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“June: A Tribute to Arthur Alexander”

Muscle Shoals’ legendary Funky Donnie Fritts, at age 75, releases a remarkable tribute to his best friend, the pioneering songwriter of North Alabama R&B, Arthur Alexander.


Words by Chuck Reece


 
 

Aretha Franklin’s death last week focused us on the soul-music mecca of Muscle Shoals, Alabama — and the multiracial cast of musicians and songwriters who, among making countless other hits, helped Franklin put her first giant marks on the world of music in 1967. During my interview with Spooner Oldham, who played in Muscle Shoals with Franklin, he incidentally mentioned the name of Arthur Alexander.

“You know,” Oldham said, “everything in Muscle Shoals started with Arthur Alexander.”

If the name is unfamiliar to you, here are the basics: Arthur Alexander was the pioneering African-American singer and songwriter in Muscle Shoals. His 1962 tune, “You Better Move On,” was the first R&B hit Muscle Shoals ever produced. From the time Alexander was 18, In 1958, he was writing songs and recording at FAME. Soon after that first hit, Alexander found his songs being recorded by both the Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Before he died, Alexander found himself the only songwriter in history to have his work on albums by the Beatles (“Anna (Go to Him” and others), the Stones (“You Better Move On”), and Bob Dylan (“Sallie Sue Brown”).

Alexander died in 1993, at age 53, of heart failure. Apart from music geeks, few remember his name, even though John Lennon himself once said the Beatles “wanted to sound like Arthur Alexander.”

Alexander’s best friend was Donnie Fritts, quite the songwriter and musician himself, who, with the late Eddie Hinton, penned the landmark “Breakfast in Bed” for Dusty Springfield, and spent more than two decades on the road playing keyboards behind Kris Kristofferson.

Now, at age 75, Fritts is releasing a new album as a tribute to his old friend. It’s called “June.”

 Donnie Fritts, Arthur Alexander, and Spooner Oldham

Donnie Fritts, Arthur Alexander, and Spooner Oldham

“His name was Arthur Alexander Jr.,” Fritts writes in the liner notes. “That’s why we called him June.”

“June” begins with its title song, Fritts’ tribute to his friend, but it's filled out with songs written by Alexander alone, by Fritts and Alexander together, and by the pair along with another legendary Shoals writer, Dan Penn.

One might expect such a record, from a 75-year-old, to be an exercise in love and dignity — but not necessarily an excellent album. That is most assuredly not the case with “June.”

A crack band of Alabama musicians creates a remarkable space for Fritts’ beautiful Wurlitzer electric piano and rough-hewn voice. The group includes John Paul White on guitar and vocals, David Hood on bass, Ben Tanner of the Alabama Shakes on keyboards, Reed Watson on drums, and Kelvin Holly on electric guitar. Laura and Lydia Rogers from the Secret Sisters add vocal harmonies, and Kimi Samson and Caleb Elliott provide violin and cello, respectively.

These musicians have rendered a tender, beautiful tribute to Alexander, full of lush woodwind and string arrangements that magically frame the deep emotion evident in Fritts’ voice on every song.

The CD package opens to reveal a handwritten, two-page note in Fritts’ own handwriting, recounting his friendship with and love for Alexander.

“We became very close friends …,” he writes. “The year was 1958. Black and white folks didn’t mix very much back then. We did. It was never an issue for us. Never.”

The Bitter Southerner is proud to offer you the chance to listen to the full album a week before its official release on August 31.