Interview With Richard Younger, "Get A Shot Of Rhythm And Blues: The Arthur Alexander Story"
One of the main inspirations for this website was Arthur Alexander's "Anna (Go To Him)" which was the central theme in one episode of "Married With Children" in which the main character, Al Bundy, drives himself and everyone else around him crazy with his obsession to find the name of this song for which he's able to remember only a snippet of a lyric. In 1985 at a barbeque, author Richard Younger heard Arthur Alexander's "Get a Shot of Rhythm and Soul" which inspired him to write a biography about the famous singer and songwriter entitled Get a Shot of Rhythm and Blues: The Arthur Alexander Story (University Alabama Press, 2000). In the course of his research, Mr. Younger had the opportunity to meet and interview with Mr. Alexander many times before his passing on June 9, 1993.
Richard Younger is an author, journalist, musician, and educator living in the NYC area. He is currently a music and movement teacher with the Church Street School for Music and Art and a contracted performer with Hospital Audiences and The Queens Library System. In 2006, Mr. Younger released "Gimme Gimme," his debut children's CD album, an upbeat collection of original songs and children's standards, for which he received an iParenting Media Award. For more information, please visit richardyounger.com.
In this interview, Richard Younger shares his personal accounts of meeting with Arthur Alexander and his inspiration behind his biography of this oldies music icon. (This interview was conducted by e-mail from Dec. 19, 2007 - Mar. 26, 2008)
Amy Gold: It so happens that one of the inspirations for my website was Arthur Alexander's "Anna (Go To Him)," so your book, "Get a Shot of Rhythm and Blues: The Arthur Alexander Story," naturally caught my eye. Tell us a bit about your book and what inspired you to write it.
Richard Younger: What inspired me to write Get a Shot of Rhythm and Blues was having had a personal connection with Arthur before his untimely death in 1993. I heard Arthur's music in the early '80s from the Ace label LP Get A Shot of Rhythm and Soul, and was smitten. I am a singer myself (who took a detour later into journalism) and Arthur's voice was unbelievably honest and moving. Not, however, in the usual gritty "soul" singer way. There is an incredible vulnerability in Arthur's voice and it never sounds affected. Also, his songs were very original and memorable, compelling stories tinged with rich emotion. Perhaps most importantly, Arthur's singing and songwriting were adored by the British rockers of the early 1960s, including The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, who recorded his "Anna (Go To Him)" and "You Better Move On," respectively. The latter song, Arthur's first single for Dot Records in 1962, was also the first hit record to be recorded in Muscle Shoals.
So having been a total fan, I was shocked when he emerged out of the shadows of his post-music-career success and made his way back to a comeback in the early '90s. I was lucky enough to attend his show at The Bottom Line club in New York City (my hometown) and had a brief chat with him afterward. I then contacted Arthur a year later and wrote a lengthy profile of him for Goldmine. We met and spoke several times on the phone as things were heating up in the spring of 1993. And then he suffered a heart attack and died a few days later in June of that year. I took a bus to Florence, Alabama, for the funeral and a series of events and connections lead me to commit myself to finding out Arthur's life story and telling it as honestly and as best as I could. Arthur's time included many other very interesting subplots, if you will, and my book includes the most detailed history of the Muscle Shoals music scene (don't take my word for it, that's what Jerry Wexler had to say), as well as the black music scene in Nashville. I interviewed over a hundred people for the book and tracked down some great heretofore unreleased photos of Arthur. I've subsequently written the liner notes for Ace's The Monument Years and the re-issued The Greatest, both Alexander CDs. But I suppose the real answer to your question would have to include the fact that had not Peter Guaralnick, one of my great heroes in music writing, not expressed his own excitment at my finishing the project, it might still be a mountain of notes and tapes, instead of the book it became. My respect for Peter compelled me to get off my rump and pull all my research together.
AG: You are very fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet and talk with Arthur Alexander before his passing. What was he like?
RY: I met Arthur briefly after his show at the Bottom Line in September, 1991, but I really got down to sit down with him for several hours when I went out to meet him at the restaurant of the Holiday Inn of Cleveland, Ohio, two years later. He was extremely honest and warm, but the years had taken a bit of a toll on his health, as I would notice in later meetings. His feelings about his career were mixed. He remembered the highlights, such as his initial success with "You Better Move On," fondly. But he felt that he was mistreated by the business people he encountered. This was an overriding theme in many interviews, and I had to think long and hard about this in writing my biography of him. Indeed, business people always try to get as much money from the artist as possible. But I did ultimately feel that the producers, including Noel Ball, who also managed him, wanted him to succeed. At our initial meeting, he was very helpful and open about his life and wanted to help me write the article (for Goldmine) that would "set the record straight." One idiosyncrasy he had was rubbing out his cigarettes between his fingers. I dare say it was rather shocking.
