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Arthur's Blues

The new biography of an unsung Cleveland musician sets the record straight.


Even though the Beatles, Stones, and Dylan covered his songs, Arthur Alexander's country-soul cachet and flings with stardom never made him a solid living. The tall, quietly charismatic Alexander was a man whose inner demons, aggravated by brushes with the law and some questionable psychiatric "treatment," kept him from the acclaim -- and profits -- he was due.

The overlooked contemporary of Percy Sledge and Don Covay lived and worked in Cleveland from 1977 until his death in 1993 and is the subject of Richard Younger's Get a Shot of Rhythm and Blues: The Arthur Alexander Story, recently published by the University of Alabama Press.

"I thought he was terribly unique and honest," says Younger, who interviewed Alexander in Cleveland, saw his "comeback" Bottom Line show in 1991, and has written about him for Goldmine and for the British magazine Mojo. "His voice was so real to me. I was glad I found him when I did, because he really touched me. How he did it was by not trying so hard. When you try too hard, as most people do, you miss it. He had it."

But Younger, who will be signing his book at Borders in Westlake on Sunday, may have had a deeper connection with the artist than simply being his biographer. As a guitarist and songwriter, Younger has had his own brush with fame: His band, Blue Horses, got a Billboard notice for its self-released album, which ultimately went nowhere.

"As a freelance writer, you write articles, you write copy," says Younger. "I'd never thought about writing anything book-length. But because I felt so strongly about him, I knew this story deserved investigating."

Not only does Get a Shot of Rhythm and Blues shed light on the Muscle Shoals Sound and the workings of the music business, it also tells the story of Alexander and his extended, troubled family. While Alexander lived in Cleveland, he worked as a guidance counselor and bus driver in the Hough neighborhood and had a near-zero profile as a musician. Only toward the end of his life was he ready to go back on the road. The opportunity arrived after the celebrated 1991 gig at New York's Bottom Line won him a contract for the Nonesuch album Lonely Just Like Me. But congestive heart failure had other plans for Alexander, robbing pop music of a uniquely expressive artist.

"The real challenge of Arthur's story was being able to say what happened through his life, from his early days through the '60s and '70s, when he was not in such great shape," Younger says. "It took endless amounts of persistence. I credit that, frankly, to being a musician: If you want to work as a musician, you have to be persistent to the point where people hate your guts. But it paid off."

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