If a recording act is looking for material, Florence, Alabama is a good place to start. W.C. Handy, “The Father of the Blues,” was born there, as was legendary Sun Records producer Sam Phillips. Less celebrated but still significant is singer-songwriter Arthur Alexander, also a native of the northwestern Alabama town. Alexander is often overlooked in music circles today, despite a career spanning over three decades until his death in ’93. He had several hits but his albums are seldom found in stores. Because he emerged during an era of R&B singers such as Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding, it’s been easy for some to pass him by. Yet Arthur Alexander’s career is known for something no other songwriter could ever lay claim to: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan all recorded at least one of his songs.**
The Beatles were big fans of Alexander early on. They included several of his songs in their repertoire during the early ’60s as they played the clubs in England and Germany. One song, “Anna (Go to Him),”* they liked well enough to include on their first album, Please Please Me. Their take on the song differs significantly from the original. On his recording, Alexander tenderly accepts the end of his relationship with Anna. He is anguished but not riled. His smooth and pleasant voice gently conveys to Anna he is heartbroken over her desire to leave. He lets her know love hasn’t come easy. Still, he won’t hold her back. She can “go with him.” Perhaps Alexander’s calm demeanor would throw Anna off. She might not “go with him” after all.
Arthur Alexander’s “Anna” is a keeper. It’s a soft, mid-tempo number with a jaunty piano playing off Alexander’s vocals. As with many of his recordings, it has a breezy late-night feel. That’s in spite of the song being a product of Alexander’s unhappiness over his troubled marriage. According to Alexander’s biographer, Richard Younger, Alexander said the climatic middle-eight of the song came about as “I was trying to get a fix on how I really felt about love in general.” In the song, Alexander makes no conclusions about the lofty subject. He just asks for his ring and tells Anna she’s free to go.
On February 11, 1963, less than five months after the release of Alexander’s “Anna,” the Beatles recorded their own version. It was among the six covers recorded for Please Please Me. The mixing of the covers with the eight Lennon-McCartney originals worked splendidly on the Beatles’ debut album. The most prominent of the covers was the Isley Brothers’ “Twist And Shout,” due mainly to John Lennon’s raucous lead vocal. Here The Beatles turned a sprightly R&B shuffle into a raving rocker. Another spirited cover was “Chains,” an early Gerry Goffin-Carole King song. “Chains” was another example of the Beatles’ democratic approach to music-making. They gave the R&B song (a hit for The Cookies in ’62) a slight but distinctive country-western feeling. “Anna” got its own special treatment as well.
The Beatles open “Anna” in a slower and bluesier fashion than Alexander. A dark mood pervades. Lennon does not address the girl calmly as Alexander did. His vocals portray an anguished man, one who’s embittered over the state of his romance. On the middle-eight, Lennon not only imparts the feelings of one confused about love, he exhibits anger toward the girl. She’s responsible for his misery:
Oh, now, but every girl I ever had
Breaks my heart and leaves me sad.
What am I, what am I supposed to do?
Lennon takes Alexander’s rhetorical question and turns it into a demand. He implores Anna to tell him what to do. He’s devastated by her wanting to leave. Still he tells her to “go with him.” He lets her walk away but doesn’t make it easy for her.
In Tim Riley’s album-by-album, song-by-song study of the Beatles, Tell Me Why, he discerns the Beatles’ selection of covers. Riley says that for their albums, “they relied on their gut sense on what songs worked best for their personalities.” As with “Twist And Shout,” “Anna” worked extremely well for Lennon. He’s the one who called for people to come together and declared that we all shine on. Declarations, hopeful as in “Instant Karma” or despondent as in “Anna” were natural for him. His great talent and understanding of what makes a song work has given long life to Arthur Alexander’s “Anna.”
* The title is “Anna (Go To Him)”, but the lyric is go with him instead of go to him throughout the song.
**Officially released recordings only.