The Forgotten Songwriter Who Inspired the Beatles, the Stones, and Bob Dylan

Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 11 2013 7:01 PM

The Forgotten Songwriter Who Inspired the Beatles

130204_bloggingTheBeatles_firstAlbum

Brow Beat is following the Beatles in “real time,” 50 years later, from their first chart-topper to their final rooftop concert. This month we’re looking back at Please Please Me, which the Beatles recorded 50 years ago today. In this weekly installment we take a look at Arthur Alexander, one of the Beatles’ biggest early influences and the songwriter behind Please Please Me’s “Anna (Go to Him).”

David Haglund David Haglund

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

The first of the six covers that appear on Please Please Me is a mid-tempo ballad called “Anna (Go to Him),” which was written and first recorded by Arthur Alexander. Chances are that most people who hear the version sung by John Lennon have no idea who Arthur Alexander is—but the Beatles certainly knew, and so did the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan: Alexander is reportedly the only songwriter whose tunes have appeared on studio albums by those three hallowed acts. Elvis Presley recorded one of his songs as well—albeit one that Alexander co-wrote—and so did Otis Redding and Tina Turner and Jerry Lee Lewis and Percy Sledge.

Ringo Starr said that one of the advantages of being in Liverpool was that, since it’s a port city, “All these records were coming from America, so you could find out about Arthur Alexander and people like that.” Lennon idolized him in particular, and McCartney summed up his influence in 1987: “We wanted to sound like Arthur Alexander.” (In addition to “Anna,” the Beatles frequently performed Alexander’s “Soldier of Love” and “A Shot of Rhythm & Blues” in their early years.)

Advertisement

So who was Arthur Alexander?

Born in 1940 in Sheffield, Ala., Alexander recorded his first song, “Sally Sue Brown,” when he was just 20 years old. (Dylan did that one in 1988, on the album Down in the Groove.) The next year he wrote his first hit: “You Better Move On,” the first big record for FAME Studios, the legendary pop music factory in Muscle Shoals, Ala., where Redding, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and others would later make some of their best music. That song was done by the Rolling Stones in 1964 and appears on their ’65 album December’s Children (and Everybody’s). It became the title track of Alexander’s 1962 album.

FAME Studios used their proceeds from “You Better Move On” to move on themselves and build a better facility elsewhere in Muscle Shoals, where they are still located. But Alexander himself never made much money off his music; though a string of singles followed, a second album didn’t come together until 1972. That one, which was self-titled, had yet another song that was turned into a hit by rock royalty: Elvis Presley recorded “Burning Love” just a few months after the album appeared, and it became his last top-10 single, reaching no. 2 on the Billboard charts.

ultimate_arthur_alexander_cover

This, too, was not enough to make Alexander a rich man; by the 1980s, he had abandoned the music business entirely and gone to work in Cleveland “at a center for disadvantaged kids,” driving a bus for a living. (It’s been said that he also didn’t like fame and that he found God.) In the early ’90s, though, the producer Ben Vaughn coaxed him out of retirement, and he recorded one last album, Lonely Just Like Me, which was released in 1993. He planned to tour in support of the album, but he died in June of that year, at age 53, of heart failure.

While Lennon’s vocals on “Anna” are terrific, no one interpreted Alexander’s songs as well as Alexander did, with his warm, plaintive voice perfectly suiting the lovely straightforwardness of his lyrics. “If it’s really got to be this way, I can take it, I know,” he sings on the opening track of Lonely Just Like Me. “I’ll just carry on day to day, until I make it, on my own.”

Previously from Blogging the Beatles
The Beatles Record Their Debut Album
The Beatles Are an Opening Band
Where’s Yoko? On John Cage’s Piano Edition
How a Black Label Brought the Beatles to America
The Beatles Say Goodbye to Hamburg

TODAY IN SLATE

History

Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
History
Sept. 29 2014 11:45 PM The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 30 2014 6:00 AM Drive-By Bounty Prudie advises a woman whose boyfriend demands she flash truckers on the highway.
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:36 AM Almost Humane What sci-fi can teach us about our treatment of prisoners of war.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath The Methane Lakes of Titan?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.