)” which led to a Beatles cover on the BBC in 1963 that is unrivaled as a live performance in the decade of the 1960s. I think that’s the moment when the Beatles knew—and you can hear the sound of them knowing it, when they hit this groove of groove early on in the rendition—that they were within shouting/singing distance of Alexander’s level.  

A Shot of Rhythm and Blues” might as well have been Alexander’s theme song, his declaration of musical intent, and his epitaph in one pass. This sucker swings like it’s just been dropped off by the Duke Ellington band of the 1940s. It codifies the spirit of what the English groups were after when they played in Hamburg on the Reeperbahn, and the German sailors banged their beer mugs on the tables in time to the giant beat. But that only works if the beat is reinforced with swing.  

An album comes out in 1962, called You Better Move On. A couple of EPs follow the next year, and that’s going to be it for the decade. Alexander moved from the Dot label, for whom he cut the above songs in a room above the City Drugstore in Florence, Alabama, to the Sound Stage 7 label in Tennessee, where nothing happened for him. He then left the music business altogether and got a job driving a bus. I find this both normal — it’s an honest job — and hard to wrap my head around. Here is someone with prodigious amounts of talent. Soul is booming, the Civil Rights Movement is happening, Black artists are thriving, and Alexander has departed the scene. I don’t think that he wished to. I also don’t know what “gives.” Dusty Springfield, the Hollies, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and Jerry Lee Lewis cover his songs. Alexander was supposed to go on tour with Otis Redding, but then Redding died. So he took up his driver’s seat.  

Cut to 1972, and Alexander returns, and boy did he. He releases the LP, Arthur Alexander — lest you forgot who he was, or plain didn’t know — and includes a version of “Burning Love” that predates Elvis’s take on the song. The Elvis version is dripping sex; Alexander’s exudes gravitas. Presley is out of control — but it works — whereas Alexander is total control. Mastery. His voice is completely unchanged — I cannot overstress that; it’s mystifying — and you still can’t pin an age on him, to paraphrase the Rolling Stones. I do a double-take when I think about how he’s in his early thirties here. Going off the sides from 1962, you’d expect him to be 108 by now.  

He revisited “Go On Home Girl,” a song he’d first recorded ten years prior, and another sender of a song. The first time I heard it I cried — this singer, this artist, this teacher of how to listen — a form of how to live well—was still looking out for us. Who do I mean by us? People like the Beatles. Every listener. The characters in this song, with its “She Loves You” tinge. The production served the voice well in that you could have what you have here — a Billy Preston-type organ, backing singers, strings — and never lose the smoky, rhythm and blues kick. It’s as if it’s impossible to produce clutter when this voice is present, and everything else that provides musical input is harnessed to that voice’s greater, and greatest, good.  

It was a damn fine record, which didn’t move the popular needle, and again Alexander took his leave, resurfacing in the early 1990s with a comeback LP called Lonely Just Like Me, that was fine, but it wasn’t what the sides of 1962 and 1972 had been: that music that made you ask, Where have you been all my life? He died that same year, aged only fifty-three, but I’m just never going to believe that Arthur Alexander had an age, the way we think of ages and birthdays and the total of years spent on this planet. I’ve heard him. A lot. And I’ve been helped as a listener of music and life, by him. Also a lot. He’s sent me on my way, many ways over, and I am not alone there. Go with him, if you haven’t already. You’re bound to go far.•


colin fleming’s most recent books are an entry in the .33 1/3 series on Sam Cooke's Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963; a volume about 1951's Scrooge as the ultimate horror film; and a work of fiction called If You [ ]: Fabula, Fantasy, F**kery, Hope. He's the author of the comic novel Meatheads Say the Realest Things. His fiction appears in Harper's, Commentary, Virginia Quarterly Review, Salmagundi, and Boulevard, with his writings on art, film, music, literature, and sports running in The Atlantic, Salon, Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, and JazzTimes. His op-eds feature in USA Today, New York Daily News, The New York Times, LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. He's a regular radio guest and maintains the voluminous Many Moments More blog on his website, which ranges in its explorations from ballet to film to sports to literature to music to art to nature to unique workout routines in historical structures while exposing the corruption and discrimination — and plain bad writing — rampant in publishing, and documenting what it truly means to endure and grow. Sometimes there are posts on Twitter @colinfleminglit.