Arthur Alexander and the Art of Listening
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 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 seven sides that legendary bluesman Son House cut and the rough fidelity is too much to overcome. But the dogged listener keeps trying, which is an act of faith, because sometimes you can just tell there is something you’re meant to hear, and hear well.
Arthur Alexander is one of those musical artists for me 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 discredit, via a form of 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 to be 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. We’re talking 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? 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 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, that is—because they’re cognizant of rare qualities within the core portions of their beings, and maxing out on those qualities will result in legitimacy. Encoded in the wish is that 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 the BBC, 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 sang 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, and 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 credit. 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. 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 masters 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 his songs, but like Billie Holiday, you wouldn’t know it. To sing at their level is to infuse, to be the song, if you will. 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 in 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. Call it 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 doing and had departed the scene, and there was a lot of dross. Teenage idol types like Fabian. The Animals—a group I also thought would be perfect for some Arthur Alexander covers, but never seemed to take 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, which also dismissed 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, 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. It’s 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. He’s 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 sort of 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.