Rhythm & Dews: Arthur Alexander and Bob Dylan
The Southern Song of the Day story on the late Arthur Alexander’s “Anna (Go To Him)” reports he is the only songwriter to have his songs covered by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. As noted, only recordings officially released by those artists are recognized in granting Alexander such status. Had Dylan released a few of the songs he’s left off albums and performed live, it’s likely Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Bert Russell (born Bertrand Russell Berns) would have also scored this hat trick.
In his recording of “Sally Sue Brown”* on the ’88 Down In The Groove album, Dylan provided Arthur Alexander with the accomplishment that would long be noted. However, Dylan did not offer a commanding version of the song. The recording rocked enough, as even Alexander acknowledged upon hearing it, but Dylan does not sound interested. His rocking may have been a way of just hurrying through the song. As it was, Dylan’s take on “Sally Sue Brown” was just another track on Down In The Groove that left his fans perplexed.
In the ’60s and ’70s and even into the ’80s, Dylan’s albums were musical landmarks that reflected or even guided the spirit of the times. Not so with Down In The Groove. Critic Robert Christgau called it a “horrendous product.” Rolling Stone, after nearly 20 years to reconsider the album, placed it atop their list of the 15 Worst Albums by Great Bands (5/14/07).
The gloom generated by Down In The Groove did not affect his concerts however. Less than 2 weeks after the album’s release, Dylan embarked on the first leg of the Never Ending Tour. With lead guitarist G.E. Smith in tow, Dylan was renewed on stage, offering a wide variety of songs from his nearly three decades of recording. The performances, on both the electric and acoustic material, were amazing. On one of the summer nights he played Atlanta’s Chastain Park, he and his band rocked through an intense version of “In The Garden” (from 1980’s Saved album), then closed the set with “Like A Rolling Stone.” It was a blazing finish to a wondrous show. Bob Dylan was back and in full command. The crowd that called him out for three encores gave little thought to Down In The Groove.
On a “Theme Time Radio Hour” program, Dylan paid a nice tribute to Alexander’s career as he presented “Anna” in his “Women’s Names” episode (January 2007). It was a great career, even with the ups and downs. Alexander not only came up with his own great songs but also had a knack for picking fine material by others. “A Shot Of Rhythm And Blues” and “Soldier Of Love” were songs recorded by Alexander and later performed by The Beatles on their BBC radio shows (made available on CD in ’94 on Live At The BBC). Alexander’s ’71 recording of “Burning Love” made an impression on Elvis Presley’s producer, Felton Jarvis. After some pleading by Jarvis, Presley recorded the song, mainly as a favor to his longtime friend. Despite his lack of enthusiasm for “Burning Love,” it was a big hit for Presley, peaking at number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in October ’72.
Alexander never made much money from his music but in an interview with Rolling Stone he expressed gratitude that people enjoyed his songs. “Every artist wants to think they can sell a million records,” he said. “But some artists are geared to be suppliers. Though I wasn’t getting paid, The Beatles and the Stones kept my songs in front of a big audience.”
The Beatles felt strongly about Alexander and American black artists in general. Paul McCartney, in an interview with Mark Lewisohn in ’87 for his book, The Beatles Recording Sessions, said, “If The Beatles ever wanted a sound, it was R&B. That’s what we used to listen to, what we used to like and what we wanted to be like. Black, that was basically it. Arthur Alexander.” John Lennon was even more emphatic about R&B music and black artists. When a New York Times story appeared in ’71, accusing The Beatles and other white artists of exploiting and imitating black music in their early cover records, Lennon responded with a letter defending his band and fellow musicians. Lennon wrote that “We didn’t sing our own songs in the early days — they weren’t good enough — the one thing we always did was to make it known they were black originals, we loved the music and we wanted to spread it anyway we could.” He went on to say that “many kids were turned on to black music by us. It wasn’t a rip off. It was a love in.” Lennon’s love for the music remained strong. On the original release (Feb.’75) of his Rock ‘n’ Roll album, 14 of the songs were at first popularized and written by black artists.
* Arthur Alexander wrote”Sally Sue Brown” with Earl Montgomery and Tim Stafford