Brow Beat

The Forgotten Songwriter Who Inspired the Beatles

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).”

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.)

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.

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