A month or so after his CD, Lonely Just Like Me, was released in early 1993, I met him at the offices of Nemporor records and took him to lunch. He was very excited and elated over the reviews that the record was receiving and thrilled that he might be able to make music again, giving him the opportunity to do something creative, outside the janitorial work he was doing to make a living at that time. To all who met him, Arthur was truly a gentle giant.
AG: What made him decide to make a comeback when he did?
RY: Arthur's slow walk back to the comeback stage began in 1990 when he was invited back to attend the opening of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. That summer he was honored with a star on the Walk of Fame in the lobby of the new facility and performed a few songs for the opening day ceremony. His star had been paid for by Rick Hall, the famed Muscle Shoals producer and owner of FAME who produced Arthur's first hit, "You Better Move On." A year later, he was again invited down to the region to perform at the annual Helen Keller Festival (the blind educator was born in Tuscumbia, AL.). He enjoyed his time on stage and this primed him for the next step. During the past year or so, Arthur had been contacted by Jon Tiven, a New York based songwriter and producer who had done some co-writing with Dan Penn. In September of 1991, Tiven arranged for Allan Pepper, the co-owner of New York's fabled Bottom Line club/cabaret, to contact him with the prospect of including Arthur on one of the club's Songwriter In The Round nights. Arthur agreed and his performance was attended by a few industry scouts. At Tiven's urging, Danny Kahn of Nonesuch Elektra made Arthur an offer, which Arthur ultimately accepted. The main reason Arthur followed this route back to the performing and recording stage lay in his born-again faith. He had written a song called " I Believe In Miracles," and more than anything he wanted to bring this song to the world. As things would of course turn out, Arthur had to fight to have the song included on the CD. He was most proud of it and the message it conveyed of faith.
AG: About how long did it take to research and write "Get a Shot of Rhythm and Blues: The Arthur Alexander Story"?
RY: I spent roughly five years researching and one year writing and editing Get A Shot of Rhythm and Blues: The Arthur Alexander Story. That's the short answer. In fact, I began writing the book in my head from the time I rode the bus down to Alabama to attend Arthur's funeral in June 1993. During that weekend I was introduced to many of Arthur's family very good friends, and I saw much of the locale where he had spent his early years. A few weeks after the funeral I flew to London to work as an unpaid intern at a North London newspaper, arranged by the Rueters Scholarship Foundation. While in London that summer I met and interviewed several veteran music journalists who had been great fans of Arthur's music. Over the next four years, while working at Reuters and later at Parade Publications by day, I devoted much of my free time (and telephone call hours) to tracking down the dozens of people who were connected with Arthur's life. I had previously worked as a background checker for a private investigative firm, and so I called upon the shark-like tenacity of that job while interviewing the many skeptical subjects I would encourage to reach back into their faulty and dusty memories. It took nearly a dozen letters to Rick Hall at FAME studio until the retired producer finally called me back; I think he realized I would hound him to his grave. However, while all these interviews and quests for photos and other assorted ephemeral material progressed, I was still not sure if I would be able to trace the entire arc of Arthur's life in a fashion that I as a reader would be satisfied with. After writing a feature for MOJO magazine, I was convinced I could do it, or that it was within reach. In around 1998, I left my job at Parade and devoted the following months to transcribing all the cassettes I had accumulated, and, more importantly, start to really formulate how I would tell Arthur's tale. During these years I had also been casually acquainted with Peter Guralnick, who had first sketched out Arthur's tale in the great Sweet Soul Music book. At a Dan Penn/Spooner Oldham show in Brooklyn around that time, when Peter enthusiastically enquired how things were progressing with my Arthur book, I mumbled some untruths about their progress. I immediately realized I could never live with myself if I didn't honor my personal commitment and write the book that Peter Guralnick was looking forward to reading. Putting all the facts and dates together and using quotes and third party narrative was not as difficult as dealing with the unexpected detour that often confronts a biographer: falling out of love with his subject. Certain aspects of Arthur's personal life and what might appear to be self-destructive tendencies caused me to look at Arthur in a less favorable light. But I fully realized it was not for me to make any judgment on him (or anyone else for that matter.) I had to grapple with the metaphysical question about the nature of truth. Is it what happened? Or what we believe happened?
I came to believe that each of us only sees events from his or her own perspective. So, while these factual discrepancies had to be reckoned with, they also revealed what the person interviewed "believed" had occurred and how this affected their relations with Arthur and visa-versa. Frankly, after all the hours of thinking about Arthur's life and who he was, trying to see him as he lived his life in the whirlwind of his days, I sometimes don't know if I really understood him at all. Hopefully, readers will gain from what I've somewhat obscured by being so close to the material.
AG: Richard, thank you so much for interviewing with me and for giving us some of the background behind "Get a Shot of Rhythm and Blues: The Arthur Alexander Story." I found your book to be very fascinating and engaging and it answers a lot of important questions about this enigmatic music icon.