Only songwriter covered by Beatles, Stones & Dylan?
Neglected Alabama ‘country soul pioneer’ ended up driving a bus
“If the Beatles wanted a sound, it was R&B. That’s what we used to listen to and what we wanted to be like. Black, that was basically it. Arthur Alexander.”
Paul McCartney quoted in Mark Lewisohn The Beatles: All These Years
A love triangle, heavily reliant on the first letter of the alphabet, was the raw source material for two of the most influential singles of the early 1960s: You Better Move On and Anna. Arthur Alexander — a talented but obscure songwriter from Alabama, was in love with Anna (or Anne) to restore her less musically useful name.
Trouble was that Anne/Anna already had a boyfriend (probably called Albert down there in A World). Even worse, this other dude was wealthy. Not looking good but true love will find a way. Somehow ‘the poor boy’ managed to displace his rich rival.
Game over? Not quite — like Napoleon on Elba, the former beau was itching for a comeback. And Alexander — rather than Anne one might note — felt duty bound to read him the riot act:
Now I don’t blame you for loving her
But can’t you understand, man, she’s my girl
And I, never never ever gonna let her go
Well, that was him told, though perhaps not in person, as Alexander conceded in an interview:
“When I met her out of high school he was still hanging in there. His family was pretty well off. I didn’t have no money but I knew she liked me. It was a small town and people would be talking. That’s where I got the idea for the song. I didn’t talk to him personally. I said it in song.”
You Better Move On would prove to be Arthur Alexander’s biggest hit but it only just made the Billboard Top 30. Unusually, however, it appealed to two distinct markets: R&B and Country. The song also appeared to work its magic in that hard fought love battle in Arthur’s head. He’d got the girl.
Still that rich guy was bugging him, though. In his next single Anna (Go to Him) he returned to the same theme — the injustice of being poor honest Arthur in a world full of femme fatales
Every girl I’ve ever had
Breaks my heart and leave me sad
What am I, what am I supposed to do
So had Anna double crossed him? Biographer, Richard Younger’s theory inclines more to what Freudians would term projection:
“Though it was surely Arthur who had been unfaithful in his marriage vows, in the song he puts himself in the role of the abandoned lover.”[3}
This ‘abandoned lover’ is the epitome of noble self sacrifice. That said, the writer would like a refund on that rock and has kept the receipt.
Anna, you come and ask me girl
To set you free, girl
You say he loves you more than me
You give back your ring to me
And I will set you free
Arthur Alexander later conceded that his wife had not been unfaithful, but he remained convinced that she regretted spurning Mr Money-Bags. This seems a puzzling line of attack. Especially given that those Beatles royalties meant that Arthur was not quite such a poor boy any more.
One for the psycho-therapists. Or the divorce lawyers as it would sadly transpire.
The Beatles covered Anna a few months after its release in 1962. John Lennon sang the lead vocal but a heavy cold made him sound like George Harrison. Music critic Ian MacDonald takes no prisoners.
“Though he and Alexander were the same age (22) the effect is of a passionate youth grappling with a man’s song.”
Ouch! But ‘passionate youth’ proved better box office. While The Beatles racked up unprecedented record sales, Alexander’s follow up singles flopped. He drifted out of the limelight and then out of the music business. His marriage, as mentioned, also went south.
By the time The Beatles broke up Arthur Alexander was driving a bus in Montgomery. Nothing wrong with that, of course, as my late father was testimony. And Dad never found time to write write two soul standards.
The odd thing is that Arthur Alexander’s wander into the musical wilderness occurred during the period when his stock was rising with the new rock aristocracy. In fact, Alexander was the only songwriter to be covered on studio recordings by The Beatles, The Stones and Bob Dylan. Gene Clark of the Byrds and Otis Redding also recorded his songs, as did Country luminaries like George Jones.
Why did originator get so little glory? One factor was a succession of weak follow up singles. Rumours of drug issues also didn’t help.
The brutal truth, however, was that performers now far outranked writers in the pop music hierarchy. The default expectation was now that popular acts sang their own material. Anna was generally assumed to be a Lennon & McCartney original and You Better Move On an early Jagger & Richard composition.
Recognition of Alexander’s ‘pioneering country soul’ began to inch forward in the late 1980s. In 1990 he entered the Alabama Hall of Fame. Soon after he recorded his first album in 21 years. In June 1993 he performed a triumphant comeback concert in Nashville.
Three days later Arthur Alexander died of a heart attack. And a decade later Paul McCartney needed to remind YouTube viewers of the true authorship of Anna (Go to Him)