Some guy was crashing the gates. He was meddling in a couple’s love life. The guy was boastful. It was obvious he had not studied the situation. The advice to the intruder was calm and direct. No chest-thumping. No lecturing. Four words rang true in the protagonist’s measured response to the intruder: You better move on.
Released in 1962, “You Better Move On” was Arthur Alexander’s biggest hit. Over the years it’s been covered by The Rolling Stones, Johnny Rivers, George Jones & Johnny Paycheck, The Hollies and others. It’s a rhythm and blues song with a country-western inflection. The melody is pleasant and simple, just as simple as the message Alexander delivers in the song.
The intruder addressed in the song has a lot of nerve, at least as seen through the eyes of Alexander’s protagonist. The guy thinks he’s worthy of the girl’s attention. He believes he can win her over with fancy clothes and diamond rings. The protagonist understands why the intruder would want the girl. But he’s confident the girl will not be swayed. In fact he believes she and “the Lord above” will reach the same conclusion. She’s the only girl he’s ever loved. He treats her right. He doesn’t have to buy her affection. Anyone else can just move on.
Arthur Alexander spent a lot of his life moving on. He was never properly compensated for his music. In an interview for the July ’93 Pulse! magazine, he revealed to Robert Gordon that “I had big records and I still never got paid for them.” He then told Mark Coleman of Rolling Stone that “the publishing rights got away from me…went to this guy in Nashville and from that day on I never saw a dime.” As with many artists, Alexander’s livelihood was pulled out from under him by those taking care of his business. So even though he was revered by the likes of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, Arthur Alexander was down on his luck, spending too much of what money he had on drinking and carousing. When one hits a certain point in life, even driving a bus in Cleveland may sound appealing. Arthur Alexander dealt with that.
Alexander continued to write and record throughout the ’60’s and ’70’s, hoping to make a lucrative career of his efforts. He deserved as much. His songs were easy on the ear but also demanded one’s attention. Michael Gray, author of The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia and sage observer of pop music, understands Alexander’s strengths. Gray wrote that “Rarely has moral probity sounded so appealing, so human, as in his work.” Alexander’s songs allow us to put ourselves in the shoes of his characters. There’s the determined lover fending off the boastful guy in “You Better Move On” and the despondent soul in “Anna” who cannot believe he’s been dropped again.
In the early ’90’s, Alexander was working as a bus driver for the Cleveland Center for Human Services. It was a job he had held since ’81. During that time he began working on a comeback in the record business. A newly elected member of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, he secured a gig in New York City. He was well received. That response led to a new album, Lonely Just Like Me, on Nonesuch Records. The reviews were favorable. Things were looking up. Alexander told Rolling Stone he had “stopped drinking and carousing, got myself cleaned out and got back to my basic roots.” He was active in church work and was thankful God had allowed him another chance to make good on his blessing.
A fatal heart attack on June 9, 1993, shortly after the release of Lonely Just Like Me, cut short the time Arthur Alexander could share his blessing with us. He was only 53 when his generous heart gave out. But he left behind songs that will be loved as long as people listen to the popular music of the last 40-50 years.
In 1964 The Rolling Stones offered a fine reading of “You Better Move On.” Its presentation is faithful to Alexander’s original. Mick Jagger delivers the poignant but determined message as the rest of the group plays attentively in the background. The playing is solid but nothing fancy. It was an approach long associated with Hank Williams. He would exhort his musicians to “keep it vanilla” while playing on stage. Williams must have believed his songs came across more clearly unadorned. The same holds for The Rolling Stones as they exhibit their high regard for “You Better Move On.” The humane clarity is as evident on their version as it was on Alexander’s.
Arthur Alexander experienced much in the way of success and hardship in his 53 years. From writing songs that The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and many others recorded to driving that bus, a sense of dignity is pervasive in Arthur Alexander’s life. As Alexander’s biographer Richard Younger noted “Alexander’s music resonates with honesty, emotion and originality, ensuring his legacy as one of the greatest.” So to speak, a trip on Alexander’s bus takes us down an edifying route